Is a vegan diet a healthy diet, or do we need to consume some animal based foods for optimum nutrition? Last week’s twitter storm over what a dietician said about vegan diets hit the headlines. So was she right to say ‘It’s very complicated to make sure a vegan diet is safe and adequate – I’d never recommend it’ said Sophie Medlin? You can watch the clip here.
The rise of plant based diets
Plant based diets are trendy amongst celebrities and hip young things. According to The Vegan Society, the number of vegans in the UK has doubled in the last nine years from 150,000 to around 300,000.
What is a vegan diet?
A vegan diet is one that excludes any foods derived wholly or partly from animals. The obvious exclusions are eggs, meat, fish, chicken and dairy products like milk, cream, yoghurt and cheese, but also foods like honey, jelly sweets and gravy (there is a vegan alternative) are also avoided. For most vegans this goes beyond the food they eat to avoid leather goods, some wine and beers and products tested on animals.
Is a vegan diet a healthy diet?
It is hard to give you a straight answer on this! As a BANT registered Nutritional Therapist I am trained to create personalised plans for people, depending on lots of different factors like dietary imbalances, gut health, environmental factors, genetics, etc. So while some people may thrive on a vegan diet, others may not.
A vegan diet, like a vegetarian diet or an omnivore diet can be healthy or unhealthy, depending on the choices made by the individual. Choosing ready meals, vegi burgers and quorn sausages is less likely to be a healthy choice for any of us, when compared to well thought out, homemade foods using unprocessed foods.
So, what does science say?
- Cross-sectional studies of vegetarians and vegans have shown that on average they have a relatively low BMI and a low cholesterol; recent studies have also shown higher plasma homocysteine concentrations than in non-vegetarians.
- The long-term health of ovo-lacto vegetarians (include eggs and dairy products) appears to be generally good, and for some diseases and medical conditions it may be better than that of comparable omnivores. Much more research is needed, particularly on the long-term health of vegans.
- Compared to lacto-ovo-vegetarian diets, vegan diets seem to offer additional protection for obesity, hypertension, type-2 diabetes, and cardiovascular mortality. Males experience greater health benefits than females.
- One study even goes so far as to say – ‘Physicians should consider recommending a plant-based diet to all their patients, especially those with high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or obesity.’
What nutrients do I need to keep an eye on with a vegan diet?
If you follow a plant-based, vegan diet, there are a few nutrients you need to be aware of.
- Vitamin B12 – required to maintain healthy blood formation and support the nervous system. Vitamin B12 is only found naturally in foods from animal sources. Therefore it is recommended that anyone following a vegan diet considers taking a vitamin B12 supplement. Some foods are fortified with B12 (e.g. breakfast cereals, unsweetened soya products, yeast extract like Marmite), but it is difficult to get enough of these foods in your diet for adequate B12 intake.
- Calcium is required for strong healthy bones and teeth. Excluding dairy form the diet means looking for alternative sources. This include:
- fortified, unsweetened soya, rice and oat drinks
- dark green leafy vegetables (expect spinach as it contains oxalates tat reduce absorption of calcium)
- calcium-set tofu
- sesame seeds and tahini
- brown and white bread (in the UK, calcium is added to white and brown flour by law)
- dried fruit, such as raisins, prunes, figs and dried apricots
- Iron – plant-based foods rich in iron include kidney beans, black beans, soybeans, spinach, cashews, oats, cabbage, and tomato juice. Although plant based forms of iron are less well absorbed, including a variety of these foods should keep your levels in check.
- Omega 3 fats – intake of the plant version of omega-3 fats, tends to be low in vegan diets. Foods that are good sources of omega 3 fats include ground flaxseeds (also known as milled linseeds), flax oil, chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, and rapeseed oil.
- Vitamin D – the sunshine vitamin, It is a good idea to supplement this, especially in winter months.
Hope this helps.