Vegan is a type of dietary requirement that has substantially risen in popularity over the past years. One statistic suggested that there has been a 360% increase in the number of Vegans in the last 10 years alone. So much so that the act of practicing Veganism is now a protected human right under Article 9 of the European convention of human rights.
It has been suggested that there are over 542,000 people in the UK following at an exclusively Vegan diet, and this number is thought to see further growth [1,2].
What does it mean to be Vegan?
There is a lot of confusion surrounding the word ‘Vegan’ and ‘Vegetarian’, so much so they are often muddled up. A Vegan is a person that chooses to not consume any product derived from an animal, including:
The only difference between Vegans and Vegetarians is that, Vegetarians will consume products that come from an animal (milk, eggs and honey), but not consume anything that kills the animal also (meat or fish).
Too many omnivores see Veganism as confusing, they don’t understand how Vegans are able to consume the correct nutrition for a healthy lifestyle. Frequently posing questions such as ‘Where does their protein come from?’ and ‘Do they consume enough Calcium?’ The main protein sources in a Vegan diet are:
- Soy/nut/rice milk
- Seeds – sunflower, pumpkin, linseed and flax
- Nuts (almond, peanut, cashew)
- Tofu, Seitan or Tempeh
- Soy Yoghurt
- Legumes- Kidney Beans, Chickpeas and Lentils.
- Grains- Bulgur Wheat and Quinoa
- Large portions of wholegrains (bread/pasta), root vegetables and avocados are rich sources of protein.
Of course, the majority of the rest of their diet is made up of fruits and vegetables. Vegans are thought to consume up to 7-8 portions of fruit and vegetables per day. However, the modern vegan still has access to foods once thought to be unhealthy and traditionally associated with an omnivorous diet. The Food industry has managed to make cream, cheese, ice cream, desserts, and pizza available to Vegans. Which makes you wonder, is the Vegan diet really healthier?
What are the Benefits of going Vegan?
There is a multitude of health benefits of the Vegan diet. The Vegan diet tends to be high in vitamins, minerals and fibre from fruits and vegetables, but also low in saturated fats and cholesterol. One statistic showed that eating an excess of 7-8 fruits and vegetables today can lead to a 33% reduction in risk of premature death. In addition to this, Vegans tend to be/have:
- Lower, but healthy BMIs
- Good body composition. Often described as ‘leaner’ simply means they have low subcutaneous fat, and total body fat
- Reduced risk of heart disease
- Lower rates of hypertension
- They live longer and have much lower mortality rates
- They have lower risk of cancer, particularly prostate and bowel
- Reduced cholesterol 
One study found that the prevalence of heart disease in Vegans was a massive 57% lower than meat eaters, this is due to the effect plant sterols and stanols have on blood lipid concentration. This same study also looked at volume and frequency of food groups eaten. It found that the consumption of eggs and cheese (animal products) was positively correlated with the incidence of heart disease and a higher death rate .
What are the Common Shortfalls or Deficiencies of a Vegan Diet?
The British dietetic association released a statement in 2014 that read ‘...a well-planned plant-based, vegan-friendly diets can be devised to support healthy living at every age and life-stage.’ The emphasis is on the word ‘well-planned’, due to exclusion of a few food groups, nutrition in a vegan diet becomes primary .
There are no natural Vegan sources of Vitamin B12, though food companies are aware of this and therefore choose to fortify their vegan products such as plant based milk and nutritional yeast. However, vitamin content can be significantly reduced through the heating of food and therefore it is highly recommended that individuals following a vegan diet supplement their B12 intake, to ensure daily requirements are met. Vitamin B12 is essential for nerve health and deficiencies can present themselves through symptoms such as; weakness, fatigue, tingling limbs - hands, feet etc, shortness of breath, pale skin or a smooth tongue. If you are concerned about your B12 status or any persistent symptoms, please contact your doctor.
Vitamin B12 is a vital water-soluble vitamin. According to the European Food standards agency (EFSA), Vitamin B12 is essential for the production of red blood cells and energy yield, which in conjunction leads to a reduction in fatigue. Furthermore, it is responsible for immune system function and adequate neurological and physiological function. Lifelong deficiencies in Vitamin B12 have been linked with, cancer, anaemia, depression and dementia .
The predominant source of Omega 3 oils consumed are from fish. However, this is not suitable for someone following a Vegan diet, and therefore these essential fats must be gained via other means. Short chain Omega 3 (ALA) can be found in small quantities in flax, chia, hemp seeds, spinach, kale, cabbage and soybeans; although, significantly larger volumes of these must be consumed to reach the equivalent fats as long chain source. Additionally, there is limited conversion of short to long chain omegas within the body and therefore it is very difficult to yield the same benefits when consuming short chain omega 3s. Alternatively, algae oil supplements, rich in long chain omegas (EPA and DHA) are becoming increasingly popular among those following plant based diets, and for good reason.
Omega 3 oils are beneficial because they are rich in EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). Recent studies have shown that these are hugely beneficial to health. The studies were conducted on Inuits that live off a fish-rich diet. They found that DHA and EPA significantly reduced rates of heart disease. It was also thought to reduce pro-inflammatory markers such as thromboxanes and prostacyclins. Additionally, EPA and DHA have been shown to thin the blood and reduce the incidence of high blood pressure .
There are two types of Iron, Haem and Non-Haem. Haem sources come from animal products, are easier to absorb and are found in much greater quantities. Rich sources of haem Iron include red meat, lamb, mussels and pork. On the other hand, non-haem Iron is found in much smaller quantities and is less bio-available to the body. Dietary sources of Vegan non-haem Iron include tofu, kidney beans, lentils, chickpeas, kale and spinach. Vegans should also become savvy at reading labels because many of our whole grain products (cereals and bread) are fortified with minerals such as Iron. To get the most out of your Iron, consume with Vitamin C as this increases its bioavailability.
Iron is a well-known mineral, yet many of us do not consume enough. Iron is required for normal production of energy and reduction in fatigue. It is also used as a method of protection for the immune system. Most importantly, it is required for cell division and the production of functional haemoglobin in red blood cells.
Calcium and Vitamin D
When we think of Calcium, we think of dairy, but of course, Vegans do not eat dairy. Therefore they must find other sources. However, Calcium cannot be used in the bones or teeth if there is no Vitamin D available. Rich sources of Vegan Calcium include kale, broccoli spinach, nuts, soy beans and tofu. Whereas, Vitamin D can be sourced from predominantly from sunlight, with limited amounts in sunflower oils, sunflower seeds, mushrooms and tofu, however, from October-March in the UK, synthesis of vitamin D from sunlight is limited and therefore everyone is recommended to consume a supplement of vitamin D. Vitamin D3 is often sourced from lanolin (sheeps wool) and therefore is usually not vegan, unless stated otherwise, although vegan vitamin D3 is becoming increasingly available through a number of retailers.
Calcium and Vitamin D3 are required as structural components for bone and tooth health. Without adequate amounts, studies have shown it can increase the risk of osteoporosis, and arthritis. Additionally, Calcium is used within the body for muscular contractions.
‘Thou should eat to live; not live to eat.’~Socrates
- Quinn, S. (2016).Number of vegans in Britain rises by 360% in 10 years.Available: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/food-and-drink/news/number-of-vegans-in-britain-rises-by-360-in-10-years/.
- Vegan Society. (2016).Key Facts .Available: https://www.vegansociety.com/about-us/key-facts.
- Vegan Society. (2016).Health.Available: https://www.vegansociety.com/go-vegan/health.
- Appleby.P, et-al. (1999). The Oxford Vegetarian Study.The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 70 (3), Pg. 525-531.
- PETA. (2014).6 Simple Ways to Be the Healthiest Vegan Ever.Available: http://www.peta.org/living/food/vegetarian-101/vegans-guide-good-nutrition/.
- Mercola.J. (2012).View All Health Topics Most Popular 1 Beware: Biotin Supplements May Alter Your Thyroid Test 2 Real Food/Fake Food: Why You Don’t Know What You’re Eating and What You Can Do About It 3 Vaccines — Ar.Available: http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2012/02/15/how-to-avoid-the-most-dangerous-side-effect-of-veganism.aspx.
- Murray-Skeaff.C, Mann.J. (2012). 4: Lipids. In: Mann,J. Truswell,S.Essentials of Human Nutrition. 4th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Pg.65.