A Vegan diet – Healthy or not?

Vegan diets have skyrocketed in recent years with more people than ever choosing a plant based life. Since 2008 there has been a 350% increase in the number of self-described vegans in the UK alone. The motivation to become vegan, is often because of a concern about animal welfare or worries about the environment.  Many equally choose to become vegan as they seek a healthier diet.  But is it healthier?

Certainly, a vegan diet that focuses on plant based foods including vegetables, fruit, beans, nuts and wholegrains will increase ones’ intake of vitamins, minerals, fibre and enzymes that can bring many health benefits.   Research suggests that veganism, if well planned, may help promote weight loss, reduce the risk of inflammation, heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

However, the reality is that many vegans have a diet that sees an over reliance on refined foods such as bread, pasta, rice and chips, that can cause insulin to rise rapidly, promoting fat storage, and subsequent weight gain.   The supermarkets shelves are full of ready-made, highly processed packaged vegan meals which, are essentially devoid of nutrients, and are high in sodium, preservatives and artificial sweeteners.

A common deficiency seen in vegans is vitamin B12 which, can only be obtained from animal sources such as meat, fish, eggs and dairy.  Vitamin B12 has many roles in the body.  It supports the normal function of the nerve cells and is needed for the formation of red blood cells and the synthesis of DNA.  It is essential for boosting energy, improving memory and helping prevent heart disease.  A lack of vitamin B12 in the diet can result in breathlessness, exhaustion, poor memory and tingling hands and feet. For my vegan clients, I would always recommend that they supplement with vitamin B12 in the form of methylcobalamin (the active form of B12 that is ready for the body).

Another concern with the vegan diet is that, if it is not carefully planned, it can result in an inadequate intake of protein.  Proteins are made up of twenty different amino acids of which nine are essential.  They are essential because the body does not make them, but they have to be taken in through the diet.  The amino acids that make up proteins provide many important functions in the body and are the building blocks to forming healthy cells, bones, muscles, skin and hair.  Amino acids are also needed for the manufacture of enzymes, hormones and vitamins.    Complete proteins (those that contain all 9 essential amino acids) is easy to obtain from animal protein.   However, only a few plants foods, that are a staple in the vegan diet, can be considered complete proteins.  These include buckwheat, quinoa, pumpkins seeds, chia seeds, hummus and tofu. Pulses, beans and nuts in themselves are not complete proteins. However, as long as a vegan combines plant proteins, this will ensure they are getting an adequate amount of all the essential amino acids.  This means putting legumes with grains or vegetables.  These foods do not need to be combined at the same meal or even on the same day.  The focus, however, must be on incorporating as much variety of plant foods into the vegan’s diet as possible. Vegans should consider the following plant foods to ensure an adequate protein intake: –

  • Lentils                       9 grams of protein per ½ cup
  • Tofu                      10 grams of protein per cup
  • Black beans             8 grams of protein per ½ cup
  • Quinoa             8 grams of protein per cup
  • Brown rice 5 grams of protein per cup
  • Green peas            8 grams of protein per cup
  • Hemp seeds              13 grams of protein in 3 tablespoons
  • Oatmeal            12 grams of protein per cup
  • Pumpkin seeds 8 grams of protein per ¼ cup
  • Chia seeds 5 grams of protein in 2 tablespoons
  • Edamame beans 5 grams of protein per ½ cup
  • Spinach 5 grams of protein per cup
  • Blackeyed peas 8 grams of protein per ½ cup
  • Broccoli 4 grams of protein per cup
  • Asparagus 4 grams of protein per cup
  • Almonds 7 grams of protein per cup
  • Chickpeas 8 grams of protein per ½ cup
  • Peanut butter 8 grams of protein in 2 tablespoons

Deficiency in calcium is another concern about vegan diets.  Again, if a vegan eats a wide variety of plant foods they will obtain all the calcium they need without having to consume dairy products. Plant foods particularly high in calcium include seeds, beans and lentil, green leafy vegetables, broccoli and almonds.

As a nutritional therapist, I believe no one diet suit as all.  We are all unique with our own special dietary and lifestyle requirements to keep us healthy.  In my field of practice many vegans are healthy and many are not.  We also see meat eaters many of whom are vibrant and robust and many who are not.   Some vegans now choose to be ovo-vegetarian which, means essentially that they are vegan but have added eggs into their diet.  Eggs are one of the most nutritious foods you can eat and has the perfect balance of essential amino acids and vitamin B12. Overall eating a wide variety of whole, freshly prepared plant based foods will provide a vegan with all the nutrients they need for maintaining optimal health.

Sharon Sinclair Dip ION, mBANT

Nutritional Therapist


PS: Warm up with this November with Sweet Potato and Black Bean Shepherd Pie

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