Not long ago the idea of following a strict vegan diet was considered extreme and impractical. A vegan does not eat any animal products — no meat, fish, fowl, eggs, dairy or honey. Yet interest has grown lately: witness the slew of successful vegan cookbooks (Da Capo Press has 20 vegan cookbooks in print and more coming up); wider availability of vegan products (tofurky, anyone?); and celebrities such as former president Bill Clinton and actress Alicia Silverstone announcing that they have adopted the diet, resulting in better health.
True, there are advantages to a vegan diet for older Americans but there are some inherent disadvantages, too. We spoke with several dieticians and doctors about a vegan diet for people over the age of 55. We focused strictly on health, not on political or philosophical beliefs.
Advantages of a vegan diet:
- May help lower cholesterol: Jackie Keller, nutritionist, wellness coach and founder of NutriFit, an LA-based food delivery service, references a study in Diabetes Voice in 2007 that showed that people with Type 2 diabetes who adopted a vegan diet reduced their LDL (low density lipoprotein) cholesterol by 21 percent — significantly more than the 9 percent drop seen by another group on the American Diabetes Association diet.
- May help lower blood pressure: Paragi Mehta, a registered dietitian and the creator of www.healthfulfilling.com, says that according to a 2009 position paper of the American Dietetic Association, vegetarian eating is linked with decreased risk of death from ischemic heart disease. The report also concluded that people who eat a vegetarian diet tend to have lower LDL levels and less incidence of hypertension and Type 2 diabetes in comparison to non-vegetarians.
- Increases antioxidant intake: Vegan eating usually increases intake of wholesome foods such as vegetables, fruits, beans, legumes and whole grains, which is a great opportunity to get plentiful antioxidants, dietary fiber and vitamins and minerals, says Mehta.
- May promote greater self-control: "The self-control needed to eat in a vegan way can be extended to other behaviors requiring self-control, commitment and dedication," says Michael Applebaum, a physician and president of FitnessMed Inc., a fitness consulting firm, and author of several fitness books. In addition, he says that vegan eating helps "slow down the eating process" making us more aware, (at least in the beginning phases of moving over to a vegan diet), about what we are putting in our mouths. He says this can serve to cut down on impulsive eating behaviors.
Disadvantages of a vegan diet:
- A radical change: Going vegan is a huge change and can sometimes be even more complicated if you are not allowed to eat certain ingredients such as soy. "Complete plant proteins are found in soy products, so if you're trying to moderate your intake of soy, you have to learn how to put together complementary foods to form complete vegetarian proteins," says Keller.
- Potential interference with existing medical conditions: If you have a condition such as osteoporosis or diabetes, it is critical to consult with your physician and a registered dietitian when starting and implementing a vegan eating plan, as a vegan diet may interfere with your condition.
- Difficulty when dining out: Not many restaurants offer true vegan choices and this can make dining out difficult. Mehta advises carrying vegan foods and snacks to make eating out easier when traveling long distances.
- Loss of essential vitamins and minerals: There is evidence to show vegan diets do not contain vitamin B12, an essential nutrient. "Vegans can get vitamin B12 from fortified foods (some brands of soy milk, fake meats, breakfast cereals and nutritional yeast) and from supplements. Vegan diets may be low in calcium and vitamin D although there are vegan sources of these nutrients," says Reed Mangels, PhD, RD, nutrition advisor for The Vegetarian Resource Group (vrg.org).
- Unrealistic expectations: "A person might believe that by being vegan they are making themselves healthier. There are no good data of which I am aware proving that simply being vegan as an isolated behavior improves health," says Applebaum. There has to be a balance of diet, exercise and a proper fitness regime.
If you are going to go vegan, all of our experts advise that you consult with your doctor first. Once you get the green light from your doctor, these guidelines may help you get started:
- It will take time for you to learn to cook as a vegan, so try out different recipes that are appealing to your palate and easy to prepare.
- Read labels carefully: animal products are in many packaged products, often in hard-to-identify ways.
- Transition gradually to vegan eating so your body can adapt to it. Realize that vegan eating is more restrictive than vegetarian eating. Mehta says, "You might consider doing several transitions, such as from non-vegetarian to partial vegetarian, then to lacto-ovo vegetarian, and then decide how much more is comfortable for you."
- Include adequate plant protein in your diet.
- Combine plant sources of iron with ingredients high in vitamin C (such as red bell peppers, oranges and strawberries) so that your body can absorb the iron well.
- Include a reliable source of B12 in your diet.