What the health?!?
At this point, you’ve probably seen the newest food-related Netflix documentary, “What the Health?” or know someone who won’t stop talking about it. Trust me when I say we could get into many discussions related to this movie; but in this article, we’re going to focus on the film’s main goal: convincing you to “go vegan.” Let’s examine this topic from a more balanced perspective.
“Should I Be Vegan?”
Maybe yes, maybe no. There are many factors that go into deciding what to eat every day, vegan options or otherwise. You have to find what works for you. Some of these factors include:
“Soooo, is vegan healthy then?”
Maybe yes, maybe no. We should probably start by defining what would be considered “healthy” eating, don’t you think? People have different ideas of what this means—and many of them are well…wrong, or at least incomplete. There is not one single prescription for eating to promote health (and nutrition is FAR from the only thing that influences an individual’s health, but we’ll save that discussion for another time). In general, we want to make sure we are eating balanced meals containing a variety of different foods and food groups. That means eating meals containing a variety of different fruits, vegetables, grains and sources of protein, and getting enough of needed macronutrients (carbs & fiber, protein, and fat) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). We also want to be eating the amount that’s right for us—that is, eating when we’re hungry and stopping when we’re full.
We can achieve this goal (eat a variety of foods and food groups in balance with one another) as both vegans and non-vegans. We can also fall short of this goal as vegans and non-vegans. Technically, you can be vegan and have most of your diet only contain fruit—which has a lot of vitamins and minerals and fiber, but not a lot of protein or fat, which are both needed to sustain life. You can also technically be non-vegan and eat balanced meals containing all of the different food groups, including plant based protein sources, from which you can get a variety of nutrients to promote health. The reverse is also possible, where you can be vegan and eat a balance and variety of foods, and be a non-vegan who eats no fruits or vegetables—the goal is to achieve this balance and variety of foods (which will inevitably contain plant-based sources), regardless of whether or not the vegan “label” is tacked onto it or not.
The Vegan “Label” and the “All or Nothing” Mentality
What really trips us up is the unnecessary pressure to achieve and maintain the label or status of being 100% vegan. Sure, alllllll the nutrition recommendations from any credible resource you can find are encouraging people to eat more plants (fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, including beans, nuts, and seeds). It’s unanimous: there are long term health benefits to be gained by incorporating these plant-based options into our meal patterns. That does not mean you have to go vegan to get these benefits. In fact, removing all animal products from your diet can be extremely difficult and even unmanageable (not for lack of willpower, refer back to our list in the beginning for all the different factors affecting food choice). If you’re not familiar with cooking new vegan foods, don’t know what vegan food you should prepare that will offer the same amount of energy you’re used to, don’t have a lot of time to prepare food, etc., etc., then obtaining and maintaining that vegan label can be extremely frustrating, and may lead you to maintain a more convenient, less balanced version of “vegan” than you imagined (refer to our “fruit-only” vegan example in the previous section).
BUT! If we approach this from a more balanced perspective, we can see that we can make a conscious effort to incorporate more plant-based options (fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, including beans, nuts, and seeds), without being vegan, and still contributing favorably to our overall health. Following a plant-based meal pattern doesn’t require an “all or nothing” mentality. You can have some plant-based products, some animal-based products (maybe with an effort to explore some plant-based substitutions for animal based products), without feeling like you’re following a rigid diet or locked into something you don’t whole-heartedly enjoy. The reality is: not enjoying the experience of eating, not getting enough food, or being obsessed with what foods we “should” or “shouldn’t” eat, are things that actually can hurt our overall health. Make strides to build a balanced plate; don’t be afraid of food.
For more information on special nutrition concerns for vegetarians and vegans, such as getting enough B12, iron, and zinc, schedule an appointment with the FAU Registered Dietitian.