It’s January: a new year and a new you, and a time to reflect on whether to turn vegan.
There are loads of good reasons to be vegan, from helping to save the planet, promoting animal welfare, and generally some people say they feel better and more energetic from eating a vegan diet. You certainly consume more fibre, less saturated fat, and overall a healthier diet. A true vegan does not only avoid eating meat and fish but also avoids dairy, honey, eggs; any type of animal produce.
However, becoming a vegan is not as easy as it sounds, and it’s important to be aware of what you’ll miss out on. There are vitamins and minerals that you get from eating dairy and meat that are difficult to source as a vegan. It is especially important to be aware of this if you are pregnant or a new mum.
When moving from a meat-based diet or even from a vegetarian diet, you will need to be aware of minerals and vitamins that you will be missing from certain types of foods and how these can be sourced. For example, eggs are a great source of iron and protein. Dairy products (milk, cheese, and butter) contain calcium, iodine and B12. Red meat is another crucial source of B12.
Giving up on meat and dairy and switching to vegan substitutes, such as drinking plant-based milk instead of cow’s milk, is a big decision (Read my article on plant-based milks). Let’s look at how to make an informed choice about your diet.
Sacrifices and Substitutes
As a vegan you will have an increased amount of fibre in your diet, purely due to the nature of the diet: you will be eating more fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds. Eating a diet rich in fibre has many health benefits and is associated with a lower risk of heart disease, strokes, type two diabetes and bowel cancer. The only ones potentially at risk from more fibre in the diet are infants, as fibre fills up their tummies too quickly and can limit the variety in their diet necessary for optimum growth and development.
Saturated fats have been linked to heart-related diseases. As a vegan, your consumption of these will be greatly reduced as they are primarily from meats and dairy foods. However, be aware that ‘trendy foods’ like coconut oil are also saturated fat.
Omega acids are the most important fatty acids that the body cannot make itself. There are two types, DHA and ALA. The body’s preferred source of omega 3 is DHA, which is primarily found in fish. The body can convert ALA into DHA, but it is not as productive. So again, be wary when you see plant foods advertised as high in omega 3, as this could mean ALA and not DHA. A selection of food sources for omega 3 are chia and hemp seeds, walnuts and tofu.
Vitamin D has a range of benefits, such as working with calcium to help develop strong healthy bones and prevent rickets and providing the body with a strong immune system. Vitamin D also helps the body to absorb calcium into the body. Vitamin D is mostly only available from the sun. Very few foods contain traces, although some foods are fortified. Vitamin D comes in two forms, D2 and D3. D3 is the easiest form for the body to convert and is made from the lanolin found in sheep’s wool. This is unacceptable to vegans and they stick to D2, which is harder for the body to process.
Calcium is vital for strong bones. It is found in dairy products and the bones of tinned fish. For vegans, calcium can be found in tofu, kidney beans, apricots, figs, and almonds.
Iron deficiency is a big concern that affects everyone from the old and the young. Low levels of iron can cause anemia, resulting in exhaustion and other health problems as the body cannot make enough red blood cells to carry oxygen around the body. There are two types of iron, heme and non-heme. Heme iron is derived from red meat, beef, pork, and lamb. Non-heme iron is derived from plant sources and can be found in foods such as lentils, chickpeas, beans, tofu, cashew nuts, chia seeds, ground linseed, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, kale, dried apricots, dried figs, raisins, quinoa and fortified breakfast cereal.
Iron absorption is much improved with vitamin C. This happens naturally as a vegan, as your meals will be rich in vegetables high in vitamin C. Alternatively, drink a glass of fruit juice with a meal (just be wary of the sugar!) Other good sources of vitamin C are peppers, broccoli, cabbage, kiwi fruits, and citrus fruits such as oranges, strawberries and pineapple.
Iron absorption can be inhibited too. Avoid drinking tea with a meal as the tannin in milk interferes with iron absorption. The calcium in milk also interferes with iron absorption.
Vitamin B12 deficiency is a key issue for vegans as it is only consumed through red meat and dairy products. Please see an article I wrote previously on B12.
In a recent study, findings showed that vegans had low intakes of iodine and selenium. These are primarily found in meat, fish, eggs and dairy products, all of which vegans don’t consume. Seaweed may be high in iodine but the vegan society warns against eating too much as the content might be too high and may be contaminated. In the UK you can buy iodised salt, but salt should be eaten in moderation (no more than 6g, 1 tsp a day).
There are supplements available for vegans, and these could substitute many of the vitamins and minerals needed in your diet. However, before entering veganism blindly, it is important to understand why you need these in your diet, and how to make your changes in a healthy, informed way.