Vegetarian and vegan diet plans continue to grow in popularity. In fact, studies show that vegetarians alone account for up to 8 percent of the global population—and with good reason. Beyond the ethical and environmental benefits of a plant-based diet, a well-planned vegetarian or vegan lifestyle can supply an abundance of micronutrients, provide extra energy, and reduce the risk of chronic illness.
While transitioning to a new diet takes serious research and understanding, embracing a plant-based lifestyle is simple. However, it’s essential that you know the fundamentals and understand the nutrients you need to remain healthy. If you are considering switching to a plant-based diet, keep reading to learn about important nutritional considerations of being a vegan or vegetarian.
What Is a Vegan Diet?
All vegans are vegetarians, but vegetarians are not vegans. A vegan diet is the strictest version of vegetarianism and eliminates all forms of animal exploitation and cruelty. Vegans exclude meat, fish, dairy, eggs, and animal-derived products such as gelatin, honey, carmine, shellac, albumin, casein, and whey from their diets.
When following a vegan diet, it’s important to read labels and ask restaurants about how your food is being prepared. Transitioning to a vegan lifestyle is often eye-opening for people, as many candies, breads, and other processed foods are made with animal products. Many vegans choose to avoid non-food items that involve the inhumane use of animals or animal by-products as well, including:
- Certain consumer goods like soaps, latex, and cosmetic products
Vegans get all of the macro- and micronutrients they need from fruits, vegetables, grains, and plant-based proteins like beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds.
Vegan Health Benefits
It’s important to note that just because you are restricting certain foods doesn’t automatically make it healthy. In fact, not eating the right foods can lead to nutritional deficiencies. You need to follow specific nutritional guidelines to ensure your body receives the proper amount of B12, iron, protein, and other essential nutrients.
By adhering to nutritional guidelines, vegans can expect the following benefits:
So, is a vegan diet a healthy choice? When you provide your body with the nutrients it needs to excel, it certainly can be. In fact, a new study from The Journal of Nutrition states that a vegan lifestyle can be very healthy, as participants displayed higher levels of unsaturated fats and antioxidants.8
What Is a Vegetarian Diet?
While vegetarianism is less strict than veganism, vegetarians still restrict their diet by eliminating most animal products. Vegetarians exclude meat, poultry, fish, and shellfish. Depending on the type of vegetarian diet you follow, you may still eat honey, dairy, or eggs. The most common vegetarian classifications include:
- Lacto-ovo vegetarians: Consume dairy products and eggs
- Lacto vegetarians: Consume dairy products
- Ovo vegetarians: Consume eggs
- Pescatarian: Consume fish and seafood (not meeting the traditional definition of vegetarianism, but a common diet choice that closely follows the guidelines)
As explained above, many vegetarians include eggs, dairy, and even fish and seafood in their diets. Additionally, vegetarians rely on fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, grains, and meat substitutes to maintain a healthy diet.
Vegetarian Health Benefits
Depending on your diet plan, a vegetarian regimen has proven to include many health benefits, such as lowered LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels,9 lowered hypertension rates, lowered blood pressure, and a decreased chance for type 2 diabetes.10 Additionally, vegetarians have a lower risk of heart disease7 and often have a lower body mass index.
However, like any diet, vegetarians should exercise and exclude unhealthy lifestyle choices like smoking and drinking alcohol in excess. For a vegetarian diet to be considered healthy, you need to feed your body with plenty of protein, fatty acids, calcium, and iron.
A healthy vegetarian diet includes:
- A regular source of vitamins B-12 and D
- Eating eggs and dairy products in moderation (if at all)
- Reducing your intake of high-fat and high-sugar foods
Nutritional Deficiencies of Plant-Based Diets
While there are many benefits to following a vegan or vegetarian diet, equal challenges exist—such as learning how different food sources provide nutrients for your body. We know that certain people need more or less of particular nutrients based on the information their DNA provides. It’s important to understand your body's composition before embracing a plant-based lifestyle.
When cutting some or all animal products out of your diet, it becomes more difficult to get certain vitamins and minerals from your food. If you’re genetically predisposed to specific nutrient deficiencies, switching to a vegetarian or vegan diet may not be the best decision for your health. Plant-based diets can pose severe health risks for some individuals, including serious neurological consequences—studies show that metabolic B-12 deficiency even increases the risk of stroke.11
Consider these common deficiencies of a plant-based diet and learn how to supplement essential nutrients:
- Vitamin B-12: Supplement with a vitamin or nutritional yeast
- Vitamin D: Supplement with sun exposure
- Zinc: Supplement with legumes, beans, and whole grains
- Iron: Supplement with leafy greens, lentils, dried fruits, and whole grains
Calcium: Supplement with kale, mustard greens, turnips, chickpeas, and broccoli
Living a Smarter and Healthier Life With a Vegetarian or Vegan Diet
If you’re worried about the transition, here’s the good news: manufacturers and restaurateurs are catching on as vegetarian and vegan diets continue to grow in popularity. A wealth of veg-friendly options are available on the grocery shelves and restaurant menus, making a plant-based diet more accommodating now than it ever has been. But as trendy as it may seem to become a vegan or vegetarian right now, it’s crucial that you first consider your body’s DNA and how it will react to a plant-based diet—or any diet, for that matter.
Your individual genetic makeup may give additional insight to which nutrients you need to pay special attention to if you switch to a vegetarian or vegan diet. Most plant-based diets are lower in vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, and iron. With GenoPalate, you’ll learn exactly which nutrients your body needs more or less of so you can feel your best on any diet you choose—plant-based or otherwise.
Ready to start living a healthier lifestyle? GenoPalate uses your genetics to develop your nutrition and food recommendations that are custom to your body. Download a free sample report today!