Globally, we’re experiencing a soaring trend in veganism. 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 requires discipline to ensure it’s healthy. Let’s look at veganism and then explore how to follow the diet healthily.
What is Veganism?
Veganism can be considered an extreme form of vegetarianism. It sits as the purest form of plant-based diets, being that a vegan diet is 100% plant-based. In fact, veganism is often used interchangeably with plant-based, but veganism is actually plant-only.
Vegetarians typically eat eggs and dairy (although not all); 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 consuming:
- all dairy products: cheese, milk, butter, cream and yoghurt
- any fish, shellfish or other sea-animal
- any meat or poultry
However, veganism grew from a strong political ideology around animal welfare, and strict vegans will also avoid consuming:
- insects – this is very difficult, as insects can and do (look away now if you’re squeamish) get caught up in milling machines when making all types of flour.
- any animal-derived ingredient from both diet and clothing or personal products (such as cochineal, gelatin, ambergris, leather, beeswax, royal jelly, silk, wool, lanolin, egg albumin etc)
- any product that uses animal-derivatives during its processing (such as refined sugar, wine and beer)
- some vegans avoid foods grown on farms that rely totally on bees in an unnatural way. Avocados, almonds, butternut squash are among some plant foods that rely on bees transported across distances to pollinate crops. However, vegans that avoid foods purported to unnaturally exploit bees are in the minority according to the Vegan Society – who do not support this form of veganism.
Today there are now two main 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 – possibly to avoid the connotations associated with political veganism.
Veganism as a concept regarding non-killing of sentient creatures has its roots in some ancient Indian religions such as Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism, but the term vegan was first coined by the founder (Donald Watson) of the Vegan Society, in London, in 1944.
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. There are still more female than male vegans, but its popularity is growing quickly among men!
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, November 1st is World Vegan Day and every January, thousands commit to a month long vegan diet known as Veganuary!
Now there’s an app to help new vegans get started on their journey!
According to the April 2017 edition of Glamour magazine, the following are just a few of the celebrities who follow a vegan diet:
Many new people have joined this list (or dropped out, such as Ellen Degeneres!)
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.
However, veganism does not necessarily mean healthy! For years, many vegans adopted this lifestyle for animal welfare purposes, and some had terrible diets where they’d live off chips (fries), Oreo biscuits (accidentally vegan), and other non-animal based processed high fat foods.
Today, vegans tend to be a lot more health conscious and aware of their diet. But not all! Many people jump onto a trend without thinking too much about the consequences.
Supermarkets are becoming wily, and stocking a vast range of nutrient-depleted, sugar and salt filled, calorie-dense ready meals aimed at the vegan market. I’m following a number of vegan Facebook groups, and the excitement around new processed products is palpable.
Vegans are often not healthy at all! They still want shortcuts.
A well balanced 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.
Because vegans eat no dairy and no eggs, their overall fat intake is very low compared to vegetarians and omnivores. Vegans are (generally) 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, nuts and seeds. But there is a growing trend in coconut consumption, which is very high in saturated fat.
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. This is without their demand for clean water too.
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.
Nutrients in a Vegan Diet
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 others.
The worst thing a vegan can do is get excited by the number of processed foods marketed to them and eat nothing else. Like everyone else, home-cooking should be encouraged where possible, and ensuring we consume the right ingredients daily.
We’ll look at each problem nutrient in turn, and then draw a list of foods every vegan needs in their food cupboard:
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).
Iron requirements for men and women differ. Women who menstruate lose blood regularly, and therefore, lose iron.
So their requirements for iron are almost double that of men. Women who do not (they’ve had a hysterectomy or passed the menopause) have the same requirements as men.
Rich vegan sources of iron include: beans, soya (including tofu and natto), nuts and seeds, wholegrains, fortified breakfast cereals, herbs
Consuming vitamin C rich foods with iron-rich foods helps absorb iron, so adding fruit and vegetables will often provide a lot of vitamin C. Avoiding things that impede absorption at time of eating will also help, so having tea or coffee away from meals will help.
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.
Thankfully, we don’t need much B12 – only about 1.5μg per day – and, unlike other B vitamins, the liver stores a supply that can last a good while!
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 vegan sources such as algae-based supplements, flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, soya and hemp seed.
It can be tricky for vegans to get adequate omega-3 into their diet. There is no set recommended daily intake, the goal is set by oily fish consumption, which is roughly 7250mg of omega-3 weekly, about 2 tsp of flax (linseed) daily (measured by total omega-3).
However, this isn’t exact science, as the types of omega-3 fats in oily fish and flax is different! Remember, seeds need to be ground up to get their oils – our guts are not efficient at breaking through their tough shells.
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.
Vegans therefore need to ensure that during the winter months, they supplement using a vegan vitamin D3, and during the summer – get outside as often as possible!
Zinc may be lower in vegetarian diets and much lower in vegan. Unlike iron, men require more zinc than women because zinc is needed for a healthy functioning prostate gland.
Men therefore are more likely to suffer zinc insufficiency on a vegan diet than women.
We need roughly 7mg a day for women and 9.5mg for men.
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.
Foods rich in zinc include: soya, fortified breakfast cereals, nuts and seeds, shiitake mushrooms, lentils.
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.
Vitamin K2 is a little known vitamin and is rarely talked about.
It’s really important for blood clotting, and is not found in the plant world at all except in fermented soya beans (known as natto).
Only vitamin K1 is. However, because we’re gaining more understanding of vitamin K, it’s believed that K1 and K2 may actually be different vitamins all together!
Unfortunately for vegans, it’s vitamin K2 that appears to be super important for blood clotting and calcium regulation. Science is still new in this area, and natto is neither easy to find nor palatable to all!
Iodine is a mineral many of us forget. It’s necessary for good thyroid function, and it’s easy to overdose if used in supplements or heavy consumption of foods that contain it (such as brown kelp).
The British get most of their iodine from milk and fish, and so vegans can easily miss out.
Many countries add iodine to salt, but the UK don’t, so British vegans will need to use seaweed as a good source of iodine, and so weekly consumption of sea vegetables can help – but kelp consumption should be kept low as its too high in iodine.
Using nori flakes as a seasoning can help, but don’t overdo it, it can make a dish taste bad. But then, so can salt if you use too much!
Selenium is another mineral that many people may never even heard of. It’s one of the main antioxidants we get from our diet, along with vitamins A, C, E, and the mineral zinc – they used to be sold as “immune boosters” to ward off colds!
There’s been some discussions that vegans can easily be deficient in selenium, but there’s no real need to be.
A good balanced diet containing grains and nuts should keep this mineral in balance – brazil nuts are particularly rich!
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 is also important to combine foods that make an overall complete protein (such as eating grains with pulses).
Vegans tend to lack the amino acids, lysine, methionine and cysteine. But a varied diet with lots of legumes, nuts, wholegrains and vegetables will ensure adequate protein – and consuming soya-based products like tofu, tempeh and soya milk can also help.
The Vegan Store Cupboard
Now that we’ve discussed the main nutrients that vegans can end up deficient if they’re not careful enough, what should a vegan always have in their food cupboard?
Vegans need to consider what they’re going to consume throughout the day, not meal by meal. It doesn’t matter whether you miss these ingredients in specific meals, so long as they appear in one of the meals.
- Nuts: brazil nuts (for selenium), cashew, pistachio, walnuts, almonds. Nut butters: peanut for example (but chooses 100% nut butters, no added palm oil, salt etc). 1-2 brazil nut, palm full of others throughout the day.
- Seeds: chia, flax, pumpkin seeds in particular (a tsp crushed over breakfast cereal, sprinkled on salads or added to smoothies). 2 tsp throughout the day
- Soya: tempeh and tofu are the best ways of getting these into meals. Both can be used in stir fries, salads, curries among others. Look at my vegan curry website for great ways of using tempeh and tofu into curries. If you can find (and stomach) natto, that too!
- Whole grains: whole meal bread, vegan pasta, breakfast oats
- Beans and lentils: chickpeas (garbanzo beans), black beans, aduki beans, peas, peanuts are all pretty good; any type of lentil
- Vegetables: good range of vegetables choosing one from each group:
- Leaves such as spinach, watercress, rocket (arugula)
- Brassicas such as broccoli, kale, bok choy, collards,
- Bright colours like squashes, peppers, tomatoes, aubergine (eggplant)
- Shiitake mushrooms
- Sprouting beans like beansprouts or alfafa
- Fruits: both dried and fresh. Berries are particularly great! Dried apricots, raisins for breakfast toppings.
- Milk alternatives: soya milk is probably the best, but the least favourite taste-wise. Oat milk is popular among vegans as is almond milk. Go for fortified versions
- Condiments: nutritional yeast (has a cheesy flavour), nori flakes
- Supplements: vegan vitamin D3 (not from lanolin)
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.
There are many successful vegan athletes who have no difficulty getting what they need from a plant only diet. According to Business Insider, the following are vegan as of 2017:
Barny du Plessis
Kendrick Yahcob Farris
Everyone has to wily about their diet. People who believe that vegans are unhealthy because their choice of food is so much more restricted often do not have a good diet themselves.
Most people don’t! We may be well-fed in the developed world, but we’re more likely to be malnourished because we’re relying too much on processed foods that are full of sugar, salt and fat.
Vegans simply need to look at their diet in a different way to those who are animal-based. There is no scientific evidence that suggests vegans are less healthy; there’s growing evidence suggesting that vegan diets are not only healthy but often preferential.
Despite the lack of certain vitamins, eating fortified foods such as alternative milk products, nutritional yeast, yeast extract, and consuming a range of grains, legumes, vegetables and nuts or seeds will ensure a happy and healthy vegan.
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.
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.
Supplementation can be a minefield for vegans, as many supplements aren’t even vegetarian friendly (capsules may contain gelatin), let alone vegan!
Vitamin D supplementation is often not vegan friendly! You can buy vegan vitamin D tablets which are made from mushrooms (D2) or lichen (D3). I highly recommend you get the lichen one.
I’ll try and keep this up-to-date, but if you live in the UK (or even overseas and don’t mind overseas postage costs), here are some links to vegan supplements (no affiliation):
1. Vitamin D:
- Omvits Vitamin D3 (from lichen extract)
- Cytoplan Vitamin D3 (from lichen)
- Nature’s Plus Vitamin D3 (from mushrooms)
- Nutri Vitamin D3 drops (from lichen)
- Golden Green’s Vitamin D complex (combined with other nutrients)
- Omvits Omega-3 (from marine algae)
- Cytoplan Omega-3 (from marine algae)
- Testa Omega-3 (from algae oil)
- The Supplement Place Omega-3 (from algae oil)
3. Vitamin B12
- Omvits Free from palm oil, soya and wheat.
4. Multi vegan supplement
- Veganicity through thevegankind website have a range of good vegan supplements.
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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.