Choosing a diverse diet |12 January 2024
In recent times there has been a surge in the number of people following specific diets. Here, we are not talking about fad diets that you follow for a few weeks and then go back to what you were doing before. We are talking about something a bit more long-term, a way of life if you will. While healthy eating is about dietary diversity and inclusion of both animal and plant sources, there are those who choose to eat only plant foods – vegans; and those who want only animal products – carnivores.
Veganism has gained popularity over the past decade, with many celebrities and health experts rooting for it. Those advocating for veganism typically encourage others to follow suit because of the impact of livestock production on the environment, for its health benefits and because of animal welfare. Of course in a real sense being a vegan means that you are an herbivore – animals that eat only plants and excludes all animal products.
On the other hand, there are others telling us that we are carnivores and we need to consume only animal products. This group tells us to stay away from all plant products because they are toxic and that we are not biologically built to eat plants. They also emphasise on the nutritional benefits of eating only meat and other animal products.
While you may be influenced to become a vegan or carnivore, based on the number of adverts and testimonies you’ve come across on the internet, it is important to get the right information before deciding that this is what you want for yourself. Keep in mind that the first humans were omnivores since they ate both animals and plants.
The vegan diet
A vegan diet includes only plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, lentils, beans and grains. It excludes all animal foods including meat, fish, eggs, milk products and honey. Some people choose to become vegans because of the nutritional benefits of eating plant-based foods. This includes getting an abundance of vitamins, minerals, dietary fibre and phytochemicals with many benefits to the body and lowering the risk of certain conditions like heart disease.
Others may choose veganism for environmental welfare as livestock production has been found to produce greenhouse gases, one of the contributors to global warming and climate change. For others, the choice to become vegan is linked to animal welfare as they do not want to harm animals and are concerned about modern-day farming techniques which are often unethical.
Although all vegans eat only plants foods there are many versions of the vegan diet based on the types of food eaten. Some people focus on whole, natural and minimally processed plant foods which are as close to their natural state as possible.
Some may follow a low-carb or keto vegan diet whereby plant foods that are high in carbohydrates like fruits, potatoes, grains and legumes are limited or excluded while nuts, seeds, avocado and oils are consumed abundantly, making this form of veganism quite restrictive.
Despite the health benefits of plants in its natural state, highly processed plant foods typically have a lot of sugar, salt and additives added to them. This includes imitation cheeses, meat, milk, chips and desserts. These highly processed vegan foods should therefore be avoided.
The carnivore diet
The carnivore diet includes only animal products such as meat, fish, seafood, organ meats, eggs and certain milk products like cheese. Heavy cream, butter, lard and bone broth are also allowed. It excludes all plant-based foods so you cannot consume any fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes and grains. Tea, coffee and other drinks made from plants are also excluded. Some animal products like milk, yoghurt and honey cannot be consumed while on the carnivore diet since they contain sugar. One benefit is that all highly processed sugary foods like sweets, cakes, cookies, biscuits and soft drinks are excluded. The aim is to have zero intake of carbohydrates.
Health implications of vegan and carnivore diet
Because vegans consume only plants, there is a risk of nutritional deficiencies for certain nutrients when it is not planned properly. Although anyone can be at risk of deficiency on a vegan diet certain population groups are more vulnerable like young children, as well as pregnant and lactating women due to higher nutritional needs during these life stages.
In general, some nutrients to keep a close eye on as a vegan include protein, vitamin B12 and D, calcium, zinc, iron, iodine and omega-3-fatty acids. This can usually be addressed by including a variety of whole plant foods and reducing intake of highly processed foods. Additionally, you can include fortified food products like fortified soya milk or fortified cereals. If you are having difficulty meeting your needs from diet alone then you should also consider supplementation.
Despite meat and fish being abundant in nutrients, the highly restrictive nature of the carnivore diet means that there are certain key compounds from plants that are excluded such as dietary fibre and phytochemicals with many having antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. High intake of fatty meats increases your intake of saturated fats. Moreover, processed meats aside from being high in saturated fats, may also be high in trans fats and salt which increases the risk of certain forms of cancer like bowel cancer as well as heart disease.
A diversified diet
If we think about the food restrictions and health implications, then one can argue that neither veganism nor the carnivore diet should be promoted as something long-term. This is simply because highly restrictive diets that eliminate whole food groups are hard to sustain.
As mentioned previously, humans are omnivores – animals that consume both plant and animal products. Therefore, we should consume a healthy and diversified diet to ensure that we provide our body with all the nutrients it needs for optimum health and wellbeing. This includes the intake of fish, meat, eggs, milk products, wholegrains, local starches like breadfruit, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans and lentils in the right amount as illustrated in the Seychelles food guide.
The bottom line
Both the vegan and carnivore diet are at two extreme ends – one eliminates all animal products while the other eliminates all plant products. What we should be aiming for is the inclusion of a variety of whole, natural and minimally processed foods of both plant and animal origin.
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Yours in health
The Nutrition Team