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2016 experienced a soaring trend in veganism, and it quickly became the most Googled diet over that 12-month period. Why the vegan diet has suddenly become popular is difficult to tell, but the number of vegan bloggers with celebrity followers might explain. Veganism has been hailed as the most ecologically sound diet, but is it actually healthy? Let’s investigate.
What is Veganism?
Veganism can be considered an extreme form of vegetarianism.
Vegetarians typically eat eggs and dairy (although not all), but excluding all animal derived produce, and potentially excluding products tested on animals, is very much in the domain of veganism.
A vegan would typically avoid:
- all dairy products: cheese, milk, butter, cream and yoghurt
- any fish, shellfish or other sea-animal
- any meat or poultry
- any animal-derived ingredient from both diet and clothing or personal products (such as cochineal, gelatine, ambergris, leather, beeswax, silk, wool etc)
- any product that uses animal-derivatives during its processing (such as refined sugar, wine and beer)
However, today there are now two forms of vegans:
- Ethical Vegans: these are vegans who subscribe to the ethics of veganism both dietary and politically. Veganism is considered the most sustainable diet, for reasons we’ll discuss later.
- Dietary Vegans: today, the concept of plant-based diets has grown dramatically in popularity and the terms plant-based and vegan are often used interchangeably – largely to avoid the connotations associated with political veganism.
Veganism has its roots in some ancient Indian religions such as Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism, but the term was first coined by the founder of the Vegan Society, in London, in 1945.
Veganism was considered very much an oddity until around 2010, when it was officially recognised by the European Parliament, simultaneously coinciding with the increased availability of vegan foods and the wide variety of plant-based milks (such as soya, almond, rice and oat milk).
Veganism suddenly became “mainstream” thanks to best-sellers such as Skinny Bitch, which helped make veganism trendy and popular.
Today, there are many vegan restaurants, supermarkets and fairs dedicated to the vegan way of life.
And vegan food magazines adorn magazine racks, with titles such as:
Worldwide, Israel has the highest population of people who describe themselves as vegan and November 1st is World Vegan Day!
According to the April 2017 edition of Glamour magazine, the following are just a few of the celebrities who follow a vegan diet:
Benefits of Veganism
Veganism is naturally higher in plant proteins. In fact, vegans rely 100% on plants (and mushrooms, which isn’t technically a plant!) for all of their nutrients.
This means that the vegan diet will naturally be lower in saturated fat, caloric value, and higher in dietary fibre, plant-based phytochemicals (which are rich in antioxidants), folate, vitamins C, E and magnesium.
Vegans are more likely to be home cooks too, and thus tend to consume less processed food.
Because vegans eat no dairy and no eggs, their overall fat intake is very low compared to vegetarians and omnivores. Vegans are therefore the slimmest of all the dietary subtypes.
Vegans tend to get most of their fat from mono and poly unsaturated fats found in avocado, coconut, nuts and seeds.
Veganism is considered to the be the only diet that is truly sustainable. With a growing global demand for meat, more land is required to both rear animals and to grow their food.
The most sustainable diet is one that is vegan and makes full use of locally grown seasonal produce. But would we want to put farmers in Peru out of business? It’s a toughie!
However, to temper this argument – there are plenty of opinions that state that veganism is by no means sustainable at all.
Drawbacks of Veganism
There are a number of nutrients that vegans lack in their diet when compared to either a vegetarian or omnivore diet. However, this simply means that a vegan will need to be more aware of the daily eating patterns than an omnivore. We’ll look at them in turn:
- Iron is richly available in many vegetable-based foods such as dark leafy greens, pulses and grains, but the type of iron available in these foods is known as non haem iron. This means that the body has greater difficulty absorbing it compared to the iron found in meat. Therefore, vegans and vegetarians (particularly women) are more likely to suffer iron deficiency anaemia than meat-eaters, and this is made worse for those vegans who also avoid wheat (which is not uncommon). However, simply consuming vitamin C rich foods helps absorb iron.
- Vitamin B12 doesn’t exist in any vegetable matter, humans can only get it into their diet by eating meat or consuming dairy products and eggs. Therefore, vitamin B12 is much more likely to be deficient in a vegan diet than a vegetarian. Many vegan products (such as soy milk or breakfast cereal) are now fortified with iron and vitamin B12, but this might not give the sufficient amount required to ensure healthy levels in the blood.
- Omega-3 fatty acid is richest in certain types of fish, predominantly oily fish. However, it is also present in some vegetarian sources such as algae-based supplements, flaxseeds, walnuts, soya and hemp seed.
- Vitamin D3 also doesn’t exist in plant-based foods. D2 is available to a limited extent in mushrooms grown in sunlight, but this form is unreliable to give us the vitamin D we need. Most of us get adequate vitamin D from having 10-20 minutes daily exposure to the sun. However, in the UK at least, we’re limited to the amount of sunlight we get to produce adequate vitamin D, particularly during the winter months. Omnivores therefore get their vitamin D from eggs, fish and meat offal.
- Zinc may be lower in vegetarian diets and much lower in vegan. The problem with absorbing many minerals into our blood is due to the presence of phytates, particularly in grains. Phytates can compete with minerals for absorption, suggesting that less is taken up by the body overall. Vegans would need to compensate by consuming sprouting vegetables such as beansprouts, alfafa among others.
- Calcium is ubiquitous in our diet, but vegans who don’t eat dairy foods may have much lower calcium status than their vegetarian cousins. Getting calcium from some rich green vegetables is problematic due to compounds (called oxolates) that bind to calcium preventing the body from accessing it. This could be made worse if there’s a deficiency in vitamin D! Vegans therefore should base meals around, or at least include, tofu, fortified products, sesame, pulses, whole grains, nuts and dried fruit.
Important Changes to Diet
There are a few tweaks vegans need to make to their diet to compensate for the nutrients they’re missing from animal products.
- Protein: most adults only need around 0.8g of protein for each kilogramme of body weight. When less than 50% of that protein comes from animal sources, then the amount of protein required overall is slightly higher. Vegans should consider eating around 1g of protein for each kilogramme that they weigh. It ls also important to combine foods that make an overall complete protein (such as eating grains with pulses).
- Supplementation may be important, particularly for vitamin D, vitamin B12, DHA/EPA (such as algae oil) and possibly calcium in vegan children, adolescents and the elderly.
- Vegans need to be much more aware of their diet than others, and a session with a nutritionist could be valuable for a lifetime of healthy vegan living.
Can Athletes be Vegan?
Many people believe that in order to be a successful athlete, including bodybuilding, you have to eat meat.
However, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that a vegan diet will perform any differently to an omnivore, as long as the athlete pays attention to their diet and eats well.
The main issues that a vegan athlete would need to look out for is getting enough of the right macronutrients such as omega-3 fats for recovery (omega-3 has an anti-inflammatory effect, and sport is naturally pro-inflammatory).
Ensuring sufficient protein is also important, and by combining pulses and cereals, and consuming the upper range of protein recommended according to their sport and muscle mass, protein is not difficult to source.
Vegans or anyone aspiring to a vegan diet are recommended to visit the Vegan Society webpages and read up about following a vegan diet that won’t compromise health.
There is no evidence that vegan diets are dangerous or have any adverse impact on health, providing some basic changes are made to ensure the vital nutrients are available.
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Seb is a writer and blogger of food and nutrition. He holds a bachelors and a masters degree in nutrition science, and has studied sports and exercise nutrition at postgraduate level. He specialises in plant-based nutrition and believes passionately that we can all live with a little less meat. He writes for www.veggieandspice.com and www.itsaboutnutrition.com