Heart : Pros and Cons of a Vegan Diet

Jacqui Boyle

Several high-profile public figures have made headlines recently about their decision to go vegan, spurring increased interest and debate about this plant-based diet plan.

Among them are Ellen DeGeneres, the Emmy award-winning comedian and her wife, actress Portia de Rossi, who have purged their diets of all animal products, including milk and eggs.

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton recently spoke with DeGeneres on her talk-variety show about his decision to adopt a vegan diet, too. Other famous vegans include: Carrie Underwood, Ted Danson, Mike Tyson, Alec Baldwin, Alicia Silverstone and Lea Michele.

Vegetarian vs. Vegan

According to a 2011 poll by The Vegetarian Resource Group, approximately 5 percent of adults in the U.S. say they are vegetarian, which means they never eat meat, fish, seafood or poultry.

About half of those vegetarians also are vegan, which means they also do not consume any animal products or by-products, according to the VRG.

In addition to staying away from flesh foods, dairy and eggs, vegans avoid fur, leather, wool, down and cosmetics or chemical products tested on animals for a variety of reasons, including those related to animal rights, the environment and health, according to Vegan Action, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating the public about the benefits of a vegan lifestyle.

With the vegan lifestyle getting increased attention, we spoke to nine local experts and asked them to explain the pros and cons of this diet and lifestyle choice and how to make the change safely.

Benefits of vegan diet

Local dietitians said when done right, going vegan comes with numerous health perks.

Less fat, more fruits and veggies: Ellen Thompson, a registered, licensed dietitian in Ohio who is based out of Springfield and works throughout the Miami Valley, said vegans are removing saturated fats from their diet and are likely to eat more fruits and vegetables.

Decreased health risks: The vitamins and minerals in fruits and vegetables may lead to a decreased risk for certain types of cancer, said Carla Metzler, a registered, licensed dietitian who works at Fort Hamilton Hospital.

A vegan diet may prevent or reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes and obesity, according to both Joan Wire, a registered, licensed dietitian in Ohio who runs a counseling business called Real Well and who works out of LaDeSpa in Oakwood, and Kathryn Hines, a registered, licensed dietitian in Ohio who works at Springfield Regional Medical Center.

Going vegan also may reduce the risk of high blood pressure, constipation, breast cancer, colon cancer, diverticular disease, gallstones, irritable bowel syndrome and appendicitis, said Mara Lamb, a registered, licensed dietitian who owns her own practice called Nutrition Therapy Clinic in Dayton.

Lower BMI: Vegans tend to have a lower body mass index and a lower amount of LDL cholesterol in their bodies, which clogs arteries, said Carol Nartker, a diabetes nutrition educator and a registered, licensed dietitian in Ohio who works at the Diabetes Wellness Center of Atrium Medical Center in Middletown.

In fact, "Forks over Knives," a 2011 documentary, has recently drawn attention for examining the claim that most, and perhaps all, degenerative diseases can be controlled or eliminated by rejecting animal-based and processed foods, said Rich Cohen, a registered dietitian, licensed dietitian in Ohio, who works at Kettering Weight Loss Solutions within the Kettering Health Network.

"Our food supply is not very natural," Cohen said. " ... The vegan diet seems to be offering perhaps some kind of a nutritional medicine approach, particularly with people with cardiovascular disease."

Allergy, sinus relief? Wire also said individuals who turn to a vegan diet may realize allergy symptoms and sinus problems are reduced or eliminated once they stop consuming dairy.

Downsides of going vegan

On the other hand, there are potential negative health effects associated with going vegan, dietitians said.

Risk of deficiencies: According to Thompson, if a vegan is not careful, he or she may develop nutritional deficiencies due to a lack of dairy and meat products in their diet.

Some dietitians are concerned that vegans do not receive an adequate amount of amino acids, Vitamin B12, Vitamin D, Calcium, protein and iron, Thompson said.

Dr. Andrew Dyer, an associate clinician at Back to Health Center in Dayton, said protein deficiencies can lead to fatigue, a lack of energy and an inability to complete daily tasks, he said.

Additionally, those participating in exercise and athletics may have a difficult time healing and repairing post workout without getting enough protein in their diet, he said.

A lack of Vitamin B12 in a diet may lead to anemia, Nartker said.

Bone health: In addition, a lack of calcium may put a person at risk for developing a fragile bone structure, according to Metzler.

"Chronic nutritional deficiencies can affect the quality of one's life, how they feel, how they function from day to day," Nartker said.

What vegans should, should not eat

Vegans should avoid overly processed foods and choose whole foods, which are closer to "what Mother Nature intended" for people to consume, Wire recommends.

Vegans must minimize their intake of "junk food," which includes sweets and snacks high in fat, Lamb said.

Acclimating to new tastes typically takes about three weeks, she said.

Importance of planning

Careful planning is key to ensuring a person adopts a long-term, healthy vegan diet, Thompson said. It's also important that vegans remember that a healthy lifestyle means they get enough exercise and sleep, too, she said.

"It's not what you do once in a while," Thompson said. "It's what you do every day."

Start by doing research.

"Don't go in cold turkey," Wire said. " ... You could miss out on getting the right types of protein."

Thompson said vegans should speak to a dietitian in order to make sure they are following a healthy diet plan.

New vegans should change their diet slowly, and should see a doctor if they have health issues such as diabetes, she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story. Contact this reporter at (937) 225-2122 or Jacqueline.Boyle@coxinc.com.

(c)2012 the Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio)

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