As the New Year comes, many of us commit to new resolutions, most of which are there to motivate us, help us progress and improve, and make this year better than the last one. With January being the first month of the year, we tend to be very motivated to make changes that would continue for the remainder of the year. In our resolutions we very often focus on health or diet and weight loss goals. One of the recently popular resolutions is committing to Veganuary (following a vegan diet throughout January). Many do this as a challenge for health benefits, as a weight loss diet, a cleanse or for environmental or ethical reasons. But many of us have reservations in regards to the safety of a vegan diet and its suitability for different groups of people.
Health organisations support the idea that a well planned vegan diet may be beneficial but it is important to bear in mind that this type of diet requires careful planning to avoid deficiencies and health risks. The NHS claims that a vegan or vegetarian diet “can be very healthy”. Also it is the position of American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.
Also British Dietetic Association confirms that a well planned vegan diet can support healthy living in people of all ages.
According to The Vegan Society, the number of vegans in the UK increased four times since 2014. There were 600,000 vegans in the UK in 2019 and The Society predicts a quarter of the British population will be vegan or vegetarian by 2025.
With veganism spreading with such speed, becoming one should be an easier task when it comes to finding vegan products, restaurants, friends or even health professionals. But is it worth going vegan, even if it’s for this one month of the year? First, let’s see what a vegan diet exactly is.
A vegan diet is part of a lifestyle that excludes the consumption or use of any animal products. Vegans do not eat animal food, including honey, eggs, gelatin, or dairy. They will not use clothes or other products that are of animal origin.
Vegan diets have been studied for years and many studies bring to attention health benefits that these diets have. It has been found that in overweight/obese adults, a low-fat vegan diet can cause gut microbiota changes that are related to altered body composition and insulin sensitivity. Also people who eat more plant-based foods may be less likely to develop type 2 diabetes than those who eat more meat, fish, eggs, and dairy. Many suggest that a vegan diet can help to protect bone and heart health and lower the risk of many types of cancers. In addition, people on a vegan diet often consume fewer calories than those on a standard Western diet, which can lead to a lower body mass index (BMI) and a lower risk of obesity.
We all know that animal products are important sources of protein, non-saturated fats, vitamins and micronutrients and if we plan to go vegan we need to find alternative sources of these and some may require supplementation.
What exactly should we pay attention to?
Fat: Excluding animal fat could be beneficial not only from a weight loss point of view . These fats may be associated with conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, hypertension or cancer but they could easily be swapped for healthy, plant-based fats and oils that provide necessary fatty acids without increasing the levels of bad cholesterol. Healthy Omega 3 fats can be found in flaxseeds, flaxseed or rapeseed oil, walnuts, soya oil and soya-based foods such as tofu.
Vitamin B-12: necessary for the health of our nerves and blood cells and can easily be found in fortified plant foods such as fortified soy, seaweed, cereals, milk alternatives, nutritional yeast or Marmite. It is also worth considering B12 supplementation to avoid deficiencies.
Iron: responsible for absorbing oxygen into the blood and transporting it to the cells. On a vegan diet iron can be found in beans, dark leafy greens, pulses, wholemeal bread and flour, cereals, nuts and dried fruits.
Calcium: important for bone health, can be found in tofu, tahini, and green, leafy vegetables, dried fruits, kale, pulses, brown and white bread, black-eyed peas, and turnip greens or fortified vegan milk alternatives
Vitamin D: Along with calcium, vitamin D helps to strengthen the bones and teeth, it can also protect against multiple cancers and chronic diseases. To get the right amount we have to make sure that we eat fortified foods and spend time in the sun. Supplementation may also be necessary especially in the winter months.
Omega-3 fatty acids: vital for a healthy heart, eye function, and brain function, can be found in ground flaxseed, walnuts, canola oil, soy products and hemp beverages.
Iodine: The World Health Organisation now classes the UK as mildly deficient in iodine. Over a third of the iodine we eat comes from milk and dairy products. A lack of iodine may lead to fatigue, weight gain, and changes in heart rate. Seaweed and prunes are good sources of iodine.
This all sounds like a lot of effort but once you get a grip of it, it quickly becomes your second nature. Below are just a few tips to start with:
Adopting a vegan lifestyle is going to mean that you have to learn what food to eat, what food to shop for and how to cook what you’ve got. If we just stopped eating animal products we would not only be at risk of nutrient deficiencies, but also lacking calories and protein. This could make us feel weak, lacking in energy and also hungry.
Planning your meals and incorporating all the alternatives listed above is essential to staying healthy on a vegan diet. Also some research may be helpful to find your own reasons to stay on a vegan diet long term and make it comfortable in social situations to talk about your choice.
One step at a time
If you are trying to go vegan, try to take small steps and replace one product/food group at a time, especially if you go from meat-based diet to fully vegan. In your daily diet, make sure you eat at least 5 portions of a variety of fruits and vegetables; base your meals on potatoes, rice, pasta, bread (ideally wholegrain); have dairy alternatives; eat beans, pulses as protein sources.
Whatever your reason for becoming vegan, try to enjoy the process! Remember that food is not just fuel, It also plays a crucial role in social situations. These days, almost every restaurant offers vegetarian or vegan options and there are many purely vegan restaurants around. So try and find these to enjoy the variety and to avoid the feeling of ‘missing out’.
Remember: every deficiency presents differently but common symptoms of deficiencies are fatigue, headaches, memory loss, body pains and feeling generally unwell. If you begin to feel unwell after following a vegan lifestyle, make sure to see your doctor and get a blood test.
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