We look at the health benefits and risks associated with a vegan diet, which has become more a health choice than a lifestyle one.
Change your life: vegan diets
In 2008, Leena Al Abbas, a Dubai-based vegan, created the "Vegans in Dubai" Facebook page to gather like-minded people interested in adopting a vegan lifestyle.
"I wouldn't say it's a diet, but more of a lifestyle choice. I am a very eco-friendly person, so it makes sense to follow a vegan lifestyle," she says.
Al Abbas is the founder of the Zen Beauty Lounge, Dubai's first eco-friendly salon. For her, veganism is a part of life; a choice that is both healthy and in tune with her principles.
With reports that the former US president Bll Clinton has managed to slow the progression of heart disease and keep his cholesterol down, not to mention lose weight, plant-based diets are in the spotlight.
While vegetarian diets that avoid meat, fish and poultry are perhaps the most popular plant-based diet, vegan diets are quickly gaining mainstream status. Vegan diets are often considered the most restrictive form of vegetarianism and avoid any sort of animal product, or by-product, including eggs, dairy products and honey.
It turns out that Clinton isn't the only public figure who follows a vegan diet. Other celebrities include Ellen DeGeneres, Heather Mills and Woody Harrelson. Earlier this year, Oprah Winfrey brought vegan diets to the attention of her viewers when she and more than 350 staff members at her Chicago-based studio took part in a challenge to go vegan for seven days. Their trials, tribulations and successes were later broadcast on her popular daytime talk show.
According to The Vegetarian Resource Group, a nonprofit organisation based in Seattle, eight per cent of adults in the US claim to never eat meat. They estimate that approximately three per cent of the US adult population is vegetarian, and one per cent is vegan.
Nils El Accad, the founder of Organic Foods and Café, a family-run organic supermarket with locations in Dubai and Masdar City, says he has noticed an increased interest and awareness about plant-based diets in the UAE. He says even among non-vegetarians, there seems to be a growing trend to reduce meat consumption to once or twice per week. "While in the past it was more a religious issue and animal-cruelty issue, today I notice more that health and environmental issues drive the growth."
Unlike most fad diets that have little credibility when it comes to hard science, there's a mounting body of evidence to support the health benefits of a vegan diet.
According to Dietitians of Canada, a well-planned vegan eating pattern has many potential health benefits, including a decreased risk of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer, as well as lower blood cholesterol levels and a lower risk for gallstones and intestinal problems.
A paper published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2009 summarised the research on the health benefits of vegan diets and found that they are generally high in protective nutrients, such as antioxidants and low in dietary factors associated with several chronic diseases, such as saturated fat. The paper also noted that vegans tend to consume substantially more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts than meat-eaters, further explaining the diet's protective effect against heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer.
In 2009, the American Dietetic Association released an updated position paper on vegetarian diets, saying that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including vegan diets, are both healthy and nutritionally adequate for individuals during all stages of life, including childhood, adolescence and pregnancy.
However, just because a vegan diet excludes animal products does not mean it is a guarantee for good health. After all, there are plenty of foods that may not contain animal products, but are far from a wholesome choice. For this reason, both the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada emphasise careful planning when it comes to following a healthy vegan diet.
It's a point that Mariam Saleh, a dietitian and the manager of the nutrition department at American Hospital Dubai, is quick to make. She says: "The vegan diet where all food from animal origins is excluded is the only vegetarian diet that carries a real risk of obtaining inadequate nutrition, but this risk can be avoided by careful planning. The key to having an adequate vegan diet for all age groups is to be well planned to meet the nutritional needs of growth and maintenance."
Saleh warns that long-term vegans may be at risk for certain health conditions if their diet is not adequate. For example, she says long-term vegans are at an increased risk of developing megaloblastic anaemia, a condition where the body does not have enough healthy red blood cells to transport oxygen to cells and tissues, caused by a vitamin B12 deficiency. "Vitamin B12 is only found in food of animal origin. Vegans should have a reliable source of vitamin B12, such as enriched breakfast cereals or soy beverages, or take a supplement," she says.
Dietitians of Canada provides eating guidelines for vegans on its website and warns that vegans are at risk of falling short on their intake of a variety of nutrients, including protein, iron, vitamins B12 and D, calcium, zinc and omega-3 fatty acids. To avoid such deficiencies, the organisation suggests vegans include a variety of healthy, nutrient-dense, plant-based foods in their diet such as beans, lentils, nutritional yeast, fortified meat alternatives such as textured vegetable protein, nuts and seeds and their butters, as well as tofu, walnuts and flaxseeds.
Al Abbas adds: "It is actually easy being vegan in the UAE." She says that a lot of traditional Arabic dishes are in fact vegan, including hummus, muttabel, tabbouleh, fattoush, falafel, vine leaves and lentils. She also says that "even if there are no vegan options in some restaurant menus, the chefs are always willing to accommodate vegan dishes".
"I think it's all to do with experimenting different cuisines and trying out different combinations of foods".
As for purchasing vegan products in the UAE, Al Abbas says: "There's definitely more choices available nowadays."
A scan of the shelves at local grocery stores reveals plenty of healthy vegan products to choose from. Aside from the obvious plant-based whole foods, such as beans, lentils, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, there are also various kinds of vegan options for foods that would normally contain animal products, such as soy milk, yogurt and pudding, and soy-based meat alternatives.
According to Dietitians of Canada, a well-planned vegan diet can lower the risk of many chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers. The following nutrients, and their food sources, are essential to a healthy vegan diet.
• Calcium – fortified soy beverages and soy yogurts, almonds, almond butter, sesame seeds, tahini, spinach, bok choy, calcium-fortified orange juice.
• Iron – kidney beans, chickpeas, lentils, almonds, sesame seeds, prunes, raisins, bok choy, okra.
• Omega-3 fatty acids – ground flaxseed, soybeans, tofu, walnuts, canola oil, walnut oil.
• Protein – tofu, tempeh, soy-based meat alternatives, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds.
• Vitamin B12 – fortified soy beverages, soy-based meat alternatives, fortified cereals.
• Vitamin D – fortified soy beverages and soft margarines.
Michelle Gelok is a member of Dietitians of Canada and holds a BSc in Food and Nutrition. She lives in Abu Dhabi.