Updated: Jan 31
Veganuary is well under way with many posts on social media outlining different yummy recipes which we can try and lots of information on what veganism entails.
Veganuary began back in 2014 when a charity decided to try and increase the awareness of veganism and challenge the public to give this diet a go. Since then, year on year, Veganuary has hugely increased in popularity in the UK, with more than 450,00 people taking part in 2020 . I think their marketing campaign is working!!
Even as I have been writing this post, I received an email newsletter on Veganuary recipe ideas from a well-known social media foodie account, one of many I have received in the past week!
I thought I would write a post about the ins and outs of the vegan diet, taking special interest in nutrients which may be deficient in the vegan diet and how vegans can make sure they are getting recommended levels of all nutrients.
First up, what is a vegan diet?
A vegan diet is a type of vegetarian diet which not only excludes meat and fish, but also any animal products, such as dairy products and honey.
Why do people decide to follow a vegan diet?
There are several reasons as to why one may decide to follow a vegan diet including environmental reasons, animal welfare reasons or maybe even health reasons.
The number of people following a vegan diet has increased exponentially over the past few years. In 2016 it was estimated that 1.16% of the UK population were vegan, a 300% increase form 2014 . And this number is bound to be a lot higher now!
This huge increase in popularity of this diet may be attributed to the increased awareness of how our eating habits affect the planet; with the vegan diet arguably being more sustainable and environmentally friendly compared to that of an omnivore diet.
Is a vegan diet ‘healthier’?
I cannot tell you how many times I have heard or come across this question…many many many times!! In broad speaking terms no. You can be vegan and have a very limited diet, only consuming less nutritious processed foods.
However, there is a lot of scientific evidence to support the fact that vegan diets which include high amounts of fruit, vegetables and wholegrains, and exclude red meats and processed foods have many health benefits such as decreasing the risk of cardiovascular disease. These health benefits are thought to be owed to the high quantities of polyunsaturated fats, micronutrient such as vitamins and minerals, high consumption of fibre and the low intake of saturated fats mainly found in animal products .
A paper published by Hemler and Hu in 2019  sums up the importance of which foods to include in a vegan diet to gain the health benefits associated with this dietary pattern. They describe the fact that not all plant-foods are created equal, meaning that even though deep fat fried chips are vegan, they will not have the same health benefits as whole grains and legumes.
The vegan diet and micronutrients
A vegan diet can be extremely healthful, in addition to being sustainable and environmentally friendly if consumed in the correct way.
However, there are a few micronutrients which vegans need to be aware of which may be deficient in their diet.
Below I have outlined several nutrients which vegans need to be aware of to avoid developing any deficiencies.
Vitamin B12 is an extremely important vitamin which plays many pivotal roles in our body. It is essential for DNA synthesis, normal brain functioning, and is required for the formation of our red blood cells.
Vitamin B12 is usually found bound to protein in foods. When we digest the protein, we release special enzymes which help to separate B12 from the protein complex and allow it to be absorbed and then transported around the body in our blood to where it is required.
Those who follow a vegan diet are more likely to be deficient in vitamin B12 as it is found only in animal products such as meat, fish, eggs, and milk (all the products that vegans do not consume!) and is not found in plant-based foods. There are, however, some food products which are fortified with vitamin B12, such as cereals and nutritional yeast.
The recommended daily intake of vitamin B12 is 1.5 micrograms per day. This is difficult for vegans to consume this amount of vitamin B12 by just relying on their food intake; therefore taking a daily vitamin B12 supplement of 10 micrograms is often advised.
Iron is a transition element which plays pivotal roles in many reactions in the body. For example, it plays a central role in protecting cells against oxidative damage. It is also an integral part of haemoglobin and enables oxygen to be carried around the body to all our organs, tissues ad cells. Additionally, it plays an important role in respiration, allowing our cells to generate ATP, our cells form of energy.
Owing to its essential roles in the body, iron deficiency can be very detrimental, and can lead to anaemia, which is characterised by fatigue, weakness and the inability to exercise. Anaemia therefore has a huge effect on everyday life.
Iron is found in two different forms in food, one form is obtained from animal products and one form is found in plant foods. The form found in animal products is known as haem iron and is very well absorbed in our small intestine. Non-haem iron is the form obtained from plant foods and is less well absorbed by our small intestine.
Despite it being less well absorbed, there are several different foods and compounds which can increase its absorbance, for example, vitamin C, which is present in foods such as citrus fruits.
There are also however, several foods that inhibit the absorption of iron, and therefore if consumed alongside foods containing iron will have detrimental effects on the amount of iron which our bodies can absorb. These foods include:
Phytate – present in seeds, nuts and grains.
Tannins – found in tea and coffee
Due to the plant form of iron being much less well absorbed in the small intestine those following a pant-based diet have a higher risk of developing iron deficiency and potentially anaemia. Therefore, it is important to consume plant foods that are high in iron.
Examples of iron-rich plant-based foods include:
Legumes such as lentils, beans and chickpeas
Nuts and seeds such as cashew nuts, chia seeds and linseeds
Grains such as quinoa
Dried fruit such as apricots and raisins
Fortified breakfast cereals
Omega 3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated dietary fat that have a number of pivotal functions in the body. For example, they play important roles in normal brain functioning, our eyesight and heart function.
There are several different types of omega-3 fatty acids these include, DHA, EPA and ALA. DHA and EPA are only found in oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines. Hence, vegans are at risk of not consuming enough of these forms of omega-3 fatty acids.
However, AHA is obtained from several plant sources including:
Nuts such as walnuts
Seeds such as chia and hemp seeds
Seaweed and algae
Soya milk fortified with mgea-3 fatty acids.
AHA is known as an essential fatty acid as we are unable to synthesise it ourselves. However, EPA and DHA can be made from AHA in our bodies. This means that despite vegans not obtaining DHA and EPA from the diet, they are able to make DHA and EPA from AHA.
It is therefore very important that vegans consume enough AHA from food sources to enable them to have adequate amounts of the other omega-3 fatty acids.
Iodine is an essential mineral involved in normal thyroid functioning and is an important component of thyroid hormones. These hormones are involved in several vital roles, such as protein synthesis and are required for the normal energy metabolism, as well as for normal growth and development in children. It is particularly important during pregnancy and in breastfeeding.
Iodine is only found in seafood, such as shell fish and seaweed. Cow’s milk also has high levels of as cattle feed is supplemented with iodine, consequently increasing the concentration of iodine in cows’ milk.
Many plant milks are now fortified with iodine. It is therefore very important that vegans choose pants milks that are fortified with iodine, to decrease the risk of developing iodine deficiency.
Calcium is involved in the maintenance of healthy bones and teeth. Most people in the UK obtain their calcium from dairy products such as milk and cheese. Therefore, vegans are at a higher risk of not consuming enough of this mineral.
Plant foods high in calcium include:
Green leafy vegetables such as broccoli and cabbage
Sesame seeds and tahini
Dried fruits such as apricots, raisins and figs
Fortified foods such as bread and plant-based drinks (soya, rice, oat).
Vitamin D has a very important role in the body; it helps to regulate the amount of calcium and phosphate in the body which is important for maintaining healthy bones and teeth as well as muscles.
It cannot be made in our body; we require the sun to catalyse a reaction on our skin in order to make this vitamin. Vitamin D is also found in some animal products such as red meat, liver and oily fish. There is one plant-based source of vitamin D, mushrooms. Mushrooms are the only plant-based food that can produce its own vitamin D using sunlight, similar to the reaction that takes place on our skin!
Several foods are fortified with vitamin D such as:
Vitamin D supplementation is advised for the British public (even those who consume animal products) during the winter months, owing to the low levels of sunlight in the UK.
A little bit on Protein…
There is a big misconception that vegetarians and vegans do not consume enough protein in their diets. However, research shows that this is not the case.
Vegans and vegetarians generally have a lower intake than omnivores (those who eat meat) however, they still consume the recommended daily amount of protein. Plant sources of protein generally have lower amount of protein than meat sources, however the quality of the protein is very similar to that found in animal products.
Proteins are made up of building blocks called amino acids, there are 22 different amino acids. Protein found in animal products are made up of all 22 of these amino acids, however not all amino acids are found in all proteins in all plant-based foods. Therefore, vegans must consume plant proteins from varied sources, enabling them to obtain all the amino acids required for normal functioning of our body.
Good protein sources for vegans include:
Soy bean products such as tofu
Pulses such as chickpeas, lentils, beans and peas
Seeds such as hempseeds, linseed and pumpkin seeds
Nuts such as peanuts, almonds and walnuts
Brown and wild rice
Take away messages
Following a vegan diet is not only kinder to animals and our planet, but can also have big benefits on our health
You can get the recommended intakes of most nutrients by eating a varied plant-based diet
Vegans should take vitamin B12 supplements
Like everyone in the UK population, vegans are also advised to take a vitamin D supplement
Give it a go!
EAT HAPPY and LIVE WELL!
Patel, H., Chandra, S., Alexander, S. et al. Plant-Based Nutrition: An Essential Component of Cardiovascular Disease Prevention and Management. Curr Cardiol Rep 19, 104 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11886-017-0909-z
Hemler EC, Hu FB. Plant-Based Diets for Cardiovascular Disease Prevention: All Plant Foods Are Not Created Equal. Curr Atheroscler Rep. 2019 Mar 20;21(5):18. doi: 10.1007/s11883-019-0779-5. PMID: 30895476.