Updated: Feb 23, 2020
Going vegan for January? Well you’re not alone – according to Google Trends interest in Veganuary went up by 100% from the end of November until the end of December. Going vegan can have some health benefits, but there are certainly some things you need to be aware of before you embark on your plant-based journey.
A plant-based diet is one that avoids eating meat, fish and animal products. So, it is hardly surprising that an increasing amount of people appear to be taking part in veganism for the month of January. Unlike a plant-based diet, a vegan diet is one that completely omits all meat, fish and animal products such as dairy, eggs and honey.
Evidence from epidemiological studies (in simple terms, studies that examine health and disease in populations) suggest that plant-based diets may have a role in reducing the risk of all-cause mortality, obesity, cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer and type 2 diabetes. They also have a beneficial impact on the diversity of the bacteria living in your gut, by increasing good bacteria and reducing bad bacteria. This is important as we are discovering more about the role of gut bacteria on our mood (did you know that most of our serotonin is produced in your gut?), digestion, metabolism and immune function - the list goes on.
Some of these potential benefits may be as a result of vegans consuming a lower intake of saturated fat, and a higher intake of fibre. Fibre in particular, has been celebrated for its role in improving gut health, cholesterol and preventing chronic diseases such as obesity and diabetes. Plant-based diets are also more likely to be higher in magnesium, folic acid, potassium, vitamin B1, C and E.
Ideal, right? But vegans or those eating a predominately plant-based diet, may have lower intakes of retinol, calcium, zinc, protein, vitamin B12 and D. Such deficiencies may have a negative impact on memory, nerve impulses, immune function as well as eye, teeth and bone health (to name a few). So, if you are planning on trying a plant-based or vegan diet this January then there are some foods and supplements you need know about.
Foods you should try to include
Including a source of protein with each meal will ensure that you are onto a winner. Examples of complete proteins (an easy way of saying that a food contains all essential amino acids not made by the body) include: soy beans or edamame beans, tofu, buckwheat, chia seeds or quinoa. Bare in mind that, just because these are complete proteins, does not necessarily mean they are high in protein; for example buckwheat, chia seeds and quinoa alone are not high in protein. But team these with some soy yoghurt, lentils, chickpeas or vegan meat substitutes (such as quorn) then you are sorted. You can also get a range of all essential amino acids by combining foods with different quantities of amino acids. For example: rice and beans (such as chickpeas), peanut butter and toast, hummus and pita or beans on toast.
Vitamin B12 is needed for nerve function, and a deficiency can lead to anaemia (you may start feeling tired and fatigued). Vitamin B12 in a vegan or plant-based diet is found most abundantly in fortified foods such as fortified cereals, plant-based milks (check the label still as some brands or organic varieties may be lacking) or yeast based products such as marmite or yeast flakes (often used to get a cheesy taste in vegan recipes). For example, a tablespoon of nutritional yeast flakes exceeds your daily requirements, and a glass of fortified plant-based milk should give you half of your daily requirements. If you’re not regularly including B12 containing foods, then you may need to consider a B12 injection or supplement containing 10 micrograms (especially if you’re an older adult, aged 65 years or over) - in this instance you should speak to your GP or healthcare professional.
Vitamin D and Calcium
The body needs vitamin D to regulate calcium and phosphate, which collectively contribute towards bone, teeth and muscle health. Vitamin D is not found in its active form in many foods, other than those that are fortified; such as cereals or plant-based milks. The best way to ensure you're getting enough vitamin D would be to take a supplement - look for a supplement with 10 micrograms, as this should be sufficient for most adults.
Now for calcium, you should turn to leafy greens (broccoli, okra or cabbage), fortified plant-based milks (check the label always! Alpro, Oatly or Rice Dream are good choices), tofu set with calcium sulphate, sesame seeds (including tahini), pulses, bread and dried fruit.
Omega 3 is rich in fatty fish such as salmon and mackerel; which is essential for brain, heart, nerve and eye health. Although it is found in plant-based (alpha-linoleic acid or ALA) sources as hemp seeds, walnuts and rapeseed oil, the body finds this type of omega 3 hard to absorb. To make things more complicated, eating a diet rich in omega 6 (linolenic acid) can make it harder for your body to absorb omega 3 from you diet. So you may need to consider reducing your intake of omega 6 rich foods such as sunflower or safflower oil. You may wish to consider taking an omega 3 supplement.
Now, there are two types of iron that we can get from food: non-haem and haem. Essentially this means sources that do not contain haemoglobin and those that do. Sources that contain haemoglobin (a protein in red blood cells containing iron that allows oxygen to be carried around the body). Hence food sources that contain haemoglobin are richer in iron and are more readily available for the body to absorb. These sources are foods that come from animal sources - in particular beef, lamb and pork. So for those following a plant-based diet, you should consider how you can maximise your non-haem iron intake to ensure you are getting enough. Make sure to include pulses, legumes, nuts, seeds, dark leafy greens (spinach, cabbage, broccoli), fortified breakfast cereals and tofu. You may also be able to help your body absorbing non-harm iron by pairing your meals with vitamin C containing foods such as peppers, broccoli or orange juice. Sadly, pairing your beloved cup of tea with your meals may reduce the amount of iron you can absorb from foods due to the naturally occurring compounds called tannins and oxalates contained within them.
Iodine has a key role in making thyroid hormone, which is response for healthy metabolic rate. Iodine is contained in dairy foods, eggs and fish. So for many people are becoming more plant-based, and for a large proportion of the population who are not eating their recommended fish intake a week, then iodine should be a consideration in your diet. Iodine can be found in raw green vegetables such as spinach or broccoli, seaweed and kelp, and cereals and grains. However, the amount of iodine contained in these sources will depend on the quality of the soil they are grown in. You may want to consider having a oral supplement of 0.5mg a day or less if you’re not getting iodine containing foods in your diet.
Going vegan for January may help you incorporate healthier lifestyle choices in the long run, such as eating more beans, pulses, fruit and vegetables. Moreover, eating less meat is essential in our fight towards climate change - everybody should consider incorporating a meat free day each week or aiming for a meat free meal each day. If you are planning on eating more plant-based or going vegan, you should consider incorporating some of the foods mentioned above and supplementation of certain vitamins such as B12, and D (particularly in darker months). Please note that taking too many vitamins above what the body needs, can actually be toxic for the body - so consult your GP, registered dietitian or registered nutritionist if you are unsure. Moreover, excluding food groups completely such as the vegan diet may be too restrictive for some people (for example those that have a history of disordered eating).
Here comes a healthcare professionals favourite line... more studies are needed with larger groups of participants, for longer durations and using more reliable measures of dietary intake to inform us of the long-term effects of eating a plant-based diets.