This month sees the return of Veganuary and its popularity is growing. Over 580,000 people chose to take up the challenge in 2021 and this number is set to increase this year.
The results from the Veganuary survey showed that more than half of those involved took part for ethical reasons, either to protect the environment or to spare animals from suffering, whilst nearly a quarter signed up with health as their main motivation (Veganuary, 2022).
For some, it is unacceptable to eat animal products based on their ethical beliefs, and this is of course an individual choice. There is no doubt that we all could consider how we can make our diets more sustainable with up to 30% of total greenhouse gas emissions coming from agriculture and food production and our food system being responsible for habitat loss, water usage, waste and soil degradation (BDA, 2022). By considering the food we eat, we can make an impact on the environment and climate change, although simply reducing the animal products we eat will make an impact on this without the need to fully remove them.
However, putting the ethics of veganism aside, considering that around 22% turn to Veganuary for health reasons, I pose the question, does being vegan always mean being healthy?
The average western diet tends to be lower in fibre, higher in salt, saturated fat, sugar and energy than the current recommendations for health (NDNS, 2020), so it would therefore seem logical that a vegan diet filled with plant based foods such as fruits and vegetables is going to offer some health benefits.
A well planned vegan diet has been shown to offer health benefits, including reduced risk of cardiovascular disease (Benatar & Stewart, 2018) and diabetes, but not necessarily more so than a well planned omnivore diet. A lot of the research in this area is based on vegetarian diets and there has been other difficulties, such as being able to compare like for like, for example, comparing a well planned vegan diet Vs a typical western diet, rather than that of say a more plant based Mediterranean style diet, which has also been shown to support improvements in risk of these diseases (Rosato et al., 2019, Schwingshackl et al., 2015).
Vegan foods often have the health halo effect attached to them. This describes when there is a perception that a particular food is good for you even when there is little or no evidence to confirm this is true. Have you ever noticed if a food says vegan or plant based on the label, you automatically assume it’s a healthy product?
The average western diet may not always be the most healthful dietary pattern as described above, but a poorly planned vegan diet can mirror this if you are following a vegan ‘junk food diet’ where you eat a high proportion of highly processed foods, these will not offer you a healthy alternative, so still need to be eaten in moderation if health is your goal. Vegan alternative foods can offer a convenient way to become vegan, but just like any food, check the label, there can be high levels of calories, saturated fat and salt within them.
What about a whole foods vegan diet?
A whole foods vegan diet, i.e. minimally processed foods, cooked from fresh, is likely to be a healthy diet due to the types of foods it will include, often the reduced animal products means a reduction in saturated fat, and the plant based foods are going to mean increased fibre. This can be a beneficial way to eat, but there are still considerations that need to be carefully planned for in order to not become deficient in certain nutrients.
When you remove a food from your diet, consider what that food was offering you in terms of nutrition and how you can ensure you replace that.
Animal products can be high in saturated fat, but if you replace these with products made from coconut, for example, you could be increasing your saturated fat intake unknowingly.
Animal products contain certain nutrients that can be difficult to get from plant based sources. Although it is certainly possible to live a healthy vegan life, it does not come without giving it some thought and it may be that you need help from a Registered Nutritionist or Dietitian to ensure you are meeting all your needs.
If your main aim for going vegan is to improve health then missing out on some of these vital nutrients can increase risk of certain health concerns such as osteoporosis or anaemia and so if this is more than you wish to think about in your daily life, maybe a plant based diet is more for you.
A vegan diet excludes all animal products. Plant based diets are different from becoming vegan, the main focus of the diet is still around food from plant sources, but you can include some animal products. There are different ways you can be plant based such as flexitarian or semi vegetarian, vegetarian or pescatarian. You will still have to consider your nutritional requirements but it will be easier for you to plan to meet these, this can be a great way of eating for health or perhaps a stepping stone towards veganism if that’s your ultimate aim.
How can I eat a well balanced Vegan diet?
The vegan Eatwell guide is a good starting point, as this gives an overview of what a balanced vegan diet should look like and notes nutrients of concern.
It is certainly possible to get most of your nutrition through a vegan diet, although supplements will be required for a few nutrients. There are several nutrients that can be harder to get adequate amounts of and need some consideration.
Protein is important for muscle growth and repair, healthy bones and many other functions in the body. Often when people cut out meat they replace this with vegetables, but these do not offer a protein source and can leave you short on what you require. For example, I often see Jackfruit suggested as an alternative to pulled pork, this is a great idea, but consider where you will get your protein from in that meal, as being a vegetable, jackfruit contains negligible amounts.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, we need a range of these and some are called essential amino acids, which means we can only get them from our diet. Animal proteins tend to have all of the nine essential amino acids we require, whereas plants can vary. There are some plant based foods that contain all 9 amino acids but others require you to eat a variety to ensure you get everything you need.
Vegan foods containing all nine essential amino acids include: soya beans, quinoa, amaranth, hemp seed and buckwheat
Foods such as tofu, mycoprotein (Quorn), tempeh, seitan, beans, lentils, chickpeas, soya milk, nuts, seeds, bread grain and imitation meats are all vegan sources of protein.
Calcium is important for the health of our bones and teeth and a main source is usually dairy foods. There are several plant based dairy alternatives for milk, yoghurt and cheese, but it is important to ensure you are choosing the unsweetened fortified versions of these to get not only calcium, but other important nutrients too.
Unsweetened fortified Soy drink is the most nutritionally comparable dairy alternative milk to Cows milk.
Some other suggested plant based sources of calcium beyond dairy alternatives are tofu, kale, fortified cereals and bread, sesame seeds or tahini, dried figs, baked beans and almonds.
Omega-3 fatty acids contribute to the normal function of the heart, brain and eyes. It can be difficult to consume enough Omega-3 on a vegan diet as the richest source is from fish, especially those which are oily in nature, such as salmon. These contain the fatty acids DHA and EPA, which can be readily used by the body.
Plant sources of Omega 3 contain ALA, which needs to be converted to EPA and then to DHA, however conversion rates can be low (Shahidi & Ambigaipalan, 2018). This means you need more of these foods to get the desired amount. A supplement may be required to meet your needs. Vegan omega-3 supplements such as microalgae are available.
Rapeseed oil has about ten times more omega-3 than olive oil
Foods that are sources of plant based omege-3 (ALA) include chia seeds, rapeseed oil, hemp seeds and edamame beans.
Iron is required to make haemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen. When we do not have enough iron, then this means we struggle to deliver adequate amounts of oxygen to our muscles and tissues and this can make us feel fatigued. It is also supportive of a healthy immune system and cognitive function.
Iron in animal products is known as Haem iron and in plant products it is non-haem. Non-haem iron is less easily absorbed by the body and this could put you at risk of iron deficiency. However, vitamin C markedly increases iron absorption, when eaten alongside the iron containing food (Hallberg, 1989). By adding a glass of orange juice, adding vitamin C rich foods to your meal or finishing your meal with vitamin C containing fruit, this can significantly increase your iron absorption.
Be aware of drinking tea and coffee with your meal as the tannins are known to reduce iron absorption from plant foods (Dellimont, 2017), so it may be best to save these for in between meals if you are at risk of low iron.
Iron rich foods include fortified cereals, Tempeh, pumpkin & sesame seeds, baked beans, spinach, quinoa, dried fruit and wholemeal bread and pasta.
Vitamin D contributes to the absorption of calcium and therefore is important to normal bones, muscles and teeth. It also plays a role in supporting a healthy immune system.
Everyone in the UK is recommended to take a 10mcg (400IU) vitamin Dз supplement between the months of September to April as we are unable to get adequate amounts of UVB rays from the sun during these winter months and it is very difficult to get enough Vitamin D from our diets alone.
Not all Vitamin Dз supplements are vegan friendly so check the label
During the summer from April to September, with just 10-25 minutes of skin exposure, we can get our Vitamin D requirements from the sun. Wearing sunscreen will limit the body’s ability to produce Vitamin D, so a short time without will increase your Vitamin D supplies. Remember to follow the guidance on sun safety and always cover up if your skin is too hot or pink.
Food sources of vitamin D are eggs and salmon and mushrooms grown in UV light. There are some foods which are fortified with vitamin D such as bread.
Vitamin B12 contributes to normal red blood cell formation, nervous system function, psychological function and helps us to get energy from the foods we eat.
Meat and dairy are the prime sources of Vitamin B12. The only way to include Vitamin B12 in a vegan diet is through fortified foods and supplementation. It is challenging to get adequate amounts through diet alone therefore the Vegan Society advises to take a vitamin B12 supplement of at least 10mcg per day (Vegan Society, 2022).
Fortified foods such as nutritional yeast flakes, yeast extracts and breakfast cereals can contribute Vitamin B12 to your diet
Iodine contributes to normal cognitive function, thyroid function and metabolism, skin health and the normal function of the nervous system and one of its main dietary sources are fish and dairy products. Many milk alternatives are not fortified with Iodine, although there are some available, so check the label.
Seaweed is a rich source of Iodine, however, it is not recommended to have this more than once a week as it can lead to excessive amounts of Iodine being consumed, which can damage the thyroid gland (BDA, 2019).
Iodised salt is not a recommended source of iodine as this can lead to high intakes of salt, which can increase risk of high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.
A non seaweed supplement may be the best option for getting your recommended daily intake without overconsuming.
We also need a daily supply of zinc, an important nutrient for fertility, healthy hair and nails, and brain function.
Plant based sources of zinc include fortified nutritional flakes, cashew nuts, seeds and whole wheat pasta.
Eggs, meat and dairy products are good sources of choline and without these it can become challenging to get an adequate amount through your diet, but this micronutrient is important for brain, nervous system and liver function.
Foods which can contribute to choline intake include soya drinks, edamame, quinoa, Brussel sprouts, broccoli, kidney beans and tofu.
Selenium is not necessarily a nutrient of concern for a vegan, but just to be aware that levels of selenium can vary in plant foods due to the soil in which it is grown so it is best to eat a variety of sources..
Foods which can contribute to your selenium intake include brazil nuts, chickpeas, white pasta, sunflower seeds, mushrooms and brown rice.
If you are looking to improve the health of your diet then becoming vegan may help you to achieve this, but the health benefits of a vegan diet can be achieved by adopting a more plant based diet, if becoming vegan feels a step too far.
Being vegan can be extremely healthy when well planned, but just as with any diet if not balanced and considered then it can contribute to reduced health and certainly isn’t right for everyone. Finding a healthy way of eating that feels sustainable over the longer term may be the key to reaching those health goals.
The information in this blog is for general information only and should not be used as individual advice. Advice may vary for certain medical conditions and the information in this article is not intended to replace or conflict with the advice given to you by your GP or other health professionals. All matters regarding your health should be discussed with your GP.
Please discuss supplements with a health professional to check they are suitable for you.
BDA (2022) One Blue Dot [Online]. Accessed 08/01/22
BDA (2019) Iodine Food Fact Sheet [Online]. https://www.bda.uk.com/resource/iodine.html Accessed 10/01/2022
Benatar, J. R., & Stewart, R. A. (2018). Cardiometabolic risk factors in vegans; A meta-analysis of observational studies. PloS one, 13(12), e0209086.
Delimont, N. M., Haub, M. D., & Lindshield, B. L. (2017). The impact of tannin consumption on iron bioavailability and status: A narrative review. Current developments in nutrition, 1(2), 1-12.
Hallberg, L. E. I. F., Brune, M., & Rossander, L. E. N. A. (1989). The role of vitamin C in iron absorption. International journal for vitamin and nutrition research. Supplement= Internationale Zeitschrift fur Vitamin-und Ernahrungsforschung. Supplement, 30, 103-108.
NDNS (2020) National Diet and Nutrition Survey Rolling programme Years 9 to 11 (2016/2017 to 2018/2019). Public Health England. London
Rosato, V., Temple, N. J., La Vecchia, C., Castellan, G., Tavani, A., & Guercio, V. (2019). Mediterranean diet and cardiovascular disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. European journal of nutrition, 58(1), 173-191.
Schwingshackl, L., Missbach, B., König, J., & Hoffmann, G. (2015). Adherence to a Mediterranean diet and risk of diabetes: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Public health nutrition, 18(7), 1292-1299.
Shahidi, F., & Ambigaipalan, P. (2018). Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and their health benefits. Annual review of food science and technology, 9, 345-381.
Veganuary survey [online] accessed 08/01/22 https://veganuary.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Veganuary-2021-Survey-Results-ALL-2.pdf
Vegan Society (2022) [online] Accessed 10/01/2022 https://www.vegansociety.com/resources/nutrition-and-health/nutrients/vitamin-b12