It’s good for your health
Jenny Schmidt-White, ND
Vegan dietary choices offer many health benefits, including cardiovascular disease prevention and asthma support. Although plant-based diets are rich in antioxidants, fibre, trace minerals, and vitamins, supplementation may be necessary.
Being vegan is both a lifestyle and a nutritional focus that offers many health benefits, including improving asthma symptoms and supporting cardiovascular health. The health benefits of a vegan diet are in part due to the increased dietary fibre and the bounty of phytonutrients such as vitamin C and folate. Vegan diets also tend to be lower in saturated fats and arachidonic acid, an inflammatory fatty acid found primarily in meat. Together, these mean very good things for those following a vegan diet.
Wheezing, shortness of breath, and tightness in the chest are a few of the symptoms of asthma, a chronic inflammatory disease affecting the airways. Asthma is traditionally managed with inhaled corticosteroids and beta-agonists, both of which have a long history of safety and effectiveness.
A plant-based diet offers documented nutritional support and long-term management strategies for people with asthma. Several studies demonstrate that an increased intake of plant-based foods, and a decreased intake of arachidonic acid (which produces leukotrienes associated with causing asthma symptoms) may lower the risk of asthma in children.
Adult asthma can be nutritionally supported with a diet higher in vegetables, which offers an increase in valuable antioxidants. Vitamin C is an antioxidant that is often low in people with asthma. The numerous vegan sources of vitamin C include strawberries, kiwis, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, bell peppers, and tomatoes.
The Heart and Stroke Foundation estimates that 1.6 million Canadians are living with heart disease or the effects of a stroke. Furthermore, up to 80 percent of premature cardiovascular disease is preventable with a healthy lifestyle, with inadequate fruit and vegetable consumption cited as a major risk factor.
Vegan diets can offer protection against diseases affecting the heart and blood vessels (including hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and ischemic heart disease) due to the increased intake of folate, antioxidants, and dietary fibre, and the lower intake of saturated fats and trans fats.
Folate is a notable nutrient involved in decreasing homocysteine (a marker associated with oxidative stress and inflammation) and is found readily in plant-based foods such as lentils, black beans, spinach, and romaine lettuce.
Soluble fibre is well documented for its cardiovascular benefits and is sourced exclusively from plants, including nuts, seeds, legumes, beans, oats, and apples.
Lack of calcium is often a concern for vegans or people considering eliminating dairy from their diet. However, there are plenty of excellent vegan sources of calcium. These include watercress, kale, kidney beans, bok choy, unhulled sesame seeds, and almonds.
Replacing saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats (from sources such as soy, walnuts, sunflower seeds, and healthy oils) has been shown to lower coronary heart disease risk. Unhealthy saturated fats are rare in the vegan world and easily avoidable, as the main sources are palm oil and hydrogenated oils found in pre-made items. Some saturated fats, however, in the form of avocado, coconut oil, cashew nuts, Brazil nuts, and tempeh, can be part of a healthy vegan diet.
The health benefits of a vegan diet are varied and include disease prevention and management. Careful consideration of nutritional deficiencies needs to be taken into account when seeking optimal health with a vegan diet.
Not all nutrients are readily available from plant-based sources. Fortified foods in a vegan diet contain many of the missing nutrients, but if in doubt, consult a knowledgeable health care practitioner, as supplementation may be beneficial.
What does it do in the body?
Recommended daily allowance for adults
|vitamin B12||red blood cell synthesis, nerve support||2.4 mcg|
|vitamin D||bone health, immune support, muscle support||1,000-1,200 IU|
|zinc||immune function, DNA synthesis, wound healing, protein synthesis||8-11 mg|
|iron||hemoglobin synthesis, oxygen transport||8-18 mg|
|omega-3 fatty acids||brain and heart health, inflammation management||800-1,100 mg|
The idea behind Hippocrates’ quote, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food,” has materialized into a medical centre in Washington, DC.
Last year saw the opening of the first vegan medical centre, the Barnard Medical Center. There, traditional medications may be used, but plant-based nutrition education is the foundation for management of chronic health concerns such as type 2 diabetes, arthritis, and heart disease.
The founder, Neal Barnard, MD, is president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and has authored more than 70 publications about how a vegan diet affects diabetes and other diseases.
The gut bacteria of vegans appear to be superior to those of omnivores, containing more bacteria that decrease inflammation. In particular, vegan gut flora tends to be higher in a species called Faecalibacterium prausnitzii, bacteria that protect the cells of the colon, and lower in harmful E. coli. A higher consumption of plant-based foods typically increases fibre and feeds healthy bacteria.