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Pros and Cons of Vegetarianism and Veganism

Published On May 15, 2015 | May/June 2015

Choosing an Animal-Free Diet

“It is important to keep in mind the specific needs of your body, including the number of calories, proteins, and carbs it requires and your overall lifestyle.”

By Raynelle Shelley, Vegan, Registered Dietitian, Scott & White Clinic.

The growing number of vegan or vegetarian dining options in the Austin area continues to grow and the idea of food as a lifestyle decision is also growing. Those of us in Austin are fortunate because we happen to have some of the best vegan restaurants around. Some of my other favorite spots are in Dallas/Fort Worth and Monterey, CA. I spent last weekend trying all of the vegan options we have around the city and they were all fantastic! There was even a vegan/vegetarian chef school.

Years ago, the word “vegan” was unheard of. However, celebrity vegans such as Bill Clinton, Mike Tyson, Paul McCartney, Alicia Silverstone, Natalie Portman, and Ellen Degeneres have recently raised awareness and the profile of being vegan. Before that it was Leonardo da Vinci, Mohandas Gandhi, and Albert Einstein.

You hear people say their diets fat-free, carbohydrate-free, dairy-free, and gluten-free; or they choose to eat organic. There are many reasons people choose a particular dietary lifestyle – to promote optimal health, to fend off bad health, to contribute to a healthier environment, for ethical or religious reasons, and even out of habit or family history.
 
Vegetarianism and veganism have been around for hundreds of years, and the reasons for committing to these lifestyles are varied. Of the 1 million Americans who are vegan, 79 percent are women, according to opRNtoBSN. For vegetarians, the gender divide is not as severe. It is more equally split, 59 percent women and 41 percent men.

Vegetarians consume no animal flesh – red meat, poultry, and seafood are avoided, but they may consume other animal products, depending on personal preference. For example, lacto-ovo vegetarians consume both dairy products and eggs, ovo-vegetarians consume only eggs, and lacto-vegetarians eat only dairy products. By comparison, the vegan lifestyle is a bit more restrictive because it eliminates animal products of any kind. Vegans avoid meat, fish, dairy, eggs, and honey as well as other products that you might not think of, such as gelatin.

Health is a major factor in the shift to a diet with few or no animal products. I became vegan in 2011 after repeated attempts to get my cholesterol down – and I am a dietitian who followed a low cholesterol diet without achieving lower numbers. My lab results now are in target ranges across the board. Luckily, I also enjoy cooking so becoming vegan has been a fun adventure in exploring alternate ways to do my favorite recipes. People who worry about obesity and high cholesterol simply have to look at the role animal fats play in their diets. But ethical concerns about animal welfare, food safety and antibiotic resistance also make a vegetarian or vegan diet more attractive.

The Benefits of the Veggie Life
As a dietitian and vegan, the demonstrated health benefits of being vegetarian or vegan are plentiful. Most people are aware of the advantages of cutting down on red meat or perhaps reducing one’s whole milk intake. But is it really necessary to make a full-fledged lifestyle change? In the same vein, what are the drawbacks or risks associated with vegetarianism/veganism?
Being vegetarian (or vegan) also does not mean you are automatically “healthier.”

Leaving off the bacon does not make the meal healthy if you are still eating French fries or a baked potato loaded with butter, sour cream, and cheddar cheese.

The Cons: Nutrient Deficiencies and Poor Diet
While plant-based diets offer significant benefits to one’s health, the few risks they come with should be noted. The health benefits of vegetarian diets depend on how they are defined. Vegans must find an alternative source of vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 is found solely in animal products such as meat, fish, dairy, and eggs. Although it can also be found in some algae, there is debate as to whether this form of B12 is “bioavailable,” meaning that our bodies may not absorb it adequately. Another source of B12 that I use frequently in cooking is nutritional yeast – it gives food a buttery or cheesy flavor.  Even more, research has found that vegans may be deficient not only in vitamin B12 but also omega-3 fatty acids, both essential to the normal functioning of the body and brain. 

Strict vegans are typically advised by their doctors to take supplements, but which supplements one needs will depend on one’s specific diet, the length of time one has been vegan, and the body’s specific nutritional needs. Most capsule type supplements have a gelatin coating which makes it non-vegan. Walnuts and flax, which fits in both vegetarian and vegan diets, do provide a precursor to omega-3 production, but also has some issues with complete bioavailability. It is also helpful to be aware of symptoms of B12 deficiency like dizziness, fatigue, shortness of breath, anemia, poor concentration, problems learning and remembering, and increased risk of cognitive decline as we age. It is therefore important to talk to your doctor if you might be at risk.

Vitamin D also may be a challenge, because vegans do not consume vitamin D-fortified dairy products. Studies have found that vegetarians lack the vitamin, which is crucial for bone health. Vitamin-D deficiency raises the risk of fractures and osteoporosis. While vitamin deficiencies of any kind may take years to develop, they can be serious.  However, a small amount of sun exposure can also produce a significant amount of vitamin D.

Strict veganism also can lead to not getting enough complete protein. Also known as “high quality protein,” complete protein includes all 10 essential amino acids that the body cannot make on its own. Because there are limited sources of single, plant-based foods that provide all the essential amino acids (soy and quinoa are two), it is often necessary to pair foods together to get the complete range. This is why rice and beans, oatmeal and oranges, and other pairings such as peanut butter and rice cakes, are popular protein sources among vegans.

Remember that finding a balance could be the ideal way to start. I never encourage patients to make a lifestyle change that they cannot stick to long term. For example, some healthy foods are omitted from veganism, such as fish. It may be that a diet that includes fish is better for health than one that excludes it. It is important to keep in mind the specific needs of your body, including the number of calories, proteins, and carbs it requires and your overall lifestyle; the amount of physical activity you engage in; your age, weight, and particular vitamin requirements. Always talk to your doctor before making major nutritional changes.

Whether Vegan or Vegetarian, here’s some local places to try:

Casa de Luz – Casa de Luz serves 100% organic, vegan, vegetarian, alkalizing, nutrient-rich meals that will improve your health. The founding idea for Casa de Luz (which is much more than a place to eat) is to offer a sacred space for those that want to bring their disciplines to share with the community.

Mother’s Café &Garden – Mother’s has been serving up vegetarian and vegan food since 1980. As one patron put it, the problem with Mother’s is that everything on the menu sounds soooo good. I wish I could eat every main dish in one sitting instead of ordering just one.

Mr. Natural – Head chef Jesus Mendoza, Jr., specializes in special dietary baking such as gluten free, soy free, nut free, sugar free, dairy free, and more. Jesus, Jr. himself has adopted a vegan and gluten free diet lately and has since created many recipes and welcomes the opportunity to help others with their baked needs. 

G’raj Mahal – G’Raj Mahal Cafe & Lounge, which began as a food trailer, provides a combination of traditional and innovative Indian comfort food in a funky, beautiful space featuring: a large, gorgeous wooden deck in the back patio; a lovely stone front yard; comfortable indoor café seating; and a premium wine and beer bar. 

Bombay Express – Bombay Express provides a combination of North and South Indian food – all vegetarian – in an unassuming kitchen just off of Parmer Lane. One observer notes the place is run by a Gujarati girl and her mom. Kachoris are a must!     

Bouldin Creek Café – Bouldin Creek Café provides fairly priced, wholesome vegetarian (with vegan options) food, and have shown vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike that veggie fare can be both flavorful and satisfying.

For more information please visit, www.sw.org or call Raynelle Shelley, RD, at 512-509-0200

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