Veganism – How to be Healthy on a Vegan Diet

picture of some vegetablesDue to the growing information on the internet about the cruelty that animals are subjected to when farmed for consumption, veganism is gaining popularity. More and more restaurants and cafes are offering vegan options now.  In fact, latest estimates show that 7% of the British population is now vegan.

Many people ask me whether a vegan diet is healthy.  To that question I would answer two things.  Firstly, no one diet fits all.  Everyone is different biochemically and for some people a vegan diet may be very difficult to maintain.   However, that said, ethically there may be no question in someone’s mind as to whether another diet is possible for them.   And secondly, there are healthy vegan diets and unhealthy vegan diets!

So in today’s blog I am going to be exploring what it means to have a healthy vegan diet.

There are many considerations when embarking on a vegan diet.  The most obvious but often overlooked one is to ensure that you are getting all the right nutrients.

The following are nutrients that might be harder to get from a vegan diet.

Protein

Picture of a marinated tempeh saladWhen people think of plant based sources of protein, they tend to think of pulses, nuts and seeds.  However, vegans need to ensure they are getting all their essential amino acids from their protein sources. The amino acid lysine is often difficult to consume on a vegan diet.  Protein sources containing all the essential amino acids are called “complete” proteins, excellent sources of which include quinoa, hemp and organic tempeh.

B12

The B12 in animal produce is produced in the gut by naturally occurring bacteria which the animals ingest when grazing.  However, there is now an increase in supplemental B12 in even animal feed due to the ways in which they are farmed.

When eating a vegan diet, the amounts of B12 in plant based foods are not high enough to supply the body with it’s daily needs.  Whilst B12 from animal produce can be stored in the body, stores tend to deplete after about three years of a plant-based vegan diet.

The only way then for vegans to get an adequate intake of B12 is through supplementation, which can be naturally synthesized through bacterial fermentation .  For further information, the Vegan Society have an evidence-based article on their website about the need for supplementation in Vegan diets:

B12 supplements are best absorbed sublingually, one of the most bioavailable being methylcobalamin. Although, again biochemical individuality of each person comes into play when deciding which source is the best for you.

Zinc

Picture of fresh mung bean sprouts

Plant based sources of zinc include nuts, seeds and pulses.  However, these contain a natural enzyme inhibitor called phytic acid which can make these sources less bioavailable in a vegan diet.  Soaking nuts, seeds and pulses for 8-12 hours, followed by rinsing, can reduce the amount of phytic acid, making the zinc more readily available.  Sprouting or fermenting can increase the bioavailability of the nutrients even further.

Iron

Whilst pulses, nuts (particularly cashews) and seeds (particularly sesame and hemp) contain iron, again, as with zinc, phytic acid found in plant-based foods can inhibit the absorption of the iron, so soaking, rinsing, fermenting and sprouting can be a good solution.

Vitamin A

Picture of carrots and their juiceWhen people think about vitamin A they think of carrots generally!  And yes, the precursor to vitamin A, beta carotene, is found in carrots and other yellow or orange vegetables, called carotenoids.  But people can have difficulty converting beta-carotene into vitamin A.  This is not true of everyone and is an area where it’s important to look at your own unique biochemistry, which can be assessed from taking a full case history as, whilst find in a multivitamin complex, supplementing with high dose vitamin A long term is not right for everyone.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is another supplement that it is hard to get from plant based sources. The only vegan sources are really fungi, moulds and lichens, not really things that we eat too much of and certainly not in enough quantities to provide an adequate vitamin D intake.  Of course, we can make vitamin D from exposure of sunlight on bare skin but in the UK that’s not a regular occurrence!  So again supplementation is key here, with vitamin D3 plus K2 providing an excellent source.

Calcium

When people think about calcium they think about dairy.  Giving up dairy can be a great concern in people’s minds when considering a vegan diet in relation to calcium intake.  To put your mind at rest here are some facts about dairy.

Picture of cows kept in inhumane conditionsIn his book “The China Study”, Dr Colin Campbell highlights multiple research studies showing that by increasing intake of dairy they could accelerate the growth of cancer cells, due to the difficult to digest protein molecule casein found in dairy.

Dairy is extremely acid-forming and can actually lead to loss of calcium through the urine due to the increased  acidity that dairy causes inside our cells.

We are the only species that considers drinking milk after weaning, and from another species!  In nature we aren’t supposed to have the enzymes after weaning to break down milk, which is why many people struggle with lactose intolerance and why dairy is mucous forming.  The large protein molecule in dairy exists to grow a small animal into a big animal in a very short space of time.  Us humans struggle to break down this protein molecule, which is much larger than our needs require.  All of this can then lead to digestive problems, sinus problems, skin problems, etc.

Calcium works synergistically with magnesium and plant based sources of calcium are much more balanced sources of these two electrolytes.  Excellent sources include hemp milk, which can provide almost half the recommended daily allowance of calcium, kale and sesame seeds and their produce, eg tahini.

Omega 3 fatty acids

These are “essential fatty acids”, implying that we cannot synthesise these ourselves and must have an adequate intake of them in our diet.  People often think of fish when they think of omega 3 fatty acids.  Vegan sources such as flaxseeds, chia seeds and walnuts contain ALA.  However, this then has to be converted to DHA and EPA to provide our body with the oils it needs to maintain healthy cells and this conversion is inefficient, less than 5 to 10 percent for EPA and 2 to 5 percent for DHA, and can be affected further by a whole host of factors including our genetics, our stress levels or an imbalance between our omega 3 intake and our omega 6 intake.  Supplementing with microalgae can provide an excellent source of DHA and EPA for vegans.

So in answer to the question at the outset, a healthy vegan diet is absolutely possible with careful consideration, planning and supplementation.

References

Clarys, P., Deliens, T., Huybrechts, I., Deriemaeker, P., Vanaelst, B., De Keyzer, W., Hebbelinck, M., … Mullie, P. (2014). Comparison of nutritional quality of the vegan, vegetarian, semi-vegetarian, pesco-vegetarian and omnivorous diet. Nutrients6(3), 1318-32. doi:10.3390/nu6031318

Rizzo, G., Laganà, A. S., Rapisarda, A. M., La Ferrera, G. M., Buscema, M., Rossetti, P., Nigro, A., Muscia, V., Valenti, G., Sapia, F., Sarpietro, G., Zigarelli, M., … Vitale, S. G. (2016). Vitamin B12 among Vegetarians: Status, Assessment and Supplementation. Nutrients8(12), 767. doi:10.3390/nu8120767

Roggerson, D. (2017). Vegan diets: practical advice for athletes and exercisers. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition14, 36. doi:10.1186/s12970-017-0192-9

Posted in Diet Types.