The popularity of veganism has really taken off. More than four times as many people are now opting to cut animal products out of their diet than they were four years ago. Across Britain, people are spending more money on vegan products, and plant-based diets are trending online. With major supermarkets catching on and stocking up on vegan-friendly food – and even restaurants starting to offer vegan dishes and menus for their customers, we were wondering how easy is it to go vegan and stay healthy?
A recent episode of the BBC TV programme “Trust Me I’m a Doctor” posed this very same question, and set Cambridge Neuroscience Research Associate Dr Giles Yeo the task of going vegan for one month.
Specific aspects of Giles’s health were assessed by Dr Mellor, a dietitian and senior lecturer in human nutrition at Coventry University before and after his month of being vegan. We measured his cholesterol, body fat, weight, and his levels of iron, folate, zinc and vitamins A, E, D and B12. Dr Mellor also gave Giles a list of foods to eat to stay healthy and avoid becoming deficient in key nutrients.
After one month on a vegan diet, Dr Yeo lost 4 kg and his body fat dropped by 2%. His BMI improved by 6% and his cholesterol fell by 12%. Thanks to Dr Mellor’s food suggestions, he didn’t become deficient in any key nutrients. However it’s more difficult to be so nutritionally diligent in the longer term and vegans can become deficient in nutrients you’d normally get from animal-based foods, such as iron and vitamin B12.
Essential nutrients for vegans
There are certain essential nutrients that we normally get from animal-based foods that vegans need to replace with alternative foods or supplements.
- Vitamin D – Vitamin D is important for our bone health. It is produced in our body when sunlight hits our skin and is also present in a few animal products. Vegans might want to consider taking a supplement, but beware that not all of them are vegan-friendly. Vitamin D2 is always suitable for vegans, whereas some sources of vitamin D3 derive from sheep’s wool.
- Vitamin B12 – We need vitamin B12 to keep our blood healthy. It is not produced by plants, but there are plenty of vegan products on the market, such as milks, spreads and yeast products, which are fortified with it.
- Omega 3 Fatty Acids – These are essential for brain function and are found in oily fish. Other good sources are flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts and soy beans.
- Calcium – While calcium is synonymous with dairy, there are plenty of vegan sources too. Tofu commonly contains calcium and there are calcium-fortified alternatives to cow’s milk available. Other good sources include green vegetables such as kale, pak choi, okra and spring greens, as well as almonds, chia seeds and dried figs.
- Iodine – Iodine deficiency is not uncommon in the UK, even in non-vegans, particularly amongst young women. In the UK, cow’s milk is our main source of iodine, and the non-dairy alternatives, like almond drinks, have much lower levels. You can get iodine from seaweed (though the amounts are unpredictable) but you may need to take a supplement.
- Protein – Some vegans worry that they aren’t getting enough protein, a nutrient people tend to associate with meat. However, eating a balanced diet with plenty of plant-based protein sources should provide all that you need. Particular foods to try and include are tofu, soy, beans and pulses.
- Iron – Cutting out meat can also affect your iron levels – red meat contains a form of iron that is easy for our body to absorb, whereas the iron that you get in fruit and veg is less readily available. One solution is to accompany iron-rich vegan foods with a rich source of vitamin C, like orange juice, which helps to make the iron more absorbable.
And what does my favourite chef say about veganism?
Many argue that we should all be making a conscious effort to reduce consumption of animals and animal products for the sake of our health and for the planet. Vegan or not, a diet high in fruit and veg and plant-based food is a good starting point for a healthy lifestyle.
You can find out more about this experiment on the Trust Me I’m a Doctor website here >>