Last week I talked about an initiative in January called dry January, all about giving up alcohol for the month and what happens on 1st Feb. I’d now like to discuss the other main advertised initiative for January – ‘Veganuary’. Have you heard about it? Veganuary is in fact a non-profit organisation set up in 2014 to encourage people to adopt a vegan lifestyle for the month of January and potentially change their diet and lifestyle permanently to follow vegan principles (Veganuary, 2019). It is well advertised in the UK, but the Veganuary organisation promote the initiative globally as well.
According to The Vegan Society (2019), the definition of veganism is “Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.” It could be argued then that veganism is a way of life and if fully adopted effects not just what people eat, but how they behave towards animals in general.
This blog will look at just the diet aspects of veganism and will discuss the pros and cons of adopting a vegan diet both in the short term and the long term.
What is a vegan diet?
A vegan diet excludes all animal based products including meat, poultry and fish, as well as dairy products such as milk, cream, butter and yoghurt. Following a vegan diet also means you don’t consume eggs or honey. Whilst it might be relatively straight forward to exclude these foodstuffs from your diet, it is usually ready made products that catch you out. For example, pastry is usually made with butter or another animal fat, so products like sweet or savoury pies can be difficult to source that are vegan friendly. Cakes normally contain eggs, whilst milk or cream is usually a key ingredient in white sauces. For some food manufacturers it is difficult to guarantee that a product they make is vegan, simply because it is produced in a factory where animal products are handled, so cross contamination is quite possible.
What a vegan diet does include is a variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes, textured plant proteins such as tofu and Quorn™, nuts, seeds, plant based fats and oils, and so called dairy free milks, cheese and yoghurts. Food manufacturers are increasingly developing vegan meals because the market for vegan food has grown significantly over the last four years. According to The Vegan Society (2019) the number of vegans in the UK quadrupled from 150,000 in 2014 to 600,000 reported in 2019. This therefore makes eating a vegan diet more accessible to the public and easier to adopt. But why has the vegan diet grown in such popularity and so quickly?
It could be argued that the increase in veganism has been caused by a variety of factors. The vegan lifestyle as well as protecting animals also potentially has a role to play in tackling global warming via the reduced carbon emissions from livestock due to the reduced demand for meat. This however is arguable and would need further research to confirm. Looking purely from a diet perspective, as a vegan diet is perceived to be healthier than a diet that includes animal products, people who eat more vegan food believe they are following a healthier diet and lifestyle. There is much promotion for people to increase their intake of fruit and vegetables and other plant based foods and reduce their intake a red and processed meats, so it is maybe not surprising that we see a significant switch in the UK to a vegan diet. But is it healthier to exclude animal products from the diet?
Benefits and risks of excluding animal products from the diet
Animal protein such as beef, poultry, pork, lamb and fish are a source of not just protein but many other nutrients. The protein from animals is a more bioavailable source of protein than a plant based protein, that means our bodies are able to break down and absorb the amino acids more easily that protein from some plant sources weight for weight. The so called Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Score (DIAAS) is higher for animal proteins than plant proteins (Phillips, 2017). Animal proteins are also a complete protein; in other words, animal protein can supply all the essential amino acids our bodies need to synthesise proteins needed by the body. That does not mean that we cannot get the amino acids we need from plant sources or fortified foods, but it needs a little more thought and planning. A varied and balanced plant based diet should provide all the protein needs for the body.
Red and dark meat is a rich source of haem iron, the type of iron that is more bioavailable than non-haem iron from plant sources. The vitamin B12, which is essential for nerve formation and cell production can only be obtained from animal sources, so a vegan (and potentially a vegetarian) diet should be fortified with vitamin B12. A vitamin B12 deficiency leads to pernicious anaemia.
Growth and maintenance of bones and teeth, and muscle signalling requires calcium. I rich source of calcium is dairy products. By omitting dairy from the diet a vegan should look to supplement their diet with calcium, either in the form of tablets or fortified foods such as fortified soya milk. Iodine is another mineral that most of us obtain from milk, but on a vegan diet milk is not consumed, and although seaweed is a very rich source of iodine, how many of us eat that, it can also be dangerously high in iodine and potentially avoided as a source.
Salmon and other oily fish are a rich source of the longer chain fatty acid omega-3s (EPA and DHA), whilst not as long chain omega-3 (ALA) can be obtained from linseeds for example. All three omega-3s are required in the diet and are considered essential. A person following a vegan diet will only consume ALA and whilst the body can convert it into longer chain EPA and DHA fatty acids in the liver, this process is not efficient.
The mineral selenium can be obtained from brazil nuts, which is in fact one of the riches sources, however it can also be obtained from many animal sources. Selenium is important for many bodily functions such as reproduction, DNA synthesis, thyroid hormone metabolism and is an antioxidant. A person following a vegan diet should ensure they are regularly consuming brazil nuts.
Benefits of a plant based diet
Many of us don’t consume enough fruit and vegetables. According to Public Health England (2018) we should aim to eat at least 5 portions of fruit and vegetables every day and consume more beans and pulses. A well balanced plant based diet, along with some specific fortified foods can provide all the nutrients that we require.
Rich sources of plant based proteins include beans, lentils, tofu (soy), wholegrains, seeds and nuts. Whilst they may not be as high in protein concentration as an animal protein source weight for weight, eaten at higher amounts, plant proteins don’t just provide sufficient protein they provide other nutrients such as vitamins and minerals as well as fibre. We should be consuming at least 30 g of fibre every day and currently adults in the UK are not reaching this target. By default, a plant based diet will contain more fibre from the skins of fruits and vegetables if followed correctly, than compared to animal products.
As mentioned earlier non-haem iron from plant sources is not as bioavailable as haem iron, so a plant based diet rich in dark green leafy vegetables, dried fruit such as apricots and figs as well as legumes should be followed. I would even recommend that regular blood tests are taken to check iron stores and supplements should be taken if they fall below recommended levels. Teenage girls are particularly prone to being iron deficient, as well as any menstruating women. See my blog on whether teenage girls are getting enough nutrition.
Plant based fats such as olive oil, nut oils, linseed and rapeseed oils are all sources of heart health fats, that is they decrease ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol and increase levels of ‘good’ HDL cholesterol. These fats are considered healthier than animal fats such as butter and lard. Consuming less red and processed meats has been associated with a reduction in risk of certain diseases or conditions such as bowel cancer, heart disease and high blood pressure, obesity and obesity related disease such as type II diabetes.
Considerations if a vegan diet is adopted
Veganuary is all about switching to a plant based diet for the month of January, or at least switching some meal times to vegan. Whether you are vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian (eats fish but not meat) or flexitarian (switches between all three), a healthy balanced diet rich in a variety of proteins, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, healthy fats as well as high in fibre (30 g per day) will generally provide you with all the nutrients you need. The main consideration that should be taken if you are adopting a 100% vegan diet, or considering following a vegan diet beyond January, is that you are getting enough iron, vitamin B12, iodine, selenium and protein. In this instance you should look out for fortified foods and maybe consider taking supplements.
So is Veganuary worth the effort? Whilst food preparation might take longer and you need to consider that your vegan diet contains a variety of plant based and fortified foods, I would say yes. This is mainly because the increase in fruits, vegetables and legumes in your diet and reduction in animal fats will be good for your overall health. Longer term a vegan diet needs careful planning and execution, so maybe adopting a flexible approach to eating vegan foods occasionally next to healthy balanced meals containing all food groups, is a move in the right direction, and more easily managed.
Phillips, S, M. (2017). Current Concepts and Unresolved Questions in Dietary Protein Requirements and Supplements in Adults. Frontiers in Nutrition Review. 4:13. doi: 10.3389/fnut.2017.00013 Accessed online 15 Jan 20 at: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnut.2017.00013/full
Public Health England (28 September, 2018). The Eatwell Guide. Accessed online 15 Jan 20 at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-eatwell-guide
The Vegan Society (2019). Definition of veganism. Accessed online 13 Jan 20 at: https://www.vegansociety.com/go-vegan/definition-veganism
The Vegan Society (2019.) Statistics. Accessed online 13 Jan 20 at: https://www.vegansociety.com/news/media/statistics
Veganuary (2019). About. Accessed online 13 Jan 20 at: https://uk.veganuary.com/about