Vegan diet: what it is, principles, what to eat, benefits, menu example, benefits and risks. What are these What are the vegan diet principles? What are the benefits and risks of being vegan? What are the 5 most important rules of a vegan diet? What is vegan food and its benefits? What is the 7 day vegan challenge? Can a vegan diet be healthy? We have compiled for you the answers to the questions and all the curious about the vegan diet in our article.
Vegan diet: more and more people in Italy are following it. This is confirmed by Eurispes’ Italy 2020 Report, which shows that 2.2% of Italians have chosen a diet completely free of animal products. The reasons are ethical and health-related: people become vegan for health and wellness reasons (23.2%), but also out of love and respect for the animal world (22.2%).
Despite its growing success, the vegan diet is one of the most controversial diets, on the one hand praised for its positive effects on health, on the other strongly criticized for the high risk of nutritional deficiencies to which those who choose to follow it are exposed.
So what? Vegan diet, yes or no? And, if yes, how? We have tried to shed some light, summarizing the principles of the vegan diet, an example of a vegan diet menu for weight loss, the benefits and risks, and explaining why Melarossa has chosen not to offer a vegan diet for weight loss.
Vegan diet: what it is
The vegan diet is a diet that does not include any food of animal origin (meat, fish, milk and dairy products, eggs, and honey) and is based on the consumption of grains, legumes, vegetables and fruits, both fresh and dried, vegetable oils, vegetable drinks, and seeds.
It falls under vegetarian diets, with the major difference that it does not exclude only the consumption of meat and fish, but involves the complete elimination of all animal products, including milk, dairy products, and eggs.
What is the difference between a vegetarian diet and a vegan diet?
A diet can be called vegetarian if it involves the exclusion of all types of meat (pork, beef, mutton, lamb, poultry, game), meat products (sausages, sausages, pates, etc.), fish (including sushi), shellfish and crustaceans.
Based on the inclusion or non-inclusion of dairy products, eggs and honey, two basic types of vegetarian diet can be distinguished:
1. Lacto-ovo-vegetarianism (LOV). Excludes meat but includes dairy, eggs and honey, along with a wide range of plant-based foods. Subcategories are lacto-vegetarianism (LV), which excludes eggs, and ovo-vegetarianism (OV), which excludes dairy products.
2. Veganism (VEG). Excludes meat, dairy products, eggs and honey and is based on a wide range of plant-based foods.
The vegan diet is therefore called a “total” vegetarian diet because it completely excludes animal products, direct and indirect.
The Vegan Food Pyramid
The principles of this dietary regimen are summarized by the so-called vegan food pyramid, which schematically summarizes the food groups that must be present in the vegan diet, also indicating to what extent and how often to consume them.
The pyramid is divided into steps. At the base are the food groups that should be brought to the table most frequently and in abundance. Going up from step to step are represented those to be eaten to a gradually lesser extent.
There are numerous vegetarian-oriented food pyramid models, such as those of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetic or Loma Linda University. Some emphasize (and place at the base) the consumption of fruits and vegetables, others that of grains, as in the case of the vegan food pyramid developed by the Department of Nutrition at Arizona State University, which we offer below.
In the table we show you, with a few examples, what the portion sizes of each of the food groups in the vegan food pyramid correspond to.
Number of servings per day
- 2-3 tablespoons of oil.
- 1-2- Nuts and seeds.
- 3-Milk substitutes and dairy products (soy milk, tofu…).
- 2-3 Legumes and other protein foods.
- 2-3 Green leafy vegetables.
- 1-2 Fruits.
- 1-2 Dried fruits.
- 6-10 Bread, pasta, rice, fortified cereals.
8 cups (1-5/2 liters) daily (needs increase as physical activity increases).
- Vitamin B12: 2-3 g/day.
- Vitamin D: 200 IU/day.
- Calcium: 600mg/day.
Portion sizes by food group
Cereal: ½ cup of pasta, rice or other cooked cereal, 1 slice of bread.
Vegetables: ½ cup cooked vegetables or 1 cup raw vegetables.
Fruit: 1 medium-sized fruit, 1 cup fruit salad.
Vegetable drinks: 1 cup.
Legumes: ½ cup of cooked beans.
Nuts and seeds: ¼ cup of nuts.
The Italian vegan food pyramid
In Italy, the principles of this dietary regimen are summarized by the PiattoVeg, a dish-shaped vegan food pyramid. A diagram that identifies the foods that form the basis of a plant-based diet and provides recommendations regarding the specific requirements of certain nutrients, such as calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids, so as not to run the risk of deficiencies.
As the Scientific Society of Vegetarian Nutrition points out in the booklet “Let’s Learn to Eat Healthy with Plant-Based Foods,” the PiattoVeg represents a proposed Italian Guidelines for proper vegetarian eating and a useful outline for those who want to start following a vegetarian or vegan diet.
According to the directions of theVeg Plate, the vegan diet is based on 6 food groups, viz:
- Protein foods (legumes and other protein-rich foods, excluding all protein foods of animal origin, viz.
meat, fish, eggs, milk and dairy products).
- Dried fruits and oilseeds.
Let’s look in detail at what foods make up the 6 food groups of the vegan food pyramid and what nutrients they provide.
This group includes bread, pasta, rice, breakfast cereals, wheat, corn, millet, millet, barley, oats, rye, spelt, buckwheat, kamut, quinoa, bulgur, cous cous, rusks, breadsticks and crackers.
Rice milk also falls into the cereal group. Every meal should be built around a nice plate of grains, preferably whole grains, rich in fiber, complex carbohydrates, protein, vitamin B, E, iron, and zinc.
If you’re interested in this topic, check out our in-depth look at grains.
Foods rich in plant proteins include legumes, all soy products (soy milk and yogurt, tofu, tempeh, restructured plant proteins) and wheat gluten (seitan) and their combinations (plant-based burgers and patties, plant-based sliced meats, etc.).
In addition to protein, these foods also provide minerals, dietary fiber, vitamins, and essential fatty acids.
It is important to include generous portions of vegetables in the vegan diet, varying them as much as possible. In fact, they represent a source of:
- Vitamin C.
- Dietary fiber.
Vegetables particularly rich in these nutrients are dark green leafy vegetables and cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower).
Fruit is rich in fiber, vitamin C and beta-carotene. According to theVeg Plate, those on a vegan diet should eat at least one serving a day of vitamin C-rich fruits (citrus fruits, melons, strawberries), preferring whole fruits to juices, which lose much of the fruit’s fiber content.
Nuts and oilseeds
The vegan diet should also include dried fruits (walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, etc.) and oil seeds, such as pumpkin, sesame, sunflower, and flax seeds, which have similar nutritional characteristics to dried fruits.
This group includes a number of high-calorie foods that it is good to consume in moderation. These include oils: it is important to give preference to flaxseed and olive oils, which are sources of polyunsaturated fatty acids of the omega-3 and monounsaturated family, respectively.
In contrast, all room-temperature solid fats (such as tropical coconut and palm oils and margarines) contain high amounts of health-damaging saturated or trans-hydrogenated fats and should therefore be used very sparingly, and only when essential.
The portions of the various foods
For each food group, theVeg Plate also indicates how much a portion corresponds to. The minimum number of servings to be consumed, on the other hand, depends on individual daily caloric needs.
Nutrients to include in the vegan diet
Foods from the first 5 groups are rich in calcium: at least 6 servings a day should come from this sort of cross-group that includes all 5, to ensure proper calcium intake.
Vitamin D should preferably be taken in supplement form, in the recommended doses.
Vitamin B12 is found only in foods of animal origin, so a vegan diet will have to involve the use of fortified plant foods or supplements.
Dosages and methods of supplementation should be determined on the basis of personal needs with the help of a physician or nutrition specialist.
Omega-3 fatty acids
The vegan diet should include 2 servings of foods that provide omega-3 fatty acids (legumes, nuts and fats) every day.
TheVeg Plate also includes a share of “discretionary” calories, that is, calories that do not necessarily have to provide nutrients.
They can therefore be represented by so-called “empty calories,” for example processed foods such as snacks and sweet drinks. However, it is preferable to derive this share of calories from healthy foods belonging to theVeg Plate.
Vegan diet: the benefits
Much research has highlighted the health benefits associated with a vegetarian-style diet, both in the broader sense, that is, based on the exclusion of meat and fish alone, and in the narrower sense, that is, based on the elimination of all animal products and their derivatives.
Let us look at the main ones.
The vegan diet helps maintain cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the normal range, thereby reducing, the risk of atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease.
These beneficial effects are related to the fact that plant foods are typically low in saturated fats and totally free of cholesterol, which are the dietary factors responsible for raising blood cholesterol levels.
These benefits are therefore common to vegetarians and vegans, but vegans follow a virtually cholesterol-free diet, since this fat is found only in animal foods such as meats, dairy products, and eggs.
Reduced blood pressure values
Many studies since the 1920s have shown that a vegetarian diet is associated with lower blood pressure levels.
The most recent studies on diabetes show that a diet high in complex carbohydrates (found only in plant foods) and low in fat is the best dietary prescription for controlling this condition.
A diet of vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and fresh and dried oleaginous fruits, naturally reduced in fat and simple sugars, can significantly lower blood glucose levels and often reduce or even eliminate the need for antidiabetic medications.
A particularly significant effect in type 2 diabetes, but also useful in type 1 diabetes. In fact, this type of diet may allow for reduced insulin requirements.
The positive effects of a plant-based diet in preventing cardiovascular disease are also beneficial for those with diabetes, because diabetics usually have a high risk of developing these diseases.
Plant-based diets can help prevent certain types of cancer. Breast cancer, for example, has a significantly reduced incidence in those countries where diets are typically based on plant foods.
The same risk-reducing effect is seen for colorectal cancers, because high fiber consumption ensures good intestinal transit and prevents potentially dangerous substances from remaining in contact with the walls of the intestine for too long.
At the root of the anti-cancer action of plant-based diets is the fact that they are low in fat, but also rich in fruits and vegetables that allow increased intake of antioxidants, such as beta-carotene and lycopene, which are associated with reduced rates of lung and prostate cancer.
Some studies suggest that diets that limit or eliminate dairy products altogether may reduce the risk of prostate and ovarian cancer.
Among other benefits, CREA also points out that the vegan diet:
- Provides a greater sense of satiety than the omnivorous one
- Represents an aid in combating constipation.
- Promotes increased intake of folic acid, vitamin C, vitamin E, potassium, magnesium.
- May reduce symptoms of some allergic manifestations such as asthma and atopic dermatitis.
Vegan diet: the risks
We also examine, again with CREA, the main criticisms of this diet model.
Plant foods are, for the most part, low-calorie density sources. Therefore, the vegan diet may result in insufficient coverage of energy needs, which is particularly risky in individuals of developing age, in pregnant and lactating women, and in individuals practicing sports, especially at a competitive level.
The vegan diet provides protein of less than excellent biological value. Therefore, if the right combinations are not made between the different plant foods, which are poor in one or more essential amino acids (those that our body cannot produce on its own and must obtain from food), an amino acid deficiency occurs that prevents the regular and sufficient performance of protein synthesis.
In the face of a reduced intake of saturated fatty acids, the vegan diet may include some types of oils, such as palm and coconut, which have high atherogenic power, that is, they can promote the appearance of atherosclerotic lesions that are a risk factor for cardiovascular disease and stroke.
The vegan diet is based on foods that provide simple and complex sugars such as grains, legumes, tubers, fresh and dried fruits, but what characterizes it is the high amount of undigestible carbohydrates.
In pregnant and lactating women, hypovitaminosis can also affect the health of the baby.
At the origin of deficiencies are also problems of malabsorption: with regard to iron, for example, vegetables contain it in the non-heme form, which compared to the heme form, typical of foods of animal origin, is less bioavailable and therefore less assimilable by the body.
Vegan diet and children
Children, reports the Veronesi Foundation, should not go without animal derivatives, at least during the first 6 years of life. A diet without meat or fish can be followed, always under strict medical supervision, but giving up even milk and eggs can seriously jeopardize their health.
In particular, a great many studies have shown that adopting a vegan diet (all the more so if followed without medical supervision) exposes the child to widespread nutrient deficiencies, particularly vitamin B12, calcium, zinc, and noble proteins.
These deficits can result in problems such as the development of a low-density skeletal system or irreversible neurological disorders. Numerous studies also point out that vegan children are thinner and smaller than their omnivorous or vegetarian peers.
If in adults the choice of a vegan diet is sustainable in the face of dietary supplementation, it is more complex to adapt the diet of a child on a vegan diet: it would therefore be advisable, suggests the Veronesi Foundation, to postpone this choice until the beginning of school age.
How? Through vitamin dosing, assessment of nutritional status, monitoring of weight and quality of muscle mass. All examinations aimed at identifying possible deficiencies and intervening in a timely manner with appropriate supplements.
“Some parents,” Dogliotti explains, “are willing to go through this rather complex process. While in all other cases it is better to reason with them and postpone such a choice in order not to put a child’s health at risk.”
Vegan diet in pregnancy and breastfeeding
The same assessment can be extended to pregnant and lactating women.
At these delicate times in a woman’s life, when energy and nutrient needs increase, following a vegan diet may in fact pose risks to the health of the mother and the development of the baby if the diet is not balanced and calibrated to specific and personal needs, supplemented with vitamin B12 and all the nutrients in which the woman may be deficient, and followed under the guidance of a gynecologist or nutrition specialist.
Vegan diet and hyper-healthy extremes
Among other criticisms levelled at the vegan diet, there is also one related to the risk that it may spiral into hyper-healthy drifts in which the intent to exclude certain foods turns into an obsession: that for a healthy, natural diet that may take on pathological connotations bordering on an eating disorder.
That is to say, the fear is that veganism, which is based on the rejection of all foods of animal origin and their derivatives, may result in extremes, such as orthorexia, an eating disorder that consists of the obsessive search for healthy, natural, uncontaminated food.
Of course, we should not think that veganism and orthorexia are synonymous, nor that orthorexia represents a consequence, an automatic and necessary drift, of veganism.
Certainly, both are based on strong dietary restrictions, and this common element is what leads many to assimilate them, or to consider orthorexia a “side effect” of veganism.
However, there are strong differences between the two: veganism is based on a free choice, linked to ethical and health reasons; in the case of orthorexia, on the other hand, the obsessive nature of seeking healthy food at all costs takes the form of an eating disorder.
A real pathology unrelated to cultural practices or ethical reasons (unlike veganism), in which restrictions become more and more stringent and one comes to lose sight of the danger of nutritional deficiencies, to the point of seriously endangering one’s health and isolating oneself from the rest of the world in order to avoid all those situations that could hinder or compromise one’s food choice.
Vegan diet: can it be nutritionally balanced?
These criticisms are countered by studies that point out that a vegetarian diet, whether broadly understood or “total,” i.e., vegan, can be a healthy diet if it is nutritionally well balanced.
The position of the American Dietetic Association
The Scientific Society for Vegetarian Nutrition reports, for example, the position of the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada.
Both proponents of the vegan diet and those who criticize it agree on one point: the importance, for those who want to follow this dietary regimen, to balance very carefully the intake of calories and nutrients and to provide for appropriate supplementation, consulting a doctor or nutritionist especially if they fall into categories for which a nutritional deficit would pose a particularly serious danger (pregnant women, children).
It is important, CREA stresses, not to ignore the potential deficiency risks associated with the vegan diet, to weigh carefully the health benefits and dangers of this dietary regimen, and, should one decide to adopt it, to follow targeted nutritional guidance.
“Assessing the nutritional adequacy of various vegetarian dietary patterns is a very complex task that must take into account the pros and cons of a diet that eliminates one or more food groups and, therefore, specific nutrients that are essential for good nutrition and health. Therefore, even very serious nutritional deficiencies can be established.”
A voice joined by that of the Veronesi Foundation, which clarifies:
“Veganism is a form of nutrition that needs special attention regarding the daily balance of nutrients and appropriate supplementation with vitamin B12 and possibly calcium.”
Plant-based diets: recommendations from the Italian Society of Human Nutrition
The SINU (Italian Society of Human Nutrition) also emphasizes the importance of proper nutrient balance and the need to take precautions, including providing for supplementation. Particular attention, he stresses, must be paid “toward some key nutrients, which may not always be present in adequate amounts in some types of vegetarian diets.”
Key nutrients to be properly balanced
- Protein: since the digestibility of plant protein is lower than that of animal protein, it may be appropriate for vegetarians to consume slightly more protein (by 5-10%) than suggested for the general population.
- Vitamin B12: All people on a vegetarian diet should supplement their diet with a reliable source of vitamin B12 (fortified foods or supplements).
- Calcium: vegetarians, given the exclusion of animal sources of calcium (milk and dairy products) from the diet, should pay special attention to the consumption of plant foods that are good sources of calcium (vegetables, such as Cruciferae, low in oxalates and phytates, substances that hinder the absorption of this mineral; soy foods; fortified plant drinks; calcium-rich waters; and some nuts and oilseeds).
- Iron: Vegetarians should increase iron intake compared with omnivores by eating a varied diet that includes plant foods high in iron.
- Zinc: vegetarians should increase zinc intake over what is recommended for the general population, especially when the dietary phytate/zinc molar ratio is high (again because phytates can reduce absorption of this mineral)
- Omega-3 fatty acids: Vegetarians can improve their nutritional status regarding omega-3 fatty acids by regularly consuming good sources of alpha linolenic acid (e.g., walnuts, flax and chia seeds, oils derived from them) and reducing sources of linoleic acid (e.g., vegetable oils such as corn oil and sunflower oil).
Vegan diet: the nutritionist’s opinion
We asked for an opinion on the vegan diet from Lorenzo Traversetti, nutritionist at Melarossa, who warns against the high risk of deficiencies associated with this dietary regimen.
“Following a vegan diet means preventing our body from receiving certain nutrients that it absolutely needs to ensure proper function of our physiological processes. This is true for an adult but becomes even more so in the case of children or adolescents following it.
The compulsory use of vitamin B12 supplementation is an example of this. It is a key vitamin in regulating the functions of our nervous system: a deficiency of it, in addition to a general sense of asthenia, could lead to poor attention, neuralgia and migraines.”
“Anteposing hypothetical ethical justifications to the fulfillment of our physiological needs, in the long run, is likely to present a fairly steep bill as well.
Unfortunately, this account is not evident in the first period in which this dietary regimen is followed, as the replacement of animal protein with vegetable protein seems to provide the same amount of energy and, at the same time, cause fewer “side” effects (bloating, heaviness, digestive slowdown).
I reiterate, however, that the effect of nutritional deficiencies can often manifest itself in the long term and is likely, in this case, to be difficult to reverse.”
“I fully agree,” nutritionist Traversetti points out, “with the need to limit the abuse of proteins of animal origin to which a very large number of people resort, and I stress that a vegetarian diet, with sporadic additions of lean meat, eggs and low-fat cheese, represents the main nutritional protocol to follow.
But this coincides with the concept of the true Mediterranean diet, in my view the best nutritional approach to apply in pursuit of good overall health.”
“Yes to reduced animal protein consumption, but in line with the Mediterranean diet.”
Vegan diet to lose weight: why Melarossa does not include it
Among the different types of diets for losing weight, Melarossa does not include the vegan diet. Why? Precisely because, as the nutritionist explained, it is a diet that cannot be considered nutritionally complete but, on the contrary, exposes you to a high risk of deficiencies.
Following a vegan diet requires exceptional care and attention to nutrition, necessarily enriched by commercial supplements, which only a physician can provide based on the evaluation of the patient’s complete clinical picture.
For these reasons, the Melarossa diet is available in both omnivore and lacto-ovo-vegetarian versions, which make it possible to ensure a complete and nutritionally balanced diet according to the principles of the Mediterranean diet, which is universally recognized as the best for keeping fit and healthy.
If you would like to learn more about the Melarossa diet and request a customized menu tailored to you, read our article “Melarossa Diet: the guide to signing up.”
Vegan diet: the reasons for this choice
According to Eurispes’ Italy 2020 Report, 2.2% of Italians are vegan, while 6.7% follow a vegetarian diet. Vegetarians and vegans thus reach, together, a percentage of 8.9% of the total number of Italians. Numbers up from 2019 and 2018, when vegans and vegetarians were 7.1 percent and 7.3 percent, respectively.
Among the motivations behind this choice are health and well-being (23.2%), followed very closely by love and respect for the animal world (22.2%). There are also those who decide to follow a plant-based diet thinking thus to eat less and better. For 17.2% of vegetarians/vegans, this eating style is an integral part of a broader philosophy of life. Some (9.1%) have changed their eating habits out of curiosity, others moved by a desire to contribute to environmental protection (5.1%).
It is mostly women who say they have become vegetarian or vegan out of curiosity and a desire to experiment (13% vs. 5.7% of men).
The main motivations of men who chose this dietary regimen included the desire to eat less and healthier (22.6 percent versus 15.2 percent of women) and the fact that this type of diet is part of a broader philosophy of life (20.8 percent versus 13 percent of women).
Health, respect for animals, environmental protection: the top 3 reasons to go vegan
In summary, becoming vegan is a choice:
- Health-based, that is, motivated with the health benefits of a plant-based diet (reduced cholesterol levels, prevention of many diseases, better weight control).
- Ethical: the vegan diet is a cruelty-free diet that is based on respect for animals, the protection of their well-being and lives, and the refusal to cause them suffering, exploit and kill them for human nutritional needs.
Ecological, related to the impact of livestock farming on the environment and climate.
- Alongside those who choose to follow a vegan diet on a permanent basis, there are an increasing number of people who decide to eliminate foods of animal origin for short periods, in a kind of part-time adherence to the principles of the vegan diet.
One example is the Veganuary campaign, which was created in 2014 to raise awareness of the benefits of an all-vegetarian diet by inviting people to follow it for one month, that of January.
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