The recent trend in veganism has created a spark of interest for many people to try out the lifestyle.
For some it is the ethical considerations, health benefits, or the environmental aspect which is the catalyst for creating interest in trying out this lifestyle.
As much as it has never been easier, due largely to social media support and widespread information, there is also a huge amount of new vegan foods being created to service the needs of this recent trend.
So, what is it that people should be looking for when first starting to make the change to veganism?
Here is a list of what I think the most important considerations should be when making the change.
Protein - The common question many vegans would hear is “where do you get your protein?” No doubt it is one of the first concerns which comes to mind when thinking about veganism. However, protein is not something which we really struggle to consume when following a well-balanced plant-based diet. Our bodies are remarkably adept at making proteins out of the amino acids we consume (proteins are long chains of amino acids) and can therefore utilise the amino acids found in vegetables, grains, nuts and legumes (Villines, Z. 2018). The key is to eat a variety of nuts, seeds, legumes, grains, and vegetables throughout the day.
Vitamin B12 - This is probably the one nutrient someone following a vegan lifestyle should be conscious of consuming. B12 is primarily found in animal products, with very unreliable sources found in some fermented foods and micro algae. It is important for red blood cell development, nervous system health and energy production, and although stores in the body can last up to 4 years, not consuming any on a vegan diet can lead to deficiency. Symptoms of deficiency include numbness and tingling, shortness of breath, fatigue, depression, and an enlarged liver (Skerrett, P. 2019). The safest bet for a vegan to maintain optimal health is to take a B12 supplement, a simple tablet dissolved under the tongue, or a spray a few times a week is enough to keep levels adequately topped up.
Iron - More so for women, particularly those who are at the age where they are having their menstrual cycle, iron is of the highest importance. Responsible to oxygen transport throughout the body iron, like B12, is primarily found in its best absorbed form in animal products. Heme iron, or blood iron, is what has a higher utilisation level by the body compared to non-heme, or plant derived iron. Vegans would be best served to consume their iron rich foods, such as lentils, leafy greens, black strap molasses, apricots, tahini, and tofu with a vitamin C source, as this has been shown to improve uptake (Hallberg, L. et al. 1989). If using a supplement, it is advised to take on an empty stomach, particularly away from other mineral supplements. This will help improve the absorption rate. The level of tolerance and side effects (such as nausea and/or constipation) will vary in individuals but choosing an organic form available from a health food store rather than pharmacy, will offer the least likelihood of side effects.
Omega 3 - For those who are not vegan the general recommendation is to take fish oil for omega 3 daily to help reduce inflammation and improve brain health. In the case of vegan omega 3s, the suggestion to take flax or chia seeds or oils is one with some merit, although not the most ideal way to replace these beneficial fats. As our bodies need to covert the ALA (alpha linolenic acid) from the chia and flax seeds into the active EPA and DHA (which are the forms of omega 3 the body uses). The rate at which the body can convert them is not very high, and depends on the individual, their health and nutritional status (NIH, 2019). So, the safest bet to achieve the most effective form of omega 3 is to use an algae supplement. These contain the same omega 3 found in fish (it is where fish source theirs) and do not need to be converted into a useable form by the body. They are quite easy to take, 1-3 capsules a day with food is generally all that is required.
Vitamin D - Even though vitamin D deficiency is not necessarily a vegan issue (as sun exposure offers the best way to improve stores in the body), vegans don’t consume animal products rich in vitamin D. Organ meats, such as liver and fatty fish, especially those where the bones and organs are consumed have the highest amount, with mushrooms and fortified cereals offering the best plant based source (NIH, 2020).
Zinc - Playing an important role in immune health, energy production, reproductive health (particularly men’s health) and involved in hundreds of enzymatic reactions, zinc is another mineral vegans may struggle to get enough of. Although found in seeds, tofu, and fortified cereals, often these foods contain high levels of phytates which may interfere with absorption (Gupta, R. et al. 2015). If looking to supplement, choose a good quality organic zinc from a health food store and ensure food is taken after meals, as an empty stomach may cause some queasiness.
Maintaining a healthy vegan diet does not have to be restrictive or difficult, just ensure these nutrients are accounted for by having a well-balanced diet.
Speak to our friendly in-house nutritionists if you require some more specific information in regards to planning a vegan diet.
Villines, Z. (2018) Top 15 sources of plant-based protein. Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/321474
National Institute of Health. (2019) Omega 3 Fatty Acids - Fact sheet for professionals. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-HealthProfessional/
Skerrett, P. (2019) Vitamin B12 deficiency can be sneaky, harmful. Harvard Health Publishing. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/vitamin-b12-deficiency-can-be-sneaky-harmful-201301105780
Hallberg, L. Brune, M. Rossander, L. (1989) The role of vitamin C in iron absorption. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2507689/
National Institute of Health (2020) Vitamin D - Fact sheet for Health Professionals. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-HealthProfessional/
Gupta, R. Gangoliya, S. Singh, N. (2015) Reduction of phytic acid and enhancement of bioavailable micronutrients in food grains. Journal of Food Science and Technology. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4325021/