Vegan diet: Why it should be taken with caution

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A vegetarian diet should be taken with proper guidance to avoid nutrient deficiencies. / Internet photo

With the increasing levels of obesity, the craze about living on a vegetarian diet is also on the rise. Vegetarian diets are popular and the reasons for following a vegetarian diet are varied but include health benefits, such as reducing your risk of heart disease, diabetes and some cancers, religious convictions and concerns about animal welfare.

We have been made to believe that eating meat is unhealthy while eating plants definitely has its benefits.

However, eating a “plants only” diet has its drawbacks according to nutritionists, even though it is a highly recommended diet for weight loss and healthy living.

When the vegan diet is unhealthy

Eric Musengimana, a nutrition and diabetic specialist at Diet Therapy Company in Remera, Kigali, describes a vegetarian diet as plant based foods that excludes any animal based food.

He explains the different types of vegetarian diets as lacto-vegetarian, ovo-vegetarian, lacto-ovo vegetarian, and pollotarian vegetarian, which all exclude meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy products, and foods that contain these products.

Some people however follow a semi-vegetarian diet,also called a flexitarian diet , which is primarily a plant-based diet but includes meat, dairy, eggs, poultry and fish on occasion or in small quantities.

Joseph Uwiragiye, the head of nutrition department at University Teaching Hospital, Kigali (CHUK), says that due to the trending vegetarian diet, self-imposed diets can be harmful as there is no one right way to eat for everyone. We are all different and what works for one person may not work for the next.

“Because B12 is critical for life and isn’t found in any amount in plants, except some types of algae, it is by far the most important nutrient that vegans must be concerned with,” he adds.

Musengimana also explains that since humans are omnivores,we function best by eating both animals and plants.

“There are some nutrients that can only be gotten from plants such as Vitamin C and others that can only be gotten from animals,” he says.

“Plant-based sources tend to be low in saturated fat, a component of the brain and a macronutrient vital for human health. But B12 is just one of them; there are other lesser known nutrients that are only found in animal foods and are critical for optimal function of the body,” Uwiragiye says.

For Rwandans, there is not a variety of plant-based foods, the reason Musengimana recommends that they complement it with certain meat products.

“Some districts have two or three varieties only, while others do not have sufficient fruits and vegetables. This is why completely avoiding animal based foods may cause many nutritional malfunctions. There are a few nutrients that may fall short in even the healthiest vegan diet,” he says.

He reveals that some vegetarians rely too heavily on processed foods, which can be high in calories, sugar, fat and sodium, and may not eat enough fruits, vegetables, whole grains and calcium-rich foods, thus missing out on the nutrients they provide.

The risks associated with totally going vegetarian, he says, are the lack of calcium in the body, also known as Osteoporosis, and lack of vitamin D.

According to Musengimana, longstanding B12 deficiency can lead to high levels of a substance called homocysteine in the body, which is associated with cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease and other chronic conditions.

How to go about the diet

Musengimana explains that the effectiveness of vegetarian diet depends on the planning of every day foods to consume, if you planned well according to all food groups, here the effectiveness will be good to our body.

“Choosing to become a vegan in an environment without sufficient foods may impose many risks to our lives because of the lack of some nutrients from animal based foods that these plants may not have,” he says.

Rene Tabaro, a nutritionist and dietician at King Faisal Hospital, Kigali, says before you form your own nutrition philosophy, it is always best to first disassociate the negative perception about these foods, unless recommended by your physician.

“The notion of depriving yourself of certain foods stresses you out and making certain foods off-limits can really backfire,” he says.

Tabaro further advises individuals looking up to living a healthy lifestyle to link eating nourishing foods to increased performance in the gym or on the sports field.

“It’s always good to adjust your diet in small bits. Introducing or eliminating too many things at once will simply muddle what’s working and what’s not.What’s considered low carb for one person can mean something different for another,” he advises.

Eating for your body type

Musengimana also explains that the physical response to how your body handles certain food groups really matters to different individuals.

“Depending on your body type, your diet setup will differ quite a bit from someone else,” he says.

He reveals that in general, ectomorphs,someone who is naturally quite thin, have a metabolism that runs along at a rapid pace, and tend to do better on high carbohydrates, moderate protein and fat.

Mesomorphs, muscular individuals, on the other hand, can build muscle and maintain low fat levels because their body likes a balance of carbs, fat, and protein, while Endomorphs,those with difficult attempt at fat loss, have a slower metabolism and tend to hang on to both muscle mass and fat.

He says that with a little planning a vegetarian diet can meet the needs of people of all ages, including children, teenagers, and pregnant or breast-feeding women. The key is to be aware of your nutritional needs, with the help of a nutritionist, so that you plan a diet that meets them.

“Knowing your body type can help fine-tune your macronutrient intake to your body type,” he says.

Tabaro notes that there are many health benefits from becoming a vegetarian without going all the way but nevertheless cautions meat lovers to incorporate their diets with some plants to avoid the high risks that come with consuming too much meat.

“Even if you don’t want to become a complete vegetarian, you can steer your diet in that direction with a few simple substitutions, such as plant-based sources of protein,” he says.