The number of people following vegan diets has grown exponentially in recent years.
Research co-commissioned by the Vegan Society found that in 2016, there were three and a half times as many people in the UK practising veganism (542,000) than there were estimated in 2006 (150,000).
Numerous factors have been cited as the proponents of this rise.
Among these is that, for many, veganism has become more accessible, due to the more widespread inclusion and variety of vegan-friendly products in shops and supermarkets.
In addition, according to Keith Coomber of Vegan Life magazine, consumers are becoming ‘more savvy about the reality of the farming industry’, and this is also playing a crucial role in the vegan boom.
The health benefits of going vegan have undoubtedly led to a surge in interest recently too. As general awareness of nutrition among the public grows, many are coming to deduce that healthy nutrients, such as fibre and certain vitamins and minerals, typically tend to be more abundant in vegan diets; and saturated fat and cholesterol less so.
Like all diets, however, it is still possible to get a vegan diet wrong; and just because a diet omits meat and animal products, does not necessarily make it healthier by default.
In this post, we’ll discuss why variety and balance is still important when following a vegan diet, in order to ensure that the body is getting all the nutrients it needs.
What is a vegan diet?
A vegan diet is one which totally omits animal products. This includes meat and fish, but also anything which is derived from animals such as milk, cheese and eggs.
Vegan diets therefore largely consist of vegetables, mushrooms, legumes and fruit, as well as grains, nuts and food products derived from plants, such as soybean curd (tofu), and soy or almond milk.
What are the nutritional benefits of a vegan diet?
Following a vegan diet has several nutritional advantages.
Lower fat and cholesterol intake
By not eating meat or cheese, a vegan diet typically entails less saturated fat consumption and lower cholesterol levels. Consequently, a vegan diet will also tend to contain fewer calories (as fat contains the most calories per gram of all foods).
And as we know, if someone consumes a high amount of calories but doesn’t spend them, they’ll be more likely to put on weight and have a higher BMI, which can eventually lead to several conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.
Higher fibre and vitamin C intake
Vegan diets, prominently featuring vegetables, legumes and fruit, are also typically higher in fibre.
Fibre, as we’ve discussed previously, has a range of health benefits. It slows down digestion in the gut, which means we’ll feel fuller for longer and eat less. It also helps to lower cholesterol levels and stabilise blood sugar, and improves bowel health.
Vegan diets are also naturally rich in other nutrients, such as vitamins C and E, which are important in the maintenance of a healthy immune system.
Does a vegan diet omit essential nutrients?
With careful planning, it is possible to get all the nutrients the body requires from a vegan diet.
However, it is also possible for a vegan diet to have less nutritional value than one containing meat and dairy.
As with any diet, it really depends on what you eat.
So, particularly if you are giving up meat or animal products and switching to a vegan diet, it’s important to remember that these foods do contain essential nutrients; and if you cut these out, you’ll need to replace them.
One of the main nutrients which our bodies gets from meat in particular is protein. Often referred to as ‘the building blocks’ of the human body, protein is integral to the processes which involve the growth and maintenance of healthy tissue, including our organs, muscle, skin and hair.
So it is important to ensure you have enough protein-rich plant-based items, such as legumes (chickpeas and beans for instance), nuts and soya, in your diet. Not only are legumes generally high in protein, they’re also abundant in fibre, vitamin B and iron.
Similarly, calcium is a nutrient our bodies typically derive from dairy products, such as milk and cheese. This mineral supports bone health, as well as nerve and muscle function; making it a vital part of any healthy diet. The RI for adults is 700mg per day.
Calcium-rich vegetables which have good absorbability characteristics include kale, cauliflower and pak choi. Plant-based dairy replacements, such as calcium-fortified plant milk, and calcium-set tofu are also good options to help boost calcium intake.
In simple terms, iron is involved in the formation of red blood cells, which are responsible for moving oxygen around the body. The recommended intake for adults is 8.7mg per day.
Getting enough iron can sometimes be a concern for those giving up meat, as iron from plants (nonheme) is not absorbed as readily by the body as iron from animal products (heme).
However, it is again possible to get enough iron without eating meat. Non-animal items which are considered good iron sources include pulses and legumes, such as beans and lentils, seeds, cashew nuts, cereals and some dry fruits, such as raisins and figs.
Vitamin C can also help to increase the body’s capacity to absorb iron; so in addition to the above, fruits such as oranges and pineapple, and vegetables like broccoli and cabbage can also help to raise iron levels.
This nutrient plays an important role in blood cell function, and also helps our nervous system to stay healthy. Vitamin B12 deficiency can cause several issues, including fatigue and weakness.
One 2014 study noted that vitamin B12 deficiency was particularly prevalent among vegans in Hong Kong and India, ‘where vegans rarely take vitamin-B12 fortified food or vitamin-B12 supplements.’
The daily reference intake is 1.5 mcg per day. This vitamin isn’t found naturally in plant-based foods, so those who don’t eat animal products will generally either need to include:
- foods which are B12 fortified (such as certain cereals or dairy replacement products like soy milk) in their diet.
- or a vitamin B12 supplement.
There is no specific intake recommendation on omega-3, but having it as part of a regular diet does have a range of health benefits. Omega-3 fatty acids contribute towards a healthy immune system and nerve function, and have natural anti-inflammatory qualities. For non-vegans, fish tends to be a prominent source of omega-3.
However there are good non-animal sources of omega-3 which are easy to include as part of a healthy diet. Among these are flaxseed, flaxseed oil, walnuts and soya-derived products such as tofu.
Staying within salt and sugar limits
We’ve written before that a diet persistently high in sugar and salt can have several adverse effects on health; and this applies in all cases, whether someone is vegan or not. In addition to getting enough of the nutrients already discussed then, it’s also crucial to be aware of the sensible limits on salt and sugar.
- The salt RI for adults is 2-6g per day
- 90g is the daily RI of total sugars for adults
- However foods containing added sugar should constitute no more than five percent of an adult’s total calorie intake.
If you are thinking of changing to a vegan diet but want to find out more about getting the nutrients you need, a registered dietitian may be able to help you. Resources are available on the NHS website.