Vegans are vegans for different reasons, whether it’s a choice based on health, personal preference, animal rights or because it’s environmentally more ethical. Whatever your reasons for going vegan, it is important to appropriately plan your diet.
Planning a healthy vegan diet can be difficult in our culture with all the misinformation out there. There are so many different vegan diets and not all are healthy. You can’t assume that because something is ‘vegan’, that it is a healthy option (e.g. soft drinks and chips). The evidence suggesting eating a vegan diet has positive health benefits is not hard to come across, however, you need to make sure you diet is appropriately planned so you don’t become deficient in certain nutrients and don’t fall into the common pitfalls. Let’s start with some of the basics and look at the steps you need to take to be able to thrive on a vegan diet.
Common Pitfalls on a Vegan Diet
Weight gain or weight loss
It is not unusual for there to be significant weight fluctuations when it comes to a drastic change of your diet. For a lot of people, going vegan means eliminating a lot of the staples they used to regularly consume. They often turn to processed vegan treats such as refined carbohydrates that are calorie dense which can lead to weight gain. Even if the foods are nutritious and plant-based, you will gain weight if it is high in calories. Sometimes our bodies might need a bit of time to adjust to a new diet too. Depending on what you were eating before, your current stress levels and how healthy your gut microbiome is, it is often good to transition gradually to a new diet to avoid fluctuations in weight.
Skin issues e.g. acne
Removing dairy protein often has a positive effect on the skin. This is normally due to the fact that casein is known to contribute to insulin/IGF-1 signalling, increasing cell proliferation, cell debris and thickening of the skin making pores more likely to clog. However, often vegans turn to high glycaemic foods such as white bread, pasta and other carbs in order to feel full. This can also contribute to insulin resistance which has been associated with acne. To address this, simply switch white for brown (bread, pasta, rice) and focus more on legumes, fruits and vegetables and low glycaemic foods.
Another pitfall vegans have to watch out for when it comes to their skin is their zinc intake. Researchers have reported an association between serum zinc levels and acne vulgaris and studies have found vegans are considered to be at risk for zinc deficiency. Phytates, a common component of legumes, seeds and grains, bind to zinc thus, decreasing its bioavailability. To combat this, soak your legumes and sprouting seeds and also focus on eating more zinc-rich foods such as soybeans, chickpeas, lentils, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, sesame seeds, cashews and quinoa.
Studies show that vegan diets are at risk of some nutritional deficiencies particularly B12, iron and iodine. Keep in mind though that meat-eaters are deficient in several nutrients as well including fibre, folate, magnesium, vitamins C and E. Deficiencies can take a while to become apparent and symptoms can be subtle at first - maybe a little less energy, a little extra weight, a little more anxiety. Most of these nutritional deficits can be avoided on a plant-based diet if is comprehensive and well-planned.
One of the first things people say to you when you tell them you’re vegan is “where do you get your protein from?” This is one of the biggest myths that has endured about veganism- that you can’t get enough protein from a vegan diet. There is no evidence to suggest that vegans who eat a good range of plant foods are likely to lack in protein. In fact, even athletes can meet their protein needs on plant-based diets.
There are many plant sources that can help vegans meet their protein needs including peas, beans, lentils, chickpeas, seeds, nuts, soy products and whole grains such as brown rice and quinoa. Vegans used to be told that they had to combine complementary plant proteins (rice with beans, for example) at every meal to get all the amino acids (the building blocks of protein which all play different roles) contained in meat protein. Now health experts are saying that such rigid planning is unnecessary and that eating a wide variety of protein sources every day is sufficient. Although there is no need for the full range of essential amino acids to be part of every meal, it is clear that we do need all essential amino acids. This is why it is so important to consume a variety of protein sources.
For years we’ve also been told by the dairy industry and the media that we need to drink cow’s milk to get the calcium we need to keep our bones and teeth strong. However, this is simply not true. We can get our recommended dietary intake easily through plant foods. Plus, through increased consumption of fruits and vegetables, vegans tend to have a lower renal acid load, which reduces urinary calcium excretion and bone resorption. In a 12 year Harvard study of 78,000 women, those who drank milk three times a day actually broke more bones than women who rarely drank milk.10
Another study compared the rate of bone mineral density loss and fractures of 88 vegan and 90 omnivorous women over the age of 50, two years after the baseline measurement. At baseline, the vegans had significantly lower dietary intakes of calcium and vitamin D as well as total protein and fats. In spite of this, the study found that there was no difference in fracture rates between vegans and omnivores, but that higher intakes of animal protein and fat was associated with greater bone loss.
The best forms of calcium come from plant-based sources including tahini or sesame seeds as well as green leafy vegetables, legumes, broccoli, brussels sprouts, collards, kale, mustard greens and swiss chard. Beans and chickpeas are also good sources as well as tofu and other bean products. These sources are loaded with highly absorbable calcium and are also alkalising and thus protect bone calcium levels. There are also calcium-fortified products such as soy milk and according to one 2005 study, calcium absorption is equivalent for calcium carbonate fortified soy-milk and cow's milk at similar calcium loads.
Getting enough iron can be challenging not only for vegans but also for women who eat meat. This is a fair concern although studies have shown that iron deficiency is even more likely to be a problem for omnivores who consume large quantities of milk than for diet-conscious vegans.
While studies show that in Western countries, vegans tend to get the same amount of iron as meat eaters, the iron in meat (heme iron) is more readily absorbed than the kind found in plant foods (non-heme iron). A good trick is eating high vitamin C foods as vitamin C enhances absorption. Avoiding black tea with meals is also a good trick as the tannins found in tea binds to iron, decreasing absorption. Iron absorption may also be compromised by the phytic acid in whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds.
Some plant-based food sources of iron include dark leafy greens, lentils, chickpeas, beans, tofu, cashew nuts, chia seeds, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, dried apricots and figs, quinoa and fortified cereals. If you are vegan, especially a menstruating female, and experience low energy levels, shortness of breath, headaches, irritability or dizziness, it is best to go and get your iron levels checked to make sure you don’t have a deficiency.
This is definitely one problematic area for vegans as no plant foods are known to contain vitamin B12. Current research shows that a vegan diet is deficient in vitamin B12.
It is recommended that you should eat foods fortified with vitamin B12 (nutritional yeast, certain soy and rice beverages and breakfast cereals) or take a vitamin B12 supplement to avoid a deficiency which can increase cardiovascular disease risk factors, cause neurological problems and pernicious anaemia. Ask your doctor to get your B12 levels tested.
Iodine & Selenium
Studies show that vegetarians, and especially vegans, are at risk of low intakes of iodine and selenium. Both nutrients play extremely important roles in thyroid hormone production which controls metabolism and insufficient intake can lead to hypothyroidism.
In 2016, an Oxford study of 18,244 meat-eaters, 4,531 fish-eaters, 6,673 vegetarians and 803 vegans showed that vegans were falling short of iodine.
Iodine levels in plant foods depend on the iodine content of the soil in which they’re grown. Food grown close to the ocean tend to be higher in iodine. The most potent vegan iodine sources include iodised salt and seaweed which you should aim to consume a couple of times per week Other iodine sources include navy beans, corn, prunes, strawberries, bananas, green beans, watercress and zucchini although they don’t contain as much. You could also consider taking an iodine supplement.
The main concern for a vegan’s selenium intake is the variation in selenium content of plant-based foods grown in different soil regions. The best plant-based food sources of selenium include Brazil nuts, whole grains, legumes, sunflower seeds and chia seeds.
Omega-3 fatty acids
While intakes of the omega-3 fatty acid α-linolenic acid (ALA) are similar in vegetarians (and vegans) and non-vegetarians, intakes of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are low in vegetarians and almost completely absent in vegans. In the body, ALA is converted to EPA and DHA but with fairly low efficiency and is affected by genetics, sex, age and dietary composition. It is suggested that vegetarians double the current adequate intake of ALA if they do not consume any direct sources of EPA and DHA. A lack of essential fatty acids has been associated with impaired cognitive function and depression as well as inflammatory diseases such as arthritis, autoimmune diseases, diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
If you’re going vegan, make sure you boost your intake of omega-3 plant-based sources such as avocadoes, olive oil, flaxseeds, chia seeds and walnuts. You may also benefit from DHA and EPA supplements derived from microalgae.
How to get started
Changing to a vegan diet is easier if it’s well-planned. There is no doubt that reducing your meat intake and following a plant-based diet is one of the best things you can do for your health. The question is, where to start? It can be daunting but there are simple, tasty and nutritious ways to pack a vegan diet with key vitamins and minerals. Here are some tips to help you on your way:
1. Take advantage of the plant-based dairy alternatives.
One of the biggest struggles people face when going vegan is knowing how to replace everyday dairy products. Firstly, it’s important to know what ingredients to look for on the label that contain milk proteins or sugar. These include:
- Sodium caseinate
- Milk solids
- Non fat milk products
- Skim milk powder
Now learn what alternatives are available. For example, there are some great plant-based milks such as:
- Almond milk
- Soy milk
- Coconut milk
- Rice milk
- Oat milk
- Hemp milk
- Cashew milk
- Macadamia milk
Many of these are fortified with calcium and vitamin D and are healthy replacements for cow’s milk.
While plant-based margarine is commonly available, there are also some great natural replacements you could give a go including:
- Coconut oil
- Olive oil
- Flaxseed oil
- Hempseed oil
Giving up cheese is perhaps one of the most difficult things for people to do transitioning to a vegan diet. There is a wide range of alternatives for cheese including:
- Store bought vegan soft and hard cheese
- Cashew cheese with nut milk and lemon juice
- Nutritional yeast, also fortified with B12
There are also many delicious plant-based yoghurt alternatives available such as:
- Soy-based yoghurt
- Coconut yoghurt
- Cashew yoghurt
- Almond yoghurt
If you’re simply craving some ice-cream:
- Nut-based or soy-based store bought ice-cream (watch the sugar content though)
- Dairy-free fruit-based sorbets are also available
- Make your own using frozen bananas, cacao and plant-based milk or frozen mangos and plant-based milk
2. Check labels
Just because something is plant-based, it does not automatically mean it is healthful. Always be sure to check the labels for any added ingredients such as:
- Added sugars
- Preservatives and colours
- Added flavours
- Artificial sweeteners
3. Replace meat protein
Replace meat protein with good quality plant-based protein and a good rule of thumb is to aim for a palm-sized portion at each meal. Try legumes, nuts and seeds, soy products and quinoa to get you started.
4. Eat a rainbow plate of colours
Eat a large variety of different colour vegetables and fruits to ensure you get as much nutrient variety as possible. Incorporate plenty of nuts and seeds which contain a lot of vital minerals.
5. Go vegan slowly
If you’re not one to go cold-turkey, start by replacing one or two days of your week’s meals with a full plant-based menu and exclude meat, fish, eggs and dairy. Do this on a regular basis until you no longer want to return to your previous way of eating. Going vegan slowly may counteract any possible weight fluctuations and lessen digestive symptoms. It’s also a good idea to plan a week or at least a few days in advance.
6. Utilise the many vegan recipes available on the internet
Cooking can be fun and changing to a vegan diet gives you the opportunity for your creative side to come out. If you’re not one to experiment in the kitchen though, make use of thousands of delicious vegan recipes on the internet. From delicious savouries to mouth-watering desserts, there are some really great vegan chefs who are creating so many delicious and healthy plant-based recipes.
7. Support from friends and family
Finally, the key to success in any diet is getting your family on board if you can or at least getting their support for your transition. Tell your family and friends about your dietary requirements so they can help you out. Getting them to be your taste testers may also win them over to a plant-based diet. Also, when you go out to eat, notify the staff before you order or when booking as most of them will provide you with other alternatives.