Both in the UK and across the Western world veganism is rapidly growing in popularity. The number of people who signed up to take part in ‘veganuary’ between from 2014 to this January is an excellent demonstration of just how quickly dipping a toe in veganism is gaining in popularity:
2014 – 3,300
2015 – 12,800
2016 – 23,000
2017 – 59,500
2018 – 168,500
2019 – 250,000
2020 – 400,000
Even if you’re only trying out veganism for a short time, it’s still important to ensure you are getting a balanced diet. We sat down with Altruvita’s nutrition team to talk about the 3 questions about vegan nutrition that they get asked most often and make sure you have all the answers you need.
Can I get enough protein in my diet if I am a vegan?
Of the eight essential amino acids our body needs, two – lysine and methionine – are given special attention in vegetarian and vegan diets. This is because, compared with foods of animal origin like eggs, milk and cheese, various plants have an imbalance of either lysine or methionine. This includes cereals, such as wheat, oats and rice, and legumes; beans, peas and lentils. Wheat and rice proteins are comparatively low in lysine but better sources of methionine whereas beans and peas are relatively high in lysine yet in lower methionine. This has naturally led to the idea of cereals and legumes as ‘complementary’ proteins. In practice this means that meals that combine for example rice with beans or hummus with bread will provide a biologically ‘complete’ protein intake.
As the body does not readily store amino acids try to combine ‘complementary proteins’ at each meal as it has some advantages and seems a sensible way to approach a varied and complete diet. It doesn’t matter if you can’t do this for every single meal you consume, however.
I’ve heard vitamin B12 is important – how do I ensure I’m getting enough B12?
Vitamin B12 plays an important role in brain and heart health, nerve cells and red blood cell function. The most bioavailable form of B12 is unique to animal sources, with top sources including shellfish, lamb and beef. You may have good bodily stores of B12 when you begin a vegan diet which can keep you going for several months before they drop, and you start to notice symptoms like tiredness, brain fog, and poor memory. Vegans need to ensure they are consuming reliable sources of vitamin B-12, such as fortified foods or B12 supplements to keep adequate body stores and blood levels.
Beware! Spirulina and other edible cyanobacteria (commonly called blue-green algae) contain a poorly bioavailable B12 which isn’t converted to B12 in humans. We can’t absorb it, so consider using a B12 supplement if you plan to be wholly plant-based for more than a few months.
Can my dog become vegan too?
Dogs, like most canines, are naturally omnivores which means they eat both meat and plant-based foods. Some people who choose a vegan diet want to feed their pet one too. The reasons for feeding your dog a vegan diet might include the welfare of farmed animals being killed to feed our pets, as well as health, animal testing and the impact of meat on the environment. With a balanced variation in plant products, dogs can get all the nutrients they require from plants.
Pet food manufacturers have the option to declare ingredients by using ‘meat and animal derivatives’, which could include animals you don’t find acceptable, such as horses and body parts such as sheep intestines and rabbit ears. Parts of animals which are surplus to human consumption or are not normally consumed by people in the UK are classified as ‘animal by-products’.
There are now a number of vegan approved pet food brands certified by the Vegetarian society.
Be aware of feeding fruit and vegetables known to be toxic to dogs.
For more vegan nutrition advice, why not take a look at our blog, Weighing up Veganuary?
2020’s Veganuary is set to be the biggest yet. This initiative aims to inspire people to go vegan for the first month of each year, spreading the word about veganism and educating people on plant-based ingredients and recipes. But is going vegan actually good for our health? Let’s take a closer look by weighing up Veganuary…
Done badly, a vegan diet is the same as any other poor diet. Technically someone who is following a vegan diet could live on crisps!
The good bits
People who decide to try a new diet at the beginning of the year are often trying to improve their health and or lose weight. Whilst it is important to know that one month of adhering to a strict vegan diet (or even a lifetime of veganism!) isn’t a cure for every known health issue, vegetarians and vegans are at lower risk of a range of health conditions. These include obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension and some cancers.
Low intake of saturated fat and high intakes of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, soya products, nuts, and seeds (all rich in fibre and phytochemicals) are characteristics of vegetarian and vegan diets that reduce total and LDL cholesterol levels and improve serum glucose control. These factors contribute to reduction of chronic disease.
The not so good bits
Despite what some press might suggest around the carbon footprint of meat versus plant-based diets, a vegan diet is not the answer to our environmental and food sustainability issues. Some ingredients loved by vegetarians and vegans have a hefty carbon footprint of their own, but a sustainable and locally sourced diet (meat or plant based) can ease the pressure on the environment.
People may not find a vegan diet easy to follow if it’s not what they have been brought up on. It can be especially complicated if you have a dislike of vegetables and pulses! Thankfully the rise in popularity of vegan diets means there are plenty of recipes and ideas online to help participants decide what to cook.
There are certain nutrients that a wholly plant-based diet will struggle to provide. That means if you follow a vegan diet it’s important to consider supplementation to prevent any deficiencies. Remember that some deficiencies can take months, even years to present with symptoms so don’t wait until you have an issue to take action. Let’s take a look at them:
Vitamin B12 is a good example of this. You may have good bodily stores of B12 when you begin a vegan diet, and these stores can keep you going for several months before they drop and you start to notice symptoms like tiredness, brain fog, and poor memory. The most bioavailable form of B12 is unique to animal sources. It plays an important role in brain and heart health, nerve cells, and red blood cell function. Top sources include shellfish, lamb, and beef.
Vegans need reliable sources of vitamin B-12, such as fortified foods or supplements. Spirulina and other edible cyanobacteria (commonly called blue-green algaes) contain a poorly bioavailable B12 which isn’t converted to B12 in humans. We can’t absorb it, so consider using a B12 supplement if you plan to be wholly plant-based for more than a few months.
Vegetarian and vegan diets tend to have plenty of omega-6 oils, but struggle to provide adequate with omega-3. Nuts and seeds provide what is known as the ‘parent’ omega 3 fat, Alpha Linoleic Acid (ALA). This needs to go through several conversion steps before it becomes EPA and DHA (eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid). DHA and EPA are the omega-3 fats we use in the brain and heart. They are ready formed in fish oils. The conversion steps rely on co-factor nutrients like magnesium, B-vitamins, zinc, and vitamin C, and a lot of ALA gets lost during the process. It is therefore important that vegans include walnuts, flaxseed oil, and/or pumpkinseed oil every day for their rich ALA content, and to enjoy plenty of food sources of the co-factor nutrients too;
– Magnesium: almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, dark green leafy vegetables
– Zinc: nuts & seeds
– B-vitamins, excluding B12: sweet potatoes, brown rice, avocadoes, nuts, seeds, and dark green leafy veggies are especially useful.
– Vitamin C: peppers, broccoli, berries, kiwi, papaya, peas, watercress
Iron deficiency is a particular issue for pre-menopausal female vegans due to regular monthly iron loss from periods. Haem iron in animal products is much better absorbed than non-haem iron from plant sources so if you are relying on non-haem iron, make sure you include sources of vitamin C too, as this helps the absorption of plant-sourced iron.
If you’re doing Veganuary, you’re starting it in the middle of winter when light levels are poor. Many of us, whether vegan or not, are low in vitamin D simply because we don’t get enough regular sunshine here in the northern hemisphere. Unfortunately for vegans, the optimum dietary sources of vitamin D3 (the most active usable form) are eggs, liver and butter, with plant sources like mushrooms providing a little D2 which has to be converted. It is advisable for everyone to take a vitamin D supplement during winter months (October to April) and vegans may need to continue it all year round.
If you’re experimenting with Veganuary this year, this blog should have helped give you a steer on the nutrients that may be missing form your day to day diet. Nutrition is a complex subject but if you’re up to the challenge, enjoy a plant-based start to 2020!
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