Considering Going Vegan? Here's What Registered Dietitians Want You To Know

Deciding to go vegan is a personal choice — and one that the millions of people in the United States who are vegan aren't making for the same reasons. Some believe that it's better for the environment not to eat meat. Others want to take a personal step toward preventing animal suffering. Another sliver of the vegan population simply does it as a way to eat healthier.

Perhaps you, or someone you know on Facebook, has seen the new documentary, What The Health? The film is encouraging veganism in viewers (there's even a meal planner to help you on your "plant-based journey"), based on a bundle of alarmist assertions and assumptions about the food industry. "Absolutely everyone is talking about [the movie], and I have clients and people calling me saying, 'I want to be vegan!'" says Mascha Davis, MPH, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Los Angeles and spokesperson for the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Veganism isn't new, but this movie is attracting a new crowd to the idea.

However, eating vegan isn't a silver bullet that's going to solve all of your health issues or make you instantly healthier, Davis says. "People love to have a quick solution and easy answer, and that's not the case with nutrition," Davis says. "That's why these myths, trends, and fads become so popular." Not to mention, a food product or diet being vegan doesn't mean that it's inherently healthy, says Jen Bruning, MS, RDN, LDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Chicago and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

"When you come down to it, it just depends on what your diet is made up of," Bruning says. For example, you could eat nothing but fries all day every day, and it would be considered vegan, but not necessarily healthy. "The idea that [veganism] an automatic improvement in health or nutrition is probably one of the biggest myths," she says.

That said, it is possible to be vegan and eat a healthful, well-rounded diet, you just have to be smart about it and weigh the potential health ramifications with what you perceive to be the benefits, Davis says. "The issue is not that the vegan diet isn’t healthy, it’s that it’s a pretty extreme diet." If you drank the vegan Kool-Aid already, or are contemplating taking your first sip, here are a few more issues that you should consider.

Take Baby Steps

You wouldn't decide to run a marathon the day you started running, and the same holds true for going vegan. Instead of just dropping all the meat and cheese you were eating, consider taking small steps toward a more plant-based diet instead, Bruning says. "Any sort of lifestyle change that takes place overnight and makes a big sweeping change is typically not something that a person is going to stick with in the long term," she says.

Start by simply eating less meat, more vegetables, meat substitutes, and plant-based dairy alternatives, she says. Then, if you can comfortably make that adjustment, you can make a responsible, informed decision about whether or not the vegan diet is right for you. "Decreasing how much meat you’re eating and some of the animal products, instead of cutting them out completely, is a lot more balanced and a lot more realistic for people," Davis adds.
Eggs Are Not The Devil

If you're a vegetarian who eats eggs or an omnivore who loves yolk porn, perhaps the most disturbing claim in What The Health is that, "eating one egg per day is just as bad as smoking five cigarettes per day for life expectancy." If that gives you pause, that's because it's a wildly untrue and outdated belief, according to Davis.

The old logic used to be that eggs were unhealthy because they're high in cholesterol, but the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee has since updated its recommendation on eggs, Davis says. "This is the confusing thing about nutrition, and this is why there are so many different diets and fads: It's constantly evolving, so we have new research coming out all the time," she says. "And when you have new information, you change your mind and the recommendation."

Plus, it's never a good idea to take one specific food and draw an absolute conclusion about it, Bruning says. "Nutrition looks at your whole diet, and lifestyle factors, so to say that one egg is the same as five cigarettes would not be consistent with research."
It's A Very Restrictive Diet

While eating a more plant-based diet can, in a broad sense, be beneficial to people's health it needs to be taken on a case by case individual basis, Bruning says. For example, if you're someone who has a lot of food allergies, restricting your diet even more might not be the right thing for you to do, she says. "Even getting into a mental space where food is being restricted can be a negative thing for a lot of folks," she says.

If you're someone who has struggled with eating disorders in the past, it can be a triggering experience to associate yourself with a restrictive style of eating again, she says. "Living in this diet culture, where people have so many questions about 'good nutrition,' we need to keep in mind the mental health aspect of how people relate to food."
Eating Vegetables Is Always A Good Idea

The vegan diet obviously emphasizes eating more fruits and vegetables, which is great, Davis says. "It's absolutely true that switching to a more plant-based diet can come with health benefits," Bruning says. But the benefits come from eating more fruits, vegetables, legumes, and seeds, which have higher levels of essential nutrients like fiber, fat, protein, and Omega-3 fatty acids, she says.

On the other hand, cutting out dairy and meat might not be blanket "good for you," Bruning says. There are a few "nutrients of concern," such as vitamin B-12 and calcium, that can easily become deficient in any scenario, but particularly with vegan diets, she says. "We want to make sure that folks are [getting adequate nutrition] when it comes to vitamin B-12 because that nutrient is not available in plant foods naturally," she says. "It takes quite a great deal of leafy greens to meet our calcium needs, and we'd have to look at some fortified alternatives." It's possible to be a "healthy vegan," it just requires knowledge and planning to do so, Davis says.
Be Open & Skeptical

Just because a study, a documentary, an article, or a friend on Facebook, says that being vegan is the healthiest option out there, doesn't necessarily mean that it is for you. The documentary, What The Health, tends to oversimplify and pervert some studies to push veganism, which makes it hard for regular people and experts to make an informed decision. "The biggest issue that I think most dietitians and physicians, people who have a background in the sciences, have is that it's really skewed what the research actually says," Davis says. "It creates confusion, and I would even call it fear-mongering."

If you've decided you want to give the vegan thing a try, consider meeting with a registered dietitian if possible, Bruning suggests. "That person is going to be able to help you look at what you eat now, and what you can change into this plant based alternative, that it keeps your nutrition adequate." And while the film might have shaken you, that's okay, "but they might not have the whole picture," Bruning says.
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