Mark Weintz has followed a vegan diet for five years. The 37-year-old says that after following pescatarian and vegetarian diets for several years, the vegan diet made sense.
“It was a logical decision to choose a healthier lifestyle,” says Weintz, a grocery associate team leader at Tulsa’s Whole Foods location. “I feel lighter; there’s more pep in my step.”
Weintz is part of a small percentage of people in the U.S. who identify as vegan. In a Gallup poll published this past summer, five percent of Americans identified themselves as vegetarians. In the same poll, just two percent identified as vegan. In another study conducted by The Vegetarian Resource Group, one million Americans say they follow a vegan diet.
“There is…an increasing interest in (veganism),” says Stephanie Harris, a clinical dietitian at Hillcrest Hospital South. “We’re seeing more trends in food markets that are allowing more convenient vegan options, restaurants are including vegan options and it’s becoming more popular.”
There are myriad advantages to a vegan diet. According to Harris, vegans likely have a reduced risk of chronic disease, lower BMI, lesser risk of developing type 2 diabetes and lower risk of death from systemic heart disease, among other advantages.
Those who eat a vegan diet generally consume lots of fruits and vegetables and, therefore, have a high-fiber diet, according to Sonja Stolfa, a registered dietitian and licensed dietitian with Saint Francis Outpatient Department. “Most (vegans) have lower cholesterol (due to) a diet of lower saturated fats,” she says. “(Vegans) probably have a lower risk of high blood pressure, some cancers and a weight closer to the ideal.”
“Vegetarian and vegan diets have a lot of advantages because they have a higher intake of wholesome foods, which have protective characteristics and antioxidants. A vegan diet combines high intake of good nutrients and lowered intake of saturated fats and cholesterol,” says Harris.
The key to following a vegan diet is education, says Stolfa.
“Some people make the change by eating food items like soda and chips. There’s no health basis,” says Stolfa. “Then there are people that are educated and know what they are doing and set out to eat the right food.”
It is important for vegans to pay careful attention to what they eat to ensure they take in enough protein and key nutrients, including iron, zinc, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins D and B-12 and omega 3 fatty acids.
Harris advises first getting the green light from a doctor to pursue a vegan diet. Then, she says, “learn about it first. Learn how to cook as a vegan, try different recipes.
Transition gradually so your body can adapt when omitting food groups. Ease into it.”
“The key to a successful vegan diet is planning and the combination of different food,” says Stolfa. “If you’re going strictly vegan, do research and read up on it to make sure you will get the nutrients you need so you don’t create other health issues.” A doctor or nutritionist can oversee a proper vegan diet. Regular check-ups are very important for vegans.
Vegans also must be more vigilant in reading food labels to look for hidden animal byproducts. Dining out may be difficult she says, though more restaurants are beginning to accommodate vegan patrons.
“All in all, if it’s appropriately planned, a vegan diet will have adequate amounts of nutrients, and it can be a great health benefit and a very nutritionally adequate diet to follow,” says Harris.
“It can be done, but you have to make the right choices,” says Stolfa.
Weintz is proof of that.
“It wasn’t challenging. It was a conscious decision. I set my intention and followed it, so it wasn’t hard,” he says.