Vegan vs flexitarian: which diet suits your disposition?

With people attempting Veganuary this month, we explore if veganism truly is the way forward from a health standpoint

Steak as a tomato. Great idea for restaurant or salad steak bar promotion. Getty Images

Those signing up for Veganuary this month will join a growing population of 78 million, at a point at which it seems increasingly easier to adopt a vegan lifestyle. “Five years ago, the main obstacle was eating out at restaurants in Dubai, but now it’s so easy,” says photographer Chandan Sojitra, founder of the Vegans in Dubai group and a dedicated follower of veganism since 2015.

The number of vegan options popping up across menus and meal plans in the UAE would indicate Sojitra is right. Impossible Burger launched to much fanfare this time a year ago and many restaurants across most cuisines have created elaborate dishes, from hole-in-the-mall burger joints to high-end restaurants, notably Ronda Locatelli, which claims to have Dubai’s largest vegan menu.

A list of purported health benefits associated with veganism lower levels and incidence of blood pressure, cholesterol, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer – is proudly displayed on the homepage of The Vegan Society’s website. As healthy it might prove for some, however, veganism is not for everyone.

Is vegan food more healthy?

We ask three experts in nutrition, diet and holistic health to advise on the pros and pitfalls of veganism. “Contrary to popular belief, adopting a vegan lifestyle does not necessarily equate to being healthy,” says weight loss and emotional eating expert Deborah Vitorino. “You can eat chips and drink soda all day and call yourself vegan. Or, you can munch on nuts and veggies and be OK for a while, yet your body will most probably start sending you messages that things are not going so well on the inside, because you’re not nourishing yourself properly.” Vitorino believes that any diet you embark on should be bespoke to you and only you.

“I have clients who have gone down the vegan route after being exposed to Instagram and the views of people who are unqualified,” says dietitian Kirsten Jackson, who specialises in coeliac disease and irritable bowel syndrome. While many convert to a vegan diet for ethical reasons, she worries that others joining for the health benefits touted on social media are not informed enough before going cold turkey for Veganuary.

Veganism and gut health

“Typical for this time of year, we have a lot of clients wanting to [convert to] veganism, but their gut just isn’t used to the amount of fibre,” says Jackson. Transitioning to a plant-based diet overnight may result in gut health problems. “You should have 30 grams of fibre a day, but if you are used to having 5 or 10g of fibre, and switch to 30 the next day, you’re going to struggle. It’s like going to the gym and picking up weights for the first time – you feel awkward, your muscles are in pain and it’s difficult to do,” says Jackson, who agrees with Vitorino’s diagnosis on a more tailored diet.

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Yes, we can get protein from beans and pulses and quinoa, but most of these don't contain the full range of amino acids

Veganism becomes even more complicated if you have pre-existing issues. Replacing meat and dairy with the protein found in beans and pulses seems straightforward enough, but it’s not advisable for those suffering from IBS. “If you’ve got a very sensitive gut and you’re having a lot more fibre and beans and pulses, your symptoms are going to be far worse,” says Jackson.

Coeliacs could feel the negative effects of ditching dairy, as they have a greater need for calcium each day, while anemics will have an increased need for iron, which is readily and easily absorbable from animal products. The devout vegan response to these issues is inevitably to highlight and list the vegetables, grains and legumes that provide these nutrients, but the ways in which our bodies absorb and receive them, and the quantities in which they are received are pivotal to hitting daily nutritional targets.

“Yes, we can get protein from beans and pulses and quinoa,” says Jackson, “but most of these don’t contain a full range of amino acids, which are the building blocks the body needs for protein.” A meal comprising just chickpeas, for example, is not sufficient.

She also advises those with a history of eating disorders to steer clear of Veganuary, saying they are as high risk for anaemia or missed periods in women, noting that the restrictive eating veganism demands could exacerbate pre-existing eating conditions. The takeaway from all of this is that anyone considering a vegan diet should consult a nutritionist or medical professional. Or, better still, go bespoke.

Flexitarian is the way forward

2021 is set to be the year of the flexitarian diet. While it traditionally means a semi-vegetarian diet, the term is increasingly being used to indicate meals that are tailored to the individual. While veganism – or the keto, Atkins and detox diets, for that matter – may not work for some, a bespoke diet designed in collaboration with a nutritionist is for all.

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Emotions, lifestyle, relationships, thinking process: everything is interconnected to the diet you follow

"One needs to be flexible with their diet," says holistic nutritionist Susan Terzian. "Veganism might work for you for a particular amount of time and then after that, if you're not thriving or energetic if you're juicing kale and wheatgrass and all these fabulous things, but you look tired and don't have energy how is that diet working for you?"

Thanks to an ever expanding armoury of wearable health-tracking gadgets, smartphone applications and DNA testing, it’s easier now to understand our bodies and how they work. A one-size-fits-all approach to food has always been contentious, and could soon disappear altogether. Companies such as GenoPalate are creating bespoke dietary plans based on DNA sequencing, putting more emphasis on consumers as individuals and acting as data-driven, AI nutritionists.

Beyond the slightly sci-fi-sounding DNA-specific diet, flesh and blood nutritionists consider a healthy diet to be about more than just the food that goes into our mouths. “With my clients, I never just talk about food. I talk about their emotions, their lifestyle, their relationships, their thinking process everything is interconnected. I want to get to the root cause of any issue and so I’m the opposite of a pill for every ill approach,” Terzian says.

All hail Regenuary

As well as Veganuary, the hashtag Regenuary has been trending this month. Launched by The Ethical Butcher in a bid to challenge the oft-overlooked issues with veganism, this campaign aims to spread awareness of the importance of eating organic, local and seasonal, as opposed to imported avocados from Mexico or Brazilian soy (a vegan staple) that contribute to carbon dioxide emissions and to deforestation, for example.

Of course, intensively farmed meat and dairy are not the answer, but cattle free of deworming tablets, antibiotics and other medicines and that roam and graze on pasture have proven to diversify soil quality and biodiversity, leaving the land much more fertile than that of top soil that is intensely cropped and ploughed.

Even in the case of sustainability, then, a bespoke diet, tailored not just to our bodies but also to our surroundings and what is available locally, can only be a good thing.