Staying Nutritionally Safe When Embarking Upon a Vegan Diet
Guest Blog By Susannah White
Whether it’s for the animals, the planet or your health, opting to follow a plant-based way of eating is no longer a minority life-style choice. At last, we’ve gone mainstream!
Benefits to the environment and to animal welfare are at the heart of this choice for many people but there is also a growing number selecting plant-based food for health reasons. In a society where even our GPs are given very little training in nutrition, misinformation is prolifically spread in the media and where industry leads research, we each need to arm ourselves with a good foundation of knowledge in nutrition. We are, after all, what we eat. I’m mainly oats, I should imagine.
When I see the growing number of vegan foods available in supermarkets, for the main part I am thankful and see this as a wonderful indicator that the vegan pound is having a credible impact on the range of readily accessible fare.
Which nutrients do people worry about and which ones should they worry about?
Firstly, the protein myth. One of the first concerns most people have is whether or not they will get sufficient protein. Unless they live on very processed food, they should be able to get ample protein on a plant-based diet. In the past, there was a worry that plant protein is somehow less ‘whole’ than animal protein and that vegans needed to make complex combinations in order to have proper protein in their body. Of course, this myth has been dispelled as our bodies are highly evolved to take the building blocks of protein (amino acids) from different sources and combine them and store them as necessary.
B12 is the one vitamin that all vegans and plant-based eaters should supplement. It is not made by the human body – and it also is not made in animals either, but by bacteria. Failing to get an adequate amount of this essential nutrient is potentially dangerous and some symptoms can be irreversible. Supplements are cheap and there is a variety of types. Those who have been genotyped (for example, by 23 & Me) might find it useful to look into their methylation status to choose the most effective form to take. The Vegan Society has an information sheet on how to work out your daily requirements.
Omega-3 might be another area of interest for some. Maintaining a good balance of omega-3 and 6 is more straightforward on a whole-foods plant-based diet than some may think as, in the absence of vegetable oils in the diet it is easy to get the right ratio of different fats. Many people opt to supplement using algae based oil capsules, which are becoming easier to obtain although more expensive than their fish-oil counterparts. To get this nutrient directly from food, walnuts are one of the best sources, as are flax, chia and hemp seeds.
Finally, and this is a nutrient that does not often get mentioned, iodine. With an estimated one in seven of the world’s population being deficient, this is a nutrient to have on your radar. Deficiency can cause goitre (enlargement of the thyroid gland), affect brain development and cause hypothyroidism. Some parts of the world fortify all their salt but not the UK. It is possible to purchase iodised table salt, however. If you avoid salt this can be tricky but some foods do contain useful amounts such as haricot beans. Many achieve their daily requirements through regular seaweed consumption. A little caution here, however, as the quantity of iodine in different types of seaweed varies dramatically and it is quite possible to overdose (if eating kelp, for example); dulse is perhaps a safer bet. The most important time to consider supplementing is before and during pregnancy as a deficiency can have a devastating impact.
Despite these challenges, a plant-based diet is the only one to have been proven to prevent and reverse some of the most prevalent diseases of modern society. Armed with a little nutritional knowledge, you can eat delicious and nutritious foods and enjoy the pleasure of knowing that your choice is a sound environmental and ethical one.
For structured advice on how to balance a healthy plant-based diet, here are some useful resources:
and for recipes and articles: www.destinationplantbased.com
Susannah is a passionate educator as well as a plant-based foodie. She holds a certificate in plant-based nutrition from Cornell University and runs Destination Plant Based and Ahead Learning.