Veganism is becoming increasingly popular in the African-American community, and surprisingly, among black men. Earlier this year, Arian Foster joined the likes of rap artist Andre 3000, former NFL running back Ricky Williams and boxer Mike Tyson by changing his diet to a vegan one.
“It’s in the mainstream media,” says Constance Brown-Riggs, registered dietitian and national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetic. “Years ago vegetarian diets were synonymous with tofu and bean sprouts. But, proponents of plant based diets have now made it more ‘sexy’ and socially acceptable.”
Vegans follow similar diets as vegetarians in that they do not eat meat, fish or poultry. However, in addition to this, vegans avoid any animal products or foods derived from animals. This includes eggs, dairy and honey.
Following a strict vegan diet results in a lower intake of cholesterol and saturated fat, thus lowering the risk for heart disease. It also makes it easier to control blood sugar levels, which is important for those with type 2 diabetes or at risk for developing it.
“Almost on a daily basis there is a new study touting the health benefits of a plant-based diet,” Brown-Riggs explains.
Many books and websites discuss those benefits, as well as how African-Americans in particular are positively affected. In fact, some in the African diaspora have become interested in veganism simply because they feel that a vegan diet is a return to the more natural eating habits from long ago.
“[Because they] were inherently healthier,” Brown-Riggs says.
Plus, she adds, eating habits that are referred to as “heritage,” “traditional” or “cultural” often highlight the positive aspects of foods specific to the diaspora and, as a result, attracts African-Americans as well.
But, not all are supportive of such a restricted diet.
As critics voiced concerns about a pro football player becoming vegan, Arian Foster hit back, saying and aiming to prove that athletes don’t need to eat meat to remain in competitive shape. The same can be said for non-professional male athletes. However, they must be particular about getting in vital nutrients, like protein, in order to ensure their physical growth.
“It’s important for [all] men following a vegan diet to make sure they are meeting their nutritional and calorie needs each day,” says Brown-Riggs. “Nutrients of greatest concern include calcium, iron, protein, vitamin B12 and vitamin D.”
The ChooseMyPlate.gov website recommends foods for each of the vital nutrients that vegetarians are at risk of missing out on. For protein intake, as an example, it recommends alternatives such as beans, nuts, peas and soy. Vegans can tailor these lists to their vegan diets. An intense exercise regimen is also strongly recommended, if one does not have access to a gym, home exercise equipment can be bought cheap so that the exercise can be done right from home.
African-Americans tend to have lower vitamin D levels normally as compared to non-blacks. So, for vitamin D, vegans can spend more time in the sun to create vitamin D naturally.
Any diet choice has pros and potential cons, but making balanced choices will provide the nutrition and energy needed to remain healthy.
Dr. Tyeese Gaines is a physician-journalist with over 10 years of print and broadcast experience, now serving as health editor for theGrio.com. Dr. Ty is also a practicing emergency medicine physician in New Jersey. Follow her on twitter at @doctorty or on Facebook.