The new year, a fresh start, a time to put all the indulgences behind you. Time to improve your health? Time to try a vegan diet?
January is now known to some as Veganuary – a month to try out being vegan. Social media is rife with beautiful photos of vegan food, the cool kids are doing it, so should I?
Well I would find it hard to convince my husband to give up meat and cheese, yogurts and eggs as they make up a big part of my family’s diet. If the decision was based on the taste then we wouldn’t give it up. If it was based on animal welfare, then I would choose organic free range animals to eat. After all we are the top of the food chain and have teeth to bite and rip our food?
When it comes to the environment, that has a bit more of a pull for me. The worry that our planet is slowly dying and our race will die with it. That makes me think that I should eat less meat.
What is a Vegan Diet?
Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose [The Vegan Society].
This means no meat, fish, shellfish, insects or anything to do with animals i.e. dairy, eggs and honey. An individuals interpretation of this may vary. Protein sources are from beans, pulses, seeds and nuts. A vegan diet needs to be carefully planned so that all nutrients are accounted for in the diet especially vitamin B12, iron and calcium.
What are the benefits of following a Vegan Diet?
Plant based diets tend to be lower in saturated fat (as animal products are excluded) which can decrease your risk of cardiovascular disease (heart disease and stroke). Plant based diets can also help manage weight which in turn can reduced the risk of type 2 diabetes. They also reduced the risk of some cancers (due to the avoidance of red meat and increase intake of veg, fruit and fibre).
Our current food system has a major impact on our planet. Food production contributes to 15-30% of total green house gas (GHG) emissions in the UK and therefore contributes significantly to global warming. Livestock farming accounts for 10% of the UK’s GSG emissions, mainly beef and dairy cattle farming.
The British Dietetic Association recently published their environmentally sustainable diets toolkit for dietitians called ‘One Blue Dot‘. They reported that a reduction in current UK consumption of total meat (108g per day) for adults to 50-99g would reduce our carbon foot print by around 22% whilst a further reduction to below 50g per day would result in a 39% reduction. So a reduction in our meat intake is needed.
The guide recommends that we should be prioritising plant based proteins rather than meat based protein and only having moderate dairy consumption and using calcium fortified dairy alternatives if more is needed. We should be using seasonal and locally produced fruit and veg and reducing food waste.
Can I get everything I need from a vegan diet?
Yes you can as long as you plan your diet. If you eat chips, crisps and bread you are eating vegan foods, but you will be deficient protein, vitamins and minerals! Here are some of the micronutrients that we worry about.
One of the vitamins we worry about the most is Vitamin B12. This is mainly found in meat, so a vegan diet is very low in vitamin B12. Too little can result in fatigue, anaemia and nerve damage and increase homocysteine levels leading to cardiovascular disease. Vitamin B12 can be found in fortified plant based milks, some fortified cereals and nutritional yeast. To get your requirements you would need fortified foods 2-3 times a day. If you struggle to do this then you will need a B12 supplement
A diet low iron can lead to iron deficiency anaemia, which can lead to tiredness and lack of energy. It is important to get good sources in your diet. These include seeds, pulses, nuts, dried fruits, wholegrains, nuts and green leafy vegetables. Iron from plant foods is not absorbed as well as from animal sources. Vitamin C helps with the absorption of iron from plant foods so includes vitamin C rich foods with your meals – fruits and vegetables. Tannins in tea inhibit the absorption of iron from plant foods so try to avoid drinking tea with meals.
Calcium is important for bone health. If you do not get adequate you are putting yourself at risk of osteoporosis in the future. Ensure the plant based milk and yoghurt alternatives you choose are fortified with calcium. You can choose foods that are fortified such as some breads or cereals. Good plant based sources include Soya bean curd/tofu, broccoli, spring greens and oranges. To check how how much you need and how to eat it then see the BDA Food Facts Calcium info sheet.
Vitamin D is needed to help you body absorbed calcium and phosphorus for healthy bones and teeth. We make most of our vitamin D under our skin from sunlight. It is hard for the general population to get enough vitamin D from food so the government has advised that we should all take a supplement, especially in winter.
Iodine has been put in the spot light recently. The main sources of iodine in the UK are milk, white fish, meat and eggs. Vegans are at risk of iodine deficiency. Iodine is needed to make thyroid hormones. These hormones are needed for many body processes including growth, regulating metabolism and for the development of a baby’s brain during pregnancy and early life. Some plant based milks are now fortifying them with iodine (check the label), but it can be difficult to get all the iodine you need. You may wish to consider an iodine supplement. Read more here.
To get everything you need from a vegan diet, then it needs to be varied. By choosing different sources of plant based protein over the week and plenty of vegetables then this will help meet your requirements. For certain nutrients (Vitamin B12, iodine and vitamin D) you may wish to consider a supplement.
Are there any reasons why a vegan diet is not suitable?
Certain people may not suit a vegan diet. They may not tolerate a very high fibre diet due to their bowels. They may require a high protein diet for a medical condition and find it too hard to get all their protein by plant based sources along. A pregnant lady may find if difficult to get enough iron for the growing baby so would need to eat meat and young growing children may need to eat dairy products to get their calcium requirements in for strong bones.
Do you need to be 100% vegan?
For the environment and for your health you do not need to be 100% vegan. For some a vegan diet is very restrictive and can lead to disordered eating. A new term has sprung up recently called flexitarian! This means some one who mainly eats a plant based diet but will have some meat occasionally and animal products. Being a flexitarian means you will be reducing the amount of meat you eat which will help the environment.
Whatever diet you decided to choose then it needs to be suitable and sustainable for you. If you choose to be vegan and manage it well then it is great for your health and the environment. If this is too difficult, but you still want to make changes for your health and the environment then make small sustainable steps:
- Start off by trying to have one vegetarian meal a week
- Cut down on your red meat and replace this with beans or lentils.
- Try more plant based protein foods in your diet (e.g beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, soya, tofu)
- Making plant based protein foods more ‘normal’ in the family’s diets
- Try some fortified soya milk if you use a lot of dairy products
- Try not to waste your food
- Only buy and cook what you think you will eat
- Try a local fruit and veg box delivery.
There are so many restaurants offering vegan / vegetarian foods and lots of cook books to get you started. So instead of making a major diet change for a month and then going back to your usual ways, how about making your sustainable diet changes for the rest of the year.
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Disclaimer: All views are my own, please consultant your GP or health professional before making any major changes to your diet. Please see my disclaimer page for details.