Vegan food: what you need to know

Giving up meat, cheese and even honey is all the rage these days, and not just in Hollywood. Books, magazines and TV shows are feeding consumers a steady diet of information about veganism. So what’s the real benefit of a vegan diet?


Sonia Chartier

02 July 2016

No butter, no milk, no eggs, no cheese, no meat, no fish, no honey, no down comforters and no leather! Most people have a hard time understanding why anyone would want to give up all those things…


Part-time vegan?

Most people consider meat, milk, cheese and eggs as foods that are essential to being strong and performing well. According to Dr. Claus Leitzmann, food science expert and director of the Food Science Institute at Germany’s Giessen University, who has been studying this matter for many years, “A vegan diet meets all our needs as long as we eat a wide range of plants and get enough vitamin B12. From a health perspective, this kind of diet should be adopted only by those who have a solid understanding of nutrition.”

In other words, people who want to go vegan and stay healthy shouldn’t behave like “part-time vegans.” Replacing animal-based products with a random assortment of bread, pasta and sweets is not going to cut it.

A diet based on a wide range of plants means eating different vegetables, fruits, whole grains, pulses, nuts and seeds every day.

The protection afforded by plant-based foods

A vegan diet provides much more fibre, potassium, magnesium, vitamins C and E, folic acid and secondary plant substances than a diverse diet consisting of animal- and plant-based foods. Reduced protein intake in vegans—in this case, we’re referring specifically to animal-source proteins—is linked directly to lower cholesterol levels.

Vegans who eat properly reap the same benefits as ovo-lacto vegetarians (those who don’t eat meat, but do eat eggs and dairy products): a preventive effect against overweight, arteriosclerosis, arterial hypertension, type 2 diabetes, gout and cardiovascular disease.

It has also been noted that certain health problems, such as allergies, skin diseases and chronic sinus inflammation, disappear when animal-based products are eliminated from the diet. According to certain studies on pathogenic factors, there is also a lower risk of contracting certain types of cancer, including those affecting the digestive organs.

Extreme veganism?

According to various studies, people following a vegan diet are often not applying it in an optimal way on a daily basis. Vegan children sometimes lack protein, and their calcium and zinc levels are often too low. The same goes for pregnant or nursing women, as well as the elderly. The better informed vegans take supplements, especially vitamin B12.

“Most plants contain B12 vitamers (a group of organic compounds that act like vitamins), which can’t be absorbed by the human body other than in minute quantities. In fact, these vitamers even prevent the absorption of vitamin B12, which humans need,” explained Dr. Leitzmann.

Consequently, some of the usual sources of vitamin B12, like:

  • nutritional yeast
  • barley
  • grain germ
  • sauerkraut
  • soy products such as miso, tempeh and tamari, and
  • most micro-algae

are not a sufficiently reliable sources of vitamin B12 for humans.

Being well informed to make the right choices

According to Dr. Leitzmann, “Poorly informed people are at least partly responsible for the bad reputation vegans have acquired, such as when they take their children to the pediatrician because they are suffering from a nutritional deficiency.”

People wishing to adopt a vegan diet should start by becoming well-informed and then applying what they’ve learned in their everyday lives. They need to know about:

  • the reference values for the recommended daily allowance (RDA),
  • the amounts of vital elements contained in the foods they regularly eat, and
  • some of the interactions between foods or their component substances; for example, iron absorption increases by 300% when associated with vitamin C.

From tasteless to refined

A multitude of vegan products are available through natural food stores and even on the Web. Quality ranges from rubbery meat substitutes and vegan sausages to succulent creations, such as organic coconut oil butter, and “milk” and “cream” made with grains, rice or almonds instead of dairy products. In Dr. Leitzmann’s opinion, the vegan-friendly offering is only going to keep growing. One good example is hemp, “whose seeds are somewhere between milk and meat in terms of protein and bioavailability.”

It’s nice to see that professional vegan chefs have access to a wide variety of organic “basic ingredients.” For those of us who like all kinds of foods and flavours, it’s reassuring to see how vegan cuisine makes really good use of herbs, spices, grains, tofu, pulses, vegetables, fruits, nuts, oilseed butters and other seeds.

Texts excerpted from:

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