With a growing interest in following plant-based diets for personal health reasons, animal-rights causes or for the health of our planet, it may seem difficult to discern the benefits of a vegan diet. You may be asking yourself what the effects are and if you have to indeed eliminate animal proteins entirely to achieve the results you’re looking for.
Vegan, vegetarian and flexitarian diets are becoming more popular. Below, we cover some facts that might be helpful about each:
Vegans stay away from all animal-based products. In addition to not eating meat, vegans restrict milk and dairy products, eggs, animal gelatin and honey. With this in mind, the key to a balanced vegan diet is a variety of fruits, vegetables, plenty of leafy greens, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes. When looking to incorporate more sources of protein into a vegan diet, try lentils, beans, chickpeas, peas, tofu, nuts and nut butters and soymilk. Boca offers an array of vegan products that use soy as their protein source. A vegan plan is often associated with weight loss, lower cholesterol, reducing the risk of certain cancers and management of diabetes. However, certain nutrients can be lacking or more difficult to obtain, such as vitamin B-12, vitamin D, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids, iron and zinc.¹
There are different types of vegetarian diets depending on what limitations are set. Lacto-ovo vegetarians include milk and dairy, eggs, grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds but avoid meat, fish and poultry. Lacto-vegetarians follow a similar pattern but also eliminate eggs, ovo-vegetarians eliminate milk and dairy but allow eggs and pescatarian diets exclude meat and poultry but allow fish.
Vegetarian diets can meet all the recommendations for nutrients. The key is consuming a variety of foods and the right amount to meet caloric needs. Although there isn’t enough evidence to say exactly how a vegetarian diet influences long-term health, vegetarian eating patterns are often associated with improved health benefits such as decreased risk of obesity and heart disease and lower blood pressure.² Vegetarian recipes ideas like vegetarian tacos, chili and pasta are easily found on My Food and Family. Frozen options from Fat Rabbit and Boca are also available to please the vegetarian palate.
Flexitarian diets, a combination of flexible and vegetarian, are growing in popularity. There are no specific guidelines, making it appealing to many who mainly desire a plant-based meal plan but do not want to totally eliminate animal products. The diet is based on the belief that one does not have to give up animal-based foods to glean plant-based diet benefits. Positive effects in regard to weight loss, metabolic health and diabetes prevention are beginning to emerge from studies on flexitarian diets.³
So, what’s the best option for you? The answer depends on food preferences and lifestyle choices. The common thread with all three meal plan options is to have a variety of foods from all food groups. Opting for a diet of pizza, chips and candy can be plant-based, but not balanced or providing the nutrients one needs. Including a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy oils and fats and combining those with regular physical activity, reading food labels and portion control is essential no matter which option you choose. You can meet your nutritional needs with either a vegan or vegetarian diet for those wanting to limit or avoid animal proteins and dairy sources. For those who do not wish to stop eating animal proteins, a flexitarian style of eating offers an option for personal health and the health of our planet as well.
Where can you get more flexitarian, vegan and vegetarian recipe ideas and helpful information? Go to My Food and Family, Choosemyplate.gov, eatright.org, USDA National Agricultural Library, or The Vegetarian Resource Group.
References: 1, 2. Melina V, Craig W, Levin S. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets. J Acad Nutr Diet 2016; 216:1970-1980. 3. Derbyshire, Emma. Flexitarian Diets and Health: A Review of the Evidence Based Literature. Frontiers in Nutrition 2016; 3:55.