Can I be vegan and healthy ?
Updated: Nov 4, 2021
Veganism has increased in popularity in recent years, especially with initiatives such as Veganuary. Plus, there's no doubt about the benefits of adopting a more plant based diet on the environment.
What is veganism ?
It's defined as a plant-based diet, avoiding all animal foods such as meat (including fish, shellfish and insects), dairy, eggs and honey (The Vegan Society).
Is it a healthy diet and lifestyle ?
Adopting a vegan diet does not automatically equate to 'healthy'. Technically you could live on crisps and chips which obviously isn't going to provide you with your nutrient requirements ! However, adding more plants to your diet is definitely going to help. Studies suggest that increasing our plant intake can help reduce the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers (such as colon cancer) (Dinu et al., 2017). However, we do need to be mindful that by eliminating animal products from our diet, we may need additional planning for certain vitamins and minerals. This is because foods from an omnivorous diet provide important nutrients such as calcium, vitamin B12, iron, iodine and omega-3 fatty acids. Furthermore, some nutrients such as iron aren't as well absorbed by the body when from plant sources.
How can I get the nutrients I need ?
Here are the key nutrients to be aware of:
Vitamin B12 - needed for red blood cell, nerve and brain functions. This isn't generally available from plant sources. To get sufficient B12, you should chose fortified products such as plant m*lks and yoghurts and cereals. Please note that organic produce cannot be fortified, so if this is your preferred option, you will need to supplement. Nutritional yeast, or fortified yeast extract also has vit B12.
Calcium - needed for good bone, teeth and muscle health. Usually obtained from dairy but you can get it from fortified plant m*lks/yoghurts and from dark green leafy veg such as kale and cabbage, from baked beans and soy products such as tofu. Please note that the body doesn't absorb calcium as efficiently from spinach and swiss chard (due to oxalates). There's no need to stop eating them as they are a great source of nutrients, just ensure they aren't your primary source of calcium.
Iron - needed for cellular function and energy. It's not just red meat, many plants are great sources of iron - fortified cereals, dried fruits (especially apricots), beans, nuts, dark green leafy veg and tofu. Again, the body doesn't absorb plant based iron as well. Having some vitamin C with your iron helps counteract this. So think a glass of OJ, a squeeze of lemon juice, tomatoes or red peppers. Also, avoid having tea of coffee with your meal as the tannins will reduce absorption. Leave a gap of at least 1 hour.
Iodine - plays a key role in effective thyroid function. Found in dairy and white fish, so to get sufficient iodine, you will need fortified products (plant m*lks etc - but please do check the label as not all contain iodine) or supplements. Seaweed is an excellent source but as the amounts are so variable, it's easy to consume too much which can have an adverse affect on your thyroid function. It's best to stick to supplements within the RDA (see below) or seek professional advice from a nutritionist or dietitian,
Omega 3 fatty acids - important for brain and heart health. Found in oily fish but you can get it from flaxseeds, walnuts, chia seeds, hemp, seaweed and algae. There are different types of omega-3 and we need to get EPA and DHA from diet as it can't be produced by the body. The best sources of these are from marine products. As detailed above, there are risks from consuming too much seaweed, so an algae based supplement that contains both EPA and DHA is a good idea for vegans.
Zinc - involved in our immune system and nerve function. You can get this from chickpeas, fortified cereals, nuts and seeds. Again, plant sources tend to be absorbed less than animal sources.
Vitamin D - works with calcium for bone health. Everyone, not just those who are plant-based should supplement with 10 micrograms of vitamin D a day between Oct - April. This is because we get most of our vitamin D from UV rays, not food and there simply isn't enough in the winter months.
A word on protein - whilst many automatically think of meat, fish and eggs for protein sources, plants provide an abundance of protein and you can absolutely get enough when vegan. Sources include - soy products (such as tofu, soy milk, tempeh etc), quorn, beans, lentils, rice, chickpeas, peas, oats, nuts and seeds. The main thing to remember is that most plant proteins don't contain all the essential amino acids our bodies require, therefore, you need to combine them. For example; having a mixed bean chilli with rice, baked beans on wholemeal toast, or dhal with rice etc. This doesn't have to be in every meal, across the day is sufficient.
Fibre - A vegan diet that includes high volumes of fruit, veg, nuts, seeds and legumes will naturally be high in fibre. This is great for our gut health, weight management and reducing the risk of many chronic diseases. (SACN, 2015). However, if you're new to this way of eating, take care when upping your fibre. It should be done gradually as it can cause gut problems if you have too much too soon. If you're unsure, it's always helpful to get advice form a nutritionist or dietitian.
Finally, ideally we should try and get our nutrients from food as the body absorbs them better and you're also getting additional benefits such as fibre. However, if you can't achieve your requirements from food, taking a supplement is absolutely ok and will prevent deficiencies.
Please always check the labels of products to check for fortification and how much. It will also tell you how much of your recommended daily allowance (RDA) a portion contains.
The Vegan Society - https://www.vegansociety.com/
British Dietetic Association - https://www.bda.uk.com/resource/vegan-diet-healthier-way.html
British Nutrition Foundation - https://www.nutrition.org.uk/
The Vegan Eatwell Guide is aimed at the general population and a useful tool to help plan your overall diet, especially when just starting out. https://www.vegansociety.com/sites/default/files/uploads/downloads/The%20Vegan%20Eatwell%20Guide_1.pdf
Dinu, M., Abbate, R., Gensini, G. F., Casini, A., & Sofi, F. (2017). Vegetarian, vegan diets and multiple health outcomes: a systematic review with meta-analysis of observational studies. Critical reviews in food science and nutrition, 57(17), 3640-3649.
Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition. (2015). Carbohydrates and health. Retrieved from https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/445503/SACN_Carbohydrates_and_Health.pdf
The Vegan Society. (2021). Definition of veganism. Retrieved from https://www.vegansociety.com/go-vegan/definition-veganism
The Vegan Society. (2020). Vegan Eatwell Guide. Retrieved from