So you’re thinking of adopting a vegan lifestyle, or you’ve just started and not sure if you’re doing it in a healthy way; maybe a son or daughter has just announced they’re vegan. Changing a diet can come with many issues and problems – so let’s look at how being vegan can be achieved healthily.
It’s one thing you deciding to adopt this diet, but what if your child announces they wish to? Do you support them or discourage them? Veganism doesn’t harm anyone, just so long as you follow a few simple rules.
What it means to be vegan
Being vegan means different things to different people, there are essentially two types of vegan:
- Dietary vegans: these are people who adopt a vegan diet because they believe a fully plant-based diet is much healthier. With so much bad press about meat and health, there’s a growing trend to avoid meat and animal protein completely. Many lifestyle vegans have a compassionate view to animal welfare, but may not adopt all the practices held by vegans who adopt the diet politically.
- Ethical vegans: there are people who adopt a vegan lifestyle and not just a diet. They will stop eating all animal-based products including honey, or even using any animal-based product such as beeswax, cochineal colouring/dyes (from crushed beetles), leather and suede and will boycott any product that has used animal-based ingredients or tested on animals. For ethical vegans, using animals in any capacity for human benefit is abhorrent.
It is said that the rise in dietary veganism is largely due to social media, and the popularity of veganism among young celebrities and celebrity culture.
Veganism for Weight Loss
You may have heard that vegans can eat anything and still lose weight and/or maintain a low healthy weight. This is true when you compare the average weight across the dietary groups; for example, vegans tend to have the lowest body mass, then vegetarians, then flexitarians and pescatarians (fish-eaters), and then omnivores (people who eat meat).
If you are serious about losing weight following a vegan diet, then you need to follow what is known as a whole-food plant-based diet. Veganism does not necessarily = healthy! You can be vegan yet chow down on fries, tofu burgers and wash down with a coke for lunch and still pack in a lot of calories that contain little nutritional value.
Whole-food literally means “you eat the whole food” and not its processed equivalent. What does this mean in practicality?
- No plant-oils (eg olive oil, coconut oil, groundnut oil)
- No dried fruit or fruit juices
- No processed foods such as soya burgers, Quorn™, fake meat
- No vegan cheese
- Bread is OK in moderation so long as its wholegrain
- No crisps, sweets, vegan cakes etc
- Nut milks are OK, as are tea and coffee in limited amounts.
It’s not a million miles away from a raw food diet, except that you can cook your food – you just avoid all processed food.
My opinion is, start your weight-loss journey following T Colin Campbell’s principles to the letter, and then when you get to your target weight – consider moving some of the “no” list to the “sparingly” list. I don’t believe a vegan or vegetarian cook’s food cupboard should be empty of plant-oils! And, in future posts, we’re going to explore making vegan cheese and yoghurts at home!
There are many different opinions on whole-food plant-based diets, but for the best information – go to the T Colin Campbell Nutrition Studies webpage.
Hints & Tips
It doesn’t actually matter why you adopt a vegan diet, you will still face the same adaptation problems unless a few simple steps are followed first. We’ve already discussed protein in a previous post.
The first thing a new vegan may experience is a huge and sudden surge in the amount of dietary fibre they’re consuming.
If you’ve been following a meat-based diet for your entire life, suddenly getting all of your nutrition from plants can have an adverse affect on your bowels!
Whilst it is true that many Europeans, Americans and Australasians don’t consume enough dietary fibre, suddenly adopting a high consumption is also problematic. The best approach is slowly slowly.
Our bodies need time to adapt to fibre, so increasing the amount we eat week by week is the best approach. Whilst dietary fibre is being increased, so too should be the amount of water we need.
Fibre comes in two main forms: soluble fibre (soluble in water) and insoluble fibre (does not absorb water). As your fibre intake goes up, the amount of available water in your body goes down as the fibre absorbs it.
Vitamin B12 is probably the most talked about vitamin in recent years after vitamin D. The reason for this is probably due to the rise in veganism.
Vitamin B12 is an essential vitamin because it is required by so many processes in our body including keeping the nerve and blood cells healthy, and is partly responsibly for making DNA – the programming code in our cells.
Vitamin B12 is not available in a plant-based diet, because it is made by certain types of bacteria. We do (indirectly) produce vitamin B12 in our gut, by the community of bacteria that live in our colon.
But because our colon is not involved in absorption, the vitamin does not end up in our blood. Moreover, we need a protein called intrinsic factor to absorb B12, which is produced in the stomach.
B12 is therefore obtained through animals who eat plants (and dirt) that contain a lot of micro-organisms. They don’t wash their food (we do, and should!) and their guts are also able to absorb B12 made by their own gut bacteria.
Vitamin B12 is stored in our liver, and so it can take a very long time for our bodies to fully deplete it. Therefore, a vegan may not start to develop symptoms of deficiency for some time.
Because it is stored, we actually need tiny amounts of it – a lot less than many other vitamins we require each day.
Therefore, getting B12 can be done through diet alone (although supplementing is OK too, but not necessary – just remember that not all supplements are vegan-friendly!).
Vegetarians often have no issue getting B12 if they consume eggs and/or dairy produce. But vegans need to get their B12 from fortified products, such as fortified milk alternatives (soya, oat, rice, almond milk etc).
If you buy any one of the growing number of vegan magazines now available in the UK, you’ll notice how often nutritional yeast is used in recipes.
Nutritional yeast is often fortified with B12, and is available in the UK as Engevita, and can be obtained from Holland & Barrett and many high street supermarkets.
More information about B12 is available through the Vegan Society.
Read more about vitamin B12
Vitamin D isn’t something most new vegans need to worry about – at least, during the summer months!
Come winter, the picture is very much different! For those living in the northern hemisphere, far away from the tropics, it’s possible that many don’t see sunlight much, if ever.
Vitamin D is known as the sunshine vitamin because we get most of it through our skin’s contact with ultraviolet light from the sun. When the sun is weak, particularly during the months October through to March, we rely on getting vitamin D from our diet.
However, vitamin D is only available in one vegetable: mushrooms. And not all mushrooms either, only those grown directly in the sunlight.
There are two main dietary sources of vitamin D: D2 and D3. We utilise D3 much better than we do D2, yet it’s D2 that’s available in mushrooms. If we want D3, then we need to start eating fish, dairy and eggs.
Having said that, even those not eating a plant-based diet could probably benefit from supplementing during the winter months – and today, there are plenty of vegan-friendly D3 supplements on the market.
In the summer however, you just need to get outside during daylight hours and wear a short-sleeved shirt or shorts for around 20 minutes daily before applying sunblock. The lighter your skin, the less time you need to make vitamin D.
In the winter, you’d need to eat a lot of mushrooms to get as much vitamin D as you’d need. You probably could use a vegan friendly supplement, but it might be worth having a vitamin D test done first – as like B12, vitamin D is stored by the body.
Read more about vitamin D
The main mineral you’ll get bashed about is iron. Iron comes in two forms in our diet: haem-iron and non haem-iron. There’s an important difference between the two. And it’s to with how easy our body can access it.
Haem-iron is much more accessible for our bodies, but unfortunately it’s not widely available in a plant-based diet. Leafy green vegetables, whole grains and vegan sources of protein are important. Many products are fortified with iron and so vegans may need to think about choosing products that have added vitamins and minerals.
The best advice is to keep the diet as varied as possible, ensure that legumes, nuts, wholewheat, seeds and grains are consumed daily.
Iodine is the often forgotten mineral that vegans lack in their diet, but then so do a lot of British people. Milk and fish is the most common sources of it in an animal-based diet.
Vegans can get it from regular consumption of sea vegetables, but just be cautious of eating kelp more than once per week, because it can cause toxic levels of iodine due to its extraordinary content of it.
Calcium is everywhere, but so are anti-nutrients – so-called because they block our ability to absorb minerals. Typical anti-nutrients in our diet include oxalates and phytates, which can affect our body’s ability to uptake calcium, iron, zinc and other essential minerals.
These anti-nutrients are commonly found in plant-based foods – but the good news is, the way we prepare our foods can counteract this to some degree.
Many vegans will increase their consumption of pulses, such as lentils and beans. But pre-soaking them before cooking, then rinsing well can help remove some of these anti-nutrients.
Another trick is to skim off the skins, which can separate from beans during cooking. Many anti-nutrients are concentrated in the skin and so removing can make a difference.
Eating sprouting beans is another great way of reducing anti-nutrients. Sprouting isn’t something that’s commonly done in Western food preparation, but as a seed germinates, it breaks down the anti-nutrients for us.
Beansprouts and alfalfa are a good example of sprouting beans. You can buy kits now that help you sprout, and these vegetables are great in stir-fries and salads. Sprouting really isn’t difficult and only takes a few days before you have a crop of freshly sprouted beans.
When eating grains, consider switching to foods that have a fermenting process such as sourdough bread – fermenting can help reduce anti-nutrients in foods thus enable us to uptake more essential minerals.
Generally, becoming plant-based does mean changing the way we think about food – but this is not revolutionary! We’re actually reverting back to some pretty old ways of food preparation.
Our ancestors were aware of how food and our health are so closely connected; as we eat so much more meat now that we ever have, we’ve largely lost our habit of preparing vegetables in ways that protect our health.
One of the fun things about going plant-based is that you can explore food in so many more diverse ways than you probably thought of doing before.
So next time you fire up Google, search for: sprouting, fermenting, ideas for nutritional yeast and enjoy exploring your new culinary world.
And if a child wants to explore veganism, use it as an opportunity to expand your own culinary skills.
Seb is a nutritionist registered with the Association for Nutrition and a writer specialising in plant-based nutrition and men’s health. He graduated from Chester University with a masters degree in human nutrition and loves discovering new and vibrant plant-based recipes.