Veganuary, a term which has even been recognised by the Oxford dictionary and one which we’ve been seeing everywhere this January (even on the underground). Is it really all it’s cracked up to be? What are the benefits? And equally what risks do vegan diets propose?
Well, I may not be too popular by the end of this post and whilst Veganuary does have its place it’s essential we are aware of the risks it poses too.
Let’s start with the good:
There’s no debate. Eating a more plant based diet is beneficial for the environment and animal welfare. The majority of the meat and poultry in the UK is mass produced, fed hormones and is of poor quality. However, that's not to say it's all like that and we shouldn't demonise animal produce for this reason. You can opt for high quality meat by buying organic grass fed meat where possible (it might be worth reducing your meat consumption and buying more expensive, high quality meat less often).
Eating plants is undeniably healthy:
Consuming a diet rich in a wide range of vegetables increases your nutrient profile, the number of antioxidants in the body and your fibre intake which contributes to a healthy gut. Although this isn't to say that a vegan diet is healthier. A vegan diet may consist of chips and vegan nuggets (which isn't exactly going to equip you with all the nutrients you require). You can be a meat eater and still obtain a high quality nutrient profile.
Veganism is an ethical choice:
Here's the key point. Veganism should be adopted for the right reasons which include: your own ethical beliefs i.e your concern for the environment and for animals. However, it shouldn't be adopted to follow a trend or because anyone else is ramming their vegan opinions at you and making you feel guilty for not following their ethos.
So whilst veganism may have it's benefits lets discuss the risks:
These risks mainly consist of nutrient deficiencies. Some nutrients are much more difficult to obtain from plant based foods.
Vitamin D is a crucial on; whilst the majority of the population are deficient there is a greater risk on a vegan diet as vitamin D2 (available from plant sources) can't be utilised as effectively as D3. Foods such a salmon, eggs and mushrooms do contain some vitamin D although it would be worth supplementing during winter months.
There's an increased risk of calcium deficiency on a vegan diet. The most well-known source of calcium is dairy products and I'm not suggesting that you can't obtain enough calcium (it's just essential you are aware of the replacements). Foods such as nuts, nut butter, nut milk, seeds, green leafy vegetables and fortified products can be adequate replacements on a vegan diet.
Iron poses a high risk of deficiency (particularly in young females and athletes) as plant based iron is not absorbed as well as animal sources. Non-haem iron (found in plant sources) can have an absorption rate as low as 2%. This means that despite a food label stating the iron content is high - it might not all get absorbed and consequently it can't be used. In order to increase the absorption you can combine plant based iron with a source of vitamin C. E.g. add lemon juice to your green vegetables to increase absorption.
The other nutrient which poses risk on a plant-based diet is omega-3. Whilst there are plenty of plant sources (including nuts, chia seeds, acai berries, flax and nut oils) these sources have to be converted from ALA into DHA and EPA before they can be utilised meaning that not as much of the omega-3 can be fully absorbed and utilised (as little as 1% can be absorbed from certain sources).
So whilst I'm not here to change your views or disregard your choices I think it's essential that we are aware of the risks which are associated with veganism. Whilst it is possible to live a healthy vegan life deficiency free it definitely needs more thought than that of an animal containing diet and a change should be carried out under the supervision of a nutritionist.