Are Vegan and Vegetarian Diets Healthy at Every Age?

March 29, 2021  •   LPi

Vegan Dish

Community centers frequently offer meals and snacks for members and visitors. If yours does, you might struggle with what to serve and how to accommodate special diets. You may find that younger guests are interested in plant-based foods, while older visitors request more traditional meals. It can make planning a bit more challenging.

One factor to take into consideration is that America is in the midst of an obesity crisis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated one-third of Americans are clinically obese. The epidemic is linked to a wide range of medical conditions, such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, depression, and diabetes.

While obesity can be the result of too sedentary a lifestyle, diet plays a role, too. Your community center might be able to make a positive contribution to fighting this epidemic by serving more vegan and vegetarian foods. An added benefit is that these types of meals may be more cost-effective than those that include meat.

People following a vegan diet eat only plant-based foods. This is more restrictive than the diet followed by vegetarians, who do not eat meat. A vegan does not eat any animal-sourced foods, such as meat, cheese, eggs, milk, or other forms of dairy.

Safety and Plant-Based Diets

Are vegan and vegetarian diets safe? It’s a question asked by more older adults than younger ones. Most health experts believe adopting a completely plant-based diet is healthy for most people. The exception is growing children — that’s because these diets can come up short in a few key nutrients.

Those who limit food intake to fruits and vegetables may develop deficiencies in protein, iron, calcium, and vitamin B12 over the long run. This is especially true for growing children. If you are considering hosting vegan or vegetarian meals at your community center, it may help to know which foods meet vegan requirements while still being good sources of protein, calcium, iron, and vitamin B12, such as:

  • Calcium: With thoughtful planning, you can still serve plant-based meals that are rich in calcium. Foods with a good amount of calcium include fortified milk alternatives, such as soy milk, almond milk, and cashew milk. Fortified orange juice is another, as is tofu. Calcium is naturally found in few foods, but those that do contain it are broccoli, beans, leafy greens, almonds, sesame seeds, and soybeans.
  • Iron: You can add iron to your menus by incorporating soy nuts, tofu, kale, spinach, and beans into the soups and salads you serve. Peanut butter is also high in iron and easy to add to snacks.
  • Protein: If you want to increase protein in plant-based menus, good choices to include are lentils, beans, quinoa, oatmeal, buckwheat, tofu, whole grains, nuts, and nut butters.
  • Vitamin B12: This one is a little tougher. It’s why vegans and vegetarians often need to take a vitamin B12 supplement. But you can increase B12 by utilizing nutritional yeast and serving fortified foods and beverages like soy or almond milk, orange juice, and cereals.

Benefits of Plant-Based Meals

When your diet is free from fast foods, trans fats, and animal products, and rich with fruits and vegetables, you consume more fiber, vitamins, and minerals. It’s a combination that promotes a healthier heart. Vegans tend to reap more health benefits than vegetarians.

According to research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vegans are less likely to be obese and more likely to have healthier cholesterol levels and lower blood pressure. Because vegans don’t eat meat products and tend to consume more fiber, it’s believed they are at lower risk for many kinds of cancer, including colorectal and prostate cancer. (This article on lifestyle and cancer might also be of interest.)

ForksOverKnives and EatingWell both have recipes and meal plans you might find useful as you explore the idea of adding more vegan and vegetarian options to your community center menus.

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