The Challenge: Vegan diets often get a bad rap for limiting proteins and nutrients
The Science: Research shows that a vegan diet actually improves protein and nutrient intake
The Solution: Sticking to veganism requires dedication, but the science says it’s well worth it!
Mention veganism in casual conversation, and you’re likely to receive some polarizing responses. From there’s just no way I could live without meat! I’d like to try it, but it would be impossible to get enough protein and nutrition in my diet. The most common refrains surrounding veganism center around a fear of dietary deficiency. Subscribing to a vegan diet is generally viewed as far too restrictive to be healthy, with concerns about inadequate protein intake and nutrient imbalance abound. And at the surface, these worries aren’t totally unreasonable – after all, a diet that excludes not only meat but also eggs and all forms of dairy does seem insufficient.
Recent research studies, however, weave a startlingly different story and invite a closer examination of the true costs and benefits of adopting vegan practices. With that in mind, here are the top three most prevalent misconceptions about going vegan and why the science actually says otherwise:
- I’ll be protein-deficient!
This misconception is based on the notion that animal-based foods are the most protein-rich portions of any diet and that absenting them from daily consumption will surely lead to a sharp and perceptible decrease in protein intake. Lost in this line of thinking, though, are two important considerations: (1) usable protein is just as prevalent in plant foods, and (2) the proteins derived from plant sources are actually healthier than their animal-based counterparts. A 2016 study conducted at Massachusetts General Hospital – in fact, the largest study of its kind in scientific history – concluded that a high dietary intake of protein from animal sources, especially red meats, is associated with a higher mortality rate, while a high intake from plant sources actually corresponds to a lower death rate.
Mingyang Song, MD, ScD, one of the research fellows involved with the study, stated that “while previous studies have primarily focused on the overall amount of protein… [our work reveals that] the particular foods that people consume to get protein are equally important.” Merely consuming large quantities of protein isn’t truly beneficial to long-term health because it fails to account for the types of food sources that said protein is obtained from – and plant sources are significantly better with respect to mortality-related outcomes.
Why, you might ask, is this the case? Over the last decade, research has been continually adding to the list of reasons why vegans experience improved health, including superior glycemic control, reduced cardiovascular risk factors, lower BMI, and lower cholesterol concentrations in the bloodstream. And to put to rest any doubts that may still linger about the body’s ability to thrive on plant proteins alone, here’s the summative line from the MIT Clinical Research Center’s nutritional review study: “Mixtures of plant proteins can serve as a complete and well-balanced source of amino acids for meeting human physiological requirements.”
- I won’t get enough nutrients!
Another oft-shouted protest against veganism points to the supposed deficiencies in nutrients and vitamins that are purported to result from avoiding meat and dairy products. Interestingly, research from the Stanford University School of Medicine’s Prevention Research Center has not only debunked this myth but also made an additional discovery. As it turns out, adherents of low-fat, vegan diets actually witnessed an increase in protective dietary factors and a decrease in pathogenic factors – simultaneously! This means that when compared to non-vegan controls, vegans showed higher levels of healthy nutrients, such as antioxidant vitamins, carotenoids, and fiber, while also showing lower levels of harmful nutrients (e.g., saturated fatty acids and cholesterol) implicated in a number of chronic diseases.
Far from being nutrient deficient, then, veganism actually gives the body increased access to the right kind of nutrients while eliminating those that are responsible for preventable conditions. Mind you, these changes were significant: healthy macronutrients and vitamins increased an average of 25%, while pathogenic factors decreased by approximately 95%! Granted, many of these results are correlational and don’t propose specific causation pathways. Even still, the sheer quantity of the correlational data spread over the last decade suggests the presence of a legitimate pattern — one that links the consumption of plant-based foods to improvement in a wide range of health markers.
- But…there’s no way I could stick to it!
Finally, we arrive at the most subjective yet arguably most persuasive myth about adopting veganism – that it’s just too hard to stick to. And quite frankly, this isn’t all that off the mark. Avoiding meat and dairy at restaurants, selecting vegan options at the grocery store, and requesting that friends and family appropriately stock dinner parties all sound exhaustively inconvenient. But truth be told, this could be said of virtually any practice that’s aimed at improving health. From getting regular exercise during the week to setting aside time every day for meditation or even reading for relaxation, achieving a better quality of life requires conscious effort and dedication, and this is no less true when it comes to going vegan.
No matter how many studies are cited that support its benefits – including an impressive new report out of the George Washington School of Medicine that showed employees who participated in a worksite vegan nutrition program reported improved productivity, mental health, and vitality, not to mention lower food costs – veganism, like any other self-improvement regimen, will ultimately require commitment through thick and thin. As to the question of whether that effort is worth it, well, the science certainly says so.