Being vegan is on trend right now, and those in favour of this way of eating will tell you that it’s the absolutely healthiest diet you can have from a nutritional perspective, plus you get to save, not only the lives of animals but the planet, too.
For most people, it is a bit of a stretch to go from where you are now to a 100% vegan diet and it’s something I’m asked about all the time. So I’m going to put it all out there for you: what it means to be vegan, what’s great about it, what’s not so good, where you might struggle – and I’ll also be giving you tips for getting started, whether your intention is to immerse yourself fully or if you just fancy dabbling.
WHAT IS A VEGAN DIET?
A vegan diet is a stricter version of a vegetarian diet. On top of not eating any meat, fish or seafood, a vegan diet also cuts out any food stuffs made from animal sources (some of which are the most nutrient-dense foods you can eat) – so, this will include egg,. milk, yoghurt, butter and cream as these also come from animal sources. And that means honey, too, as well as certain wines* and desserts (gelatin).
There is no set macro or micro nutrient ratios for a vegan diet; just vegetables, grains, fruit, nuts, seeds and any other foods made from plants. However, since the main vegan protein sources are pulses and grains, and only a combination of the two provides complete proteins (containing all the amino acids - apart from quinoa) this can be a high carbohydrate diet by definition.
* If you’re wondering why most wine is not vegan Here’s the answer…
All young wines are a little bit cloudy thanks to tiny molecules like proteins, tartrates, tannins and phenolics. These are completely harmless, but we wine-drinkers like our wines to be clear and bright. To make the wines clear, wine makers have traditionally used some added ingredients called ‘fining agents’ to help the process along. They include casein (milk protein) or albumin (egg whites), gelatin (animal protein) or isinglass (fish bladder protein). They act like a magnet, resulting in far fewer – but larger – particles that are more easily removed. You can now purchase vegan wines but would need to find bottles specifically labelled ‘vegan’.
Advantages V's disadvantages
ADVANTAGES OF GOING VEGAN
• Promotes natural foods
• Rich in vitamin C and fibre, plus other plant chemicals
• Helpful for some health conditions (rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, other auto-immune conditions).
•If done properly it can be a healthful diet ( see more about this further down!)
DISADVANTAGES OF GOING VEGAN
• Natural food is not a requirement to comply with the diet
• Does not explicitly encourage healthy eating patterns
• May be nutrient deficient (B12, haem iron, omega-3 fats, complete protein)
• Often high in carbohydrates
• Can be too low in protein, especially if you’re stressed or recovering from adrenal fatigue
• Does not limit or exclude sugar
• Not necessarily suitable for elderly, pregnant women, type 2 diabetics, or those with high triglycerides or carbohydrate intolerance
• Not always practical, especially when travelling abroad
• May or may not be effective for weight loss
• May be unhelpful if prone to disordered eating, rigidity and control. (It is common for those with anorexia or orthorexia to be on a vegan diet)
IS BEING VEGAN HEALTHY?
Good question! A vegan diet necessarily doesn’t mean a healthy diet.
There have been various well-publicised assertions over the years (most notably the book The China Study and, more recently, the film 'What The Health') that claimed eating a vegan diet was the healthiest thing you can do.
Although vegans commonly take an interest in how diet relates to health and tend to educate themselves about nutrition, the vegan diet does not explicitly prescribe healthy foods. There is a vegan alternative for every junk food out there. And you can live on white toast with margarine and jam (and see your blood sugar levels sky rocket) while still being vegan – and that is certainly not healthy.
One thing that everyone agrees on is that the following is healthy:
• Enjoy an abundance of freshly prepared vegetables
• Minimise processed foods and instead cook meals from scratch
• Eat mindfully and slowly
• Choose local, organic foods
Given that the vast majority of health complaints are linked to chronic inflammation, a plant-heavy, antioxidant-rich vegan diet will go some way to mediating inflammation and it will certainly not hinder your attempts to be healthy. Given we don’t eat nearly as much fibre as we should for optimum health, committing to eating more veg is only going to be a good thing.
THINGS TO BE MINDFUL OF ON A VEGAN DIET
• Vegan diets don’t provide the fat soluble vitamins A or and D. You can’t get vitamin A from carrots. What you get is beta carotene, which is the precursor to vitamin A.
• You may have heard that carotene can be converted into vitamin A, but this conversion is usually insignificant. First, it takes a huge amount of carotene to convert enough of actual vitamin A. And, if you have low thyroid function, impaired digestion or a lack of healthy fats in the diet, this conversion won’t happen at all.
• Vegan diets (unless you’re eating a lot of natto – a kind of fermented soy) don’t give you the vitamin K2. This is needed for shuttling calcium into your bones.
• Many people try to be vegan by relying on fake food – they replace milk, cheese and meat with foods manufactured to look and taste as though they are milk, cheese and meat. Since food manufacturing is not magic, non-foodstuffs are used including stabilisers, gums, thickeners and highly processed protein extracts. Moreover, you may be counting your vegan cheese in as a source of protein, when many are actually made from carbs.
• Vegan diets are low in vitamin B12 and iron. The readily-absorbed forms of these nutrients are found in animal products. Several studies (see notes in comments) suggest that up to 68% of vegans were deficient in vitamin B12.
• Several studies have shown that both vegetarians and vegans are also prone to deficiencies in calcium, zinc, and essential fats (see notes at the end).
HOW TO GET STARTED ON A VEGAN DIET
Some people like to make changes all in one go. If this is you, choosing a vegan recipe book from the resources I’ve listed below will be helpful.
Or you might try changing one meal at a time – possible having a vegan breakfast during your first week, adding a vegan lunch during week two and so on.
You might try changing one product at a time, for example, swapping traditional cow’s milk for almond milk, or butter for coconut oil. There’s a plant-based alternative for most things you can think of.
One thing that you can look forward to is some exciting new recipes. Bringing the principles of being vegan into your life even a few days a week (assuming we are talking veg-based meals rather than fake or junk foods), will deliver a whole new taste experience. There will be things that you love – and things the family rejects. It’s all part of the fun of discovering new things.
Please get in touch if ‘going vegan’ is something you are considering but don’t know where to start or if you’re already on a vegan diet but feel you need some help with it. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange a complementary call to discuss your concerns.
RESOURCES – BEST VEGAN BLOGS
The Colourful Kitchen www.thecolorfulkitchen.com
Deliciously Ella www.deliciouslyella.com
Minimalist Baker www.minimalistbaker.com
Oh She Glows www.ohsheglows.com
The Vegan Woman www.theveganwoman.com
RESOURCES – VEGAN RECIPE BOOKS
Christine Bailey, Go Lean Vegan: The Revolutionary 30-day Diet Plan to Lose Weight and Feel Great
Hugh, Fearnley-Whittingstall, River Cottage Much More Veg: 175 easy and delicious vegan recipes for every meal
Angela Liddon, Oh She Glows
Angela Liddon, Oh She Glows Everyday
Ella Mills (Woodward), Deliciously Ella
Ella Mills (Woodward), Deliciously Ella The Plant-Based Cookbook: 100 simple vegan recipes to make every day delicious
Vegans are deficient in B12 and folate
Vegans are deficient in calcium
Vegans are lower in iron
Vegans are lower in zinc
Vegans are low on essential fats