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Going Vegan: A Healthy Choice?

You may like the idea of a Meatless Monday or a No-Face Friday, taking one day out of every week to skip meat and eat only plant foods, no food from anything that ever had eyes, ears or a nose. But could you give up bacon and eggs, grilled chicken, teriyaki beef and ice cream for the rest of your life? Should you?

The American Dietetic Association (ADA) says that a vegan diet is healthful, and may even provide benefits in the prevention and treatment of some diseases, as long as it is well designed to include all the nutrients you need, in the amounts you need. A healthful vegetarian diet is low in saturated fat and cholesterol and includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, soy foods, fiber and other substances found only in plant foods. Overall, vegetarians have lower blood pressure and lower blood levels of LDL or "bad" cholesterol. Your risk of developing chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension, ischemic heart disease and cancer may be lower if you follow a well-planned vegan diet.

A vegan diet could be short on nutrients normally found in much higher amounts or only in animal products, such as protein, omega-3 fatty acids, iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin D, iodine and vitamin B-12. But it doesn't have to. As long as you eat a wide variety of foods over the course of each day, you will most likely get all the amino acids you need to provide your body with building blocks for making protein. Although fish oils are thought to be a better source, crushed flaxseeds and flaxseed oil also give your body the materials it needs to make omega-3 fatty acids

With so many fortified foods on the market, however, there is little risk of a vitamin or mineral deficiency on a vegan diet. Breakfast cereals, bread spreads, fruit juices, pasta and soy products have added B vitamins, vitamin D, calcium, iron, zinc and other essential minerals. If you eat a lot of commercial food products that are enriched or fortified with vitamins and minerals, along with a wide variety of whole foods that are naturally rich in essential nutrients, you may never need to take a supplement.

A plant-based diet is also healthy for the planet. Large-scale industrial farms that raise most livestock today emit toxins into the air, directly from animal waste products and from the processing of meat for human consumption. Because growing and processing plant foods has minimal effect on air quality, a vegan diet is considered the most energy efficient type of diet humans can consume and, of all types of diets, contributes the least to the "greenhouse effect," according to researchers at the University of Chicago.