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Here’s what you should know about veganism

Veganism is growing more popular year on year. It’s undoubtedly kinder to animals, but how healthy is it?

One small thing:The closer we get to a plant-based diet the healthier we will be. Start with planning meat-free Mondays every month and gradually introduce more plant proteins into your diet.

Veganism is on the rise. Official statistics are thin on the ground in South Africa, but in the US and Britain the evidence is compelling. Many food services and suppliers in the US are reporting significantly higher demand for plant-based foods, and Google data reports an increased interest in information on veganism (it was a top search trend in Canada).

According to The Guardian, the Vegan Society in the UK commissioned a poll in 2016 of 10 000 people on their dietary habits and found that Britain’s vegan population had increased from 150 000 to 542 000 in the space of a decade.

How healthy is veganism?

There’s no question that veganism reduces animal suffering. What’s less clear, however, is the impact of veganism on human health – if you consult Google, that is (which you shouldn’t, you should consult a dietitian adsa.org.za). Picking your way through all the contradictory information out there is enough to convince you that no one really knows what the heck’s going on.

Calling “veganism” a diet is a bit of a misnomer. It isn’t a diet because it doesn’t prescribe what’s best to eat or how much – only what not to eat. Once you’ve taken all the animal products away, there are still plenty of do-good foods to choose from. If you include a wide variety of plants, legumes, grains and pulses, and supplement judiciously, you’re likely to experience many of the benefits associated with plant-rich diets.

“Considerable evidence attests to the health benefits of a vegan diet,” says registered dietitian Leanne Kiezer. “Research has indicated that vegetarian and vegan diets help to lower the risk of heart disease and metabolic syndrome. Most vegans meet their protein requirements, and their total protein intake tends to be less than that of omnivores.

"This lower protein intake usually results in lower saturated fat because many high-protein animal products are also rich in saturated fat. This might explain the link between vegan diets and decreased risk for heart disease.”

She adds that well-planned vegan diets are safe for children and adolescents and can meet all of their nutritional requirements for growth. “They are also adequate for pregnant and lactating women. The key is that meals should be well planned to ensure they provide adequate calcium, iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and vitamin D (whether from food, fortified foods or supplements).”

Veganism: where to start

“I would encourage anyone who wants to adopt veganism to replace animal products wherever possible with plant options,” says vegan nutritionist Dawn MacFarlane. “Every step counts and the more you start to consciously bring in the abundance of offerings from the plant kingdom, the better you'll feel and the more you'll be incentivised.

“At first, adopting a plant-based diet might be difficult, but after a month or two our taste preferences change and we may find we don’t want to go back. Veganism is a process and each person needs to go at their own pace. The closer we get to a plant-based diet, the healthier we are going to be.”

If you have a question for our dietitians, click here, or to find a dietitian in your area, visit adsa.org.za. To get in touch with us, email healthhotline@pnp.co.za.