Going vegan: healthful or harmful?

When it comes to choosing a vegan lifestyle, the question that seems to be on many individuals' minds is whether or not a plant-based diet is wholesome enough to satisfy the nutritional needs of the human body. Veganism, unlike vegetarianism, excludes the consumption of eggs, dairy, butter, and honey. Choosing this lifestyle may have health benefits, but if not planned properly, it may have adverse effects on the human body

“I actually don’t think it’s healthy to be vegan,” says Susan Dopart, a registered dietitian and author of “A Recipe for Life.” “They are at risk of vitamin and calcium deficiency, osteoporosis and protein malnourishment.”

According to Dopart, being a vegan requires careful planning because certain essential vitamins and minerals normally obtained from meat have to be consumed in an alternate manner. Failure to do so can result in malnourishment and loss of energy.

However, Santa Monica College professor of psychology David Phillips believes veganism is in fact beneficial, and able to provide all nutritional needs.

“It’s easy and tasty,” says Phillips. “You don’t need to worry about getting all the protein and nutrients you need if you simply eat a lot of different colored plant foods.”

Phillips chose to become a vegan about 30 years ago for several reasons, and now feels as though he could not be healthier or happier.

“I do not want to be part of the cruel system of raising and slaughtering animals,” Phillips says. “And [being vegan] is healthier for me.”

Phillips gets his nutrients from eating daily portions of protein-rich lentils, and nutrient-dense greens, fruits and veggies. A typical meal for him consists of oatmeal with soy milk, blueberries, a banana, and an apple for breakfast. For lunch, he sometimes eats brown rice and lentils mixed in a salad, and for dinner he eats rice, beans and corn cooked with salsa.

According to the Vegan Society’s website, a well-balanced, whole-food vegan diet can improve a person’s quality of life, and decrease their chances of acquiring many diseases, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and some cancers. Plant-based diets are also inherently low in cholesterol, and more likely to be low in saturated fat and calories. They are also high in fiber, complex carbohydrates and cancer-fighting antioxidants.

“You can have a very healthy well-balanced diet as a vegan, however, if not planned properly, you can also be at risk for many nutrient deficiencies,” says Yvonne Ortega, a registered dietitian and SMC nutrition professor. “Strictly avoiding meat, fish, poultry, and foods from animals can be unhealthy if these foods and their nutrients are not replaced with nutrient-dense alternatives.”

Alicia Silverstone, who is best known for her role in “Clueless,” appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 2010, and shared her stories about following a vegan diet. Her experiences as a vegan for over 10 years inspired her to create the vegan cookbook “The Kind Diet.”

Silverstone told viewers she sleeps like a baby, and doesn’t worry about her weight. She also reported having an increase in energy, better complexion and even stronger nails.

Today, most supermarkets provide an extensive selection of meatless products, and there are several restaurants in Santa Monica that offer vegan meals. The Golden Mean Cafe, located on Wilshire and 11th Street, and The Veggie Grill, on 2025 Wilshire Blvd., are all-vegan restaurants that provide hearty meals, and pastries to satisfy sweet cravings.

“I believe a vegetarian diet can be healthy to follow,” says Ortega. “With all our specialty stores and restaurants that create vegan products, it makes planning a vegan diet much easier than 20 years ago.”