Unless you’re still yet to surface from New Year’s Eve then I’m sure you’re aware of the January campaign Veganuary. For those of you who might have heard the term but may still be a little unsure, essentially Veganuary is a movement which encourages individuals to commit to go vegan for the month of January. Whilst in theory this may seem pretty harmless it’s important that you’re given a few pointers before going in on a full-blown, plant-based diet.
Before we go any further… I have two disclaimers:
a) You can be healthy on a vegan diet although a vegan diet isn’t necessarily healthier.
b) This article is not here to encourage or discourage you one way or another. It’s simply here to inform you.
There seems to be a common misconception that because something is vegan this automatically means it’s healthy. Chips are vegan, soya nuggets are vegan, sugar is vegan… You see where I’m going with this. The point is vegan doesn’t necessarily = health. As a result, I urge you all to consider the reasons why you’re interested in going vegan. Animal welfare and environmental reasons are two very valid reasons. On the other hand, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend going vegan solely for health reasons. Here’s why:
The vegan diet poses the risk of various nutrient deficiencies – whilst some are more difficult to manage without supplementation, others are highly manageable given the knowledge.
So what nutrients should we be aware of?
Vitamin B12 is predominantly found in meat, fish and animal products. It’s essential for extracting other nutrients from foods through metabolism and energy production. In the past I’ve heard the argument that marmite and nutritional yeast are great sources on a vegan diet. In reality, however, there’s no way you’ll be eating enough of either of these foods to obtain sufficient B12. Therefore, you should be looking to supplement. As with any supplements though you should consult a nutritionist for more personalised advice as supplements can interfere with other medications.
AKA the summer hormone (yes, did you know vitamin D is technically a hormone although we refer to it as a vitamin as it’s a ‘vital amine’ meaning we cannot synthesise it without the sun or sources from the diet), vitamin D plays a key role in mood and bone health. Main sources include salmon, eggs and milk. To be honest, most of us in the UK should be supplementing with this vitamin in the winter months, regardless of whether we’re on a vegan diet.
Iron is essential for transporting oxygen around the body and maintaining energy throughout the day. This is an interesting one as there are a number of plant-based sources of iron. The problem is that plant sources of iron are not absorbed as well as animal sources meaning the body can’t utilise them to the same degree. As a result, it’s recommended to combine a source of plant-based iron (e.g. nuts, green leafy vegetables, seeds, tofu, beans etc.) with a source of vitamin C e.g. lemon juice to help aid the absorption of the iron.
Many of us grow up being told we should drink our milk for the calcium as it’s good for our bones. Calcium is essential for bone health throughout life specifically for children and menopausal/ post-menopausal women as this is when their oestrogen levels drop. Adequate calcium is possible to obtain on a plant-based diet as long as you are aware of the sources and can ensure you’re consuming enough. Green leafy vegetables, almonds (almond butter), tahini and fortified milks are a great way to load up on calcium on a vegan diet.
This is an interesting one. Omega-3 is primarily essential for brain health. There are many plant sources which contain a type of omega 3 called ALA. This form is inactive and must be combined into EPA and DHA (forms found in animal sources) before it can be used. As a result, throughout the conversion process the body loses a large amount of omega-3. Some individuals suggest that you should supplement with omega-3 on a plant-based diet to ensure adequate intakes although, again, I recommend speaking to a nutritionist for more specific advice.
There you have the low down on a vegan diet and the key nutrients you need to be aware of when it comes to making the transition. Please also remember the message at the beginning of this article: make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons and adopting a vegan diet is not a cause for weight loss (as is commonly believed).