An estimated 500,000 took part in Veganuary in the UK this year, mirroring the year-on-year rise of veganism. Although the main motivation to move towards plant-based diets is typically for ethical or environmental reasons, there are many reports and anecdotes on the health benefits of such a diet. News outlets often feature reports on how plant-based diets are linked to greater longevity, and reduced risk of conditions such as heart disease.
What constitutes a vegan diet can vary, and could be made of Oreos and oven chips, or exclusively fresh produce from an upmarket supermarket. As such, it is hard to say that a vegan diet is healthy simply for being vegan. But how does a well-balanced vegan diet match up against one that contains animal products?
A HEALTHY VEGAN DIET…
If featuring plenty of fruit and vegetables, wholegrains, legumes, nuts and seeds, a vegan diet will likely contain a wide variety of micronutrients. These diets are high in fibre, which may reduce the risk of colorectal cancer; and low in saturated fats. In many cases, vegan diets can be nutrient dense without being high in calories.
NUTRIENTS TO CONSIDER
In 2017, a study by the National Osteoporosis Society found that many teenagers and young adults were at increased risk of osteoporosis in their lives due to reducing dairy in their diet. Calcium can be found in in plant-based foods such as leafy greens, nuts, seeds, and fortified dairy alternatives, but can be overlooked. Non-haem iron, found in plant foods, may be less bioavailable than haem iron, the type found in animal foods, such as red meat. Care is needed to include plant-based sources, which includes lentils and beans; hemp and pumpkin seeds and fortified cereals. Ability to absorb iron seems to vary between people quite widely, so some may have better iron levels on a vegan diet than others.
Another key nutrient to think about is omega 3 fatty acids. Flaxseeds and chia seeds are the main source of omega 3s; although walnuts, hemp, and rapeseed oil also contain some of this fatty acid. To get sufficient omega 3s, consuming a source like flaxseed is recommended. If this is too difficult, a supplement may be required, such as an algae capsule.
Vitamin B12 is also virtually absent from a vegan diet, with the exception of fortified foods. As low levels of B12 over a period of time can lead to serious health problems, it is important to either take a supplement, or to be consuming sufficient amounts of fortified foods consistently.
There appear to be many benefits to eating a plant-forward diet, that meat-eaters, vegetarians and vegans alike can benefit from. And a well-planned vegan diet can absolutely be a healthy choice. However, care should be taken to include sources of certain micronutrients. Always speak to a Registered Nutritionist or Dietitan if you are doubtful in regards to how to transition to vegan diet and remember you do not have to label yourself ‘vegan’… You can simply benefit from prioritising more plant foods in your diet.
Remember, you cannot for wrong by simply adding more plant foods to your diet. You do not have to label yourself vegan or vegetarian but can make a conscious effort to include more plant proteins such as beans and legumes etc. as these are highly nutritious foods. Not only can you help support your health but switching out meat products for plants can help lower your carbon footprint too.
Contribution from Eleanor Coales ANutr