Going vegan: Sidestep pitfalls through careful meal planning

Wednesday , May 02, 2018 - 5:00 AM2 comments

OGDEN — Savory steaks, chops and roasts are used to anchor the all-American meal, and other animal products play a major supporting role. But whether driven by health or ethical reasons, vegan diets are the rise in the U.S. 

Going vegan means consuming plant-based foods exclusively — that means no eggs, dairy or any other animal or animal product. While such a diet can be healthier in some respects, eating purely plant-based foods also requires more planning to avoid nutritional deficiencies.

At the turn of the century, only 1 percent of the U.S. population stuck to a vegan diet, but the number has risen to about 6 percent as recently 2017, according to surveys published last year.

Even those who don’t commit to a strict diet don’t shy from the vegan label anymore. The No. 1 “hottest food trend” in 2018, as predicted by Baum and Whiteman International Food and Restaurant Consultants, is plant-based foods. 

Jennifer Turley, a nutrition professor and chair of the Athletic Training and Nutrition Department at Weber State University, understands the nuts and bolts of vegetarian diet types. In a recent phone interview, Turley detailed the difference between vegetarian and vegan eating. Her textbook, Food Values Diet Design & Health, hit the shelves last year.

“Vegetarian diets — when planned correctly — are healthy, can be useful in the prevention of some diseases, and can be nutritionally adequate,” Turley said. “And there are a wide variety of plant-based foods that can be eaten in a vegan diet, including whole grains and grain products (like bread, cereal, rice, pasta), legumes, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds and plant oils.”

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According to the Mayo Clinic, an animal-free diet can lower the risk of heart disease, diabetes and some cancers. But foregoing animal-based foods may cause a reliance on processed foods that have more sugar, fat and sodium.

Hard-core vegans exclude all those animal add-ins, even jello because it contains animal collagen. Vegan dietary taboos extend to all animal byproducts and ingredients of animal origin.

Other similar categories fall under the umbrella of “vegetarian” who, like protestants, fall into different factions: lacto-ovos consume milk and eggs, pescatarians eat fish, pollo-vegetarians allow chicken, and semi-vegetarians enjoy meat from time to time.

Consuming enough “complete protein” can prove challenging for vegans. While quinoa (a seed sometimes mistaken as a grain) and soy (in the legume family along with peas, beans, lentils and peanuts) contain all nine essential amino acids, but some have only a small amount. Most plant-based foods lack all nine.

“There is ample protein in plants, but they have to be combined across food groups,” Turley said. “Grains would be missing certain essential amino acids that would be provided with other vegetables. But it usually happens throughout the day when a varied diet is eaten and doesn’t have to happen at the same meal.”

A few examples of complete protein combinations for vegans include a peanut butter sandwich, beans and rice, or hummus and pita bread. Turley suggested using choosemyplate.gov as a helpful menu-planning tool.

“Like anything else, there’s a healthy way to be a vegan and an unhealthy way,” Turley said. Fresh plant-based foods, she said, are preferable over processed and packaged meals. “There are certain cereals and other fortified foods designed for vegans, but the whole diet shouldn’t come out of a box or a can.”

POSSIBLE PITFALLS

Vegans can develop deficiencies in vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, zinc and iron. A lack of B12 can lead to pernicious anemia and subsequent nerve damage.

Iron-deficient anemia often crops up in women of child-bearing years. The Mayo Clinic warns that its symptoms may include extreme fatigue, weakness, chest pain, fast heartbeat or shortness of breath, headache, dizziness or lightheadedness, cold hands and feet, tongue inflammation or soreness, and brittle nails.

Humans absorb heme iron (found only in meat, poultry, seafood, and fish) more readily than non-heme iron that comes from plant sources such as spinach and beans. But vegans can boost absorption of non-heme iron by pairing those foods with oranges, red pepper, broccoli or other vitamin C-rich sources.

Eating meat is also a common way to get the necessary amount of zinc, another element necessary for human life. According to the National Institutes of Health, zinc deficiencies surface as slowed growth, appetite loss, impaired immune function, hair loss, diarrhea, weight loss, delayed healing of wounds, taste abnormalities, delayed sexual maturation, impotence, and eye and skin lesions.

Vegan sources of zinc include toasted wheat germ, spinach, pumpkin or squash seeds, nuts, dark chocolate, beans and mushrooms.

Rina Jordan, a registered/certified dietitian with Ogden Clinic, cautioned that vegans will need to get used to eating larger portions in order to get enough protein. For semi-, pollo, pesco or lacto-ovo vegetarians, that task is easier to accomplish.

“A 3-ounce serving of meat has 20 to 24 grams of protein,” Jordan said. “To get that much protein from beans or lentils, the volume has to be greater.”

Jordan also cautioned that women should aim to take in upwards to 1,200 milligrams of daily calcium to avoid osteoporosis. Cow’s milk and calcium-fortified soy milk each contain about 300 milligrams per cup. Other milk substitutes such as almond, cashew, coconut or rice can vary widely, so it’s important to read nutritional labels.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine emphasized the importance of preventing calcium loss rather than focusing solely on calcium intake. Their website, pcrm.org, cautioned that high-protein diets increase calcium loss, and that animal protein is more likely to cause calcium loss than plant-based protein. High-sodium foods, caffeine and smoking can also deplete calcium stores. Exercise, sunlight and an abundance of fruits and vegetables help build bones, according to pcrm.org.

In her line of work, Jordan said she sees many millennials who choose to be vegan — mostly for ethical reasons.

“I do get questions about high cholesterol and needing to lose weight, and those clients ask if they should go vegan. I say it could be healthy but also challenging to get the nutrients they need,” Jordan said She also recommended paying special attention to children who might struggle with health issues and even fail to thrive on vegan diets. 

“I haven’t seen a lot of it, but the ones I have seen ...  it was concerning. We focused on ways to get tofu and other soy products into the child’s diet,” Jordan said.

Contact reporter Cathy McKitrick at 801-625-4214 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @catmck.

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