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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

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.

Omega-3 oils

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

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.

Vitamin D

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!