With an increase in the number of people eating more plant-based foods, Dr Frankie Phillips looks at the vegan diet and key sources of nutrients for vegans
What is a vegan diet?
Following a vegan diet means eating exclusively plant-based foods and avoiding consumption of all animal products. It excludes meat, fish and anything taken from animals including animal fats, gelatine, dairy, eggs and honey. Many vegans also avoid any products derived from animals, such as leather and products tested on animals.
People become vegan for a variety of reasons including concern about the treatment of animals, the perceived health benefits and/or environmental concerns. Some become vegan because they dislike the taste of meat or dairy or for religious or social reasons.
“Veganism is a way of living which seeks to avoid, as far as possible and practical, the use of animals for food, clothing or any other purpose. At the heart of veganism is the core principle that animals are not ours to be used.’’ The Vegan Society
The number of vegans in the UK is increasing. According to The UK Vegan Society, research by Ipsos MORI in 2016 suggested at least 542,000 people (about 1 per cent of the adult population in England, Scotland and Wales) were following a vegan diet. This is an increase in popularity by 360 per cent over the last decade! Younger people are more likely to be vegan than older adults, so the Vegan Society predicts veganism will continue to grow in the future. In addition, many people are trying to eat more sustainable diets and plant-based eating diets are becoming very popular. If well-planned, both vegan and plant-based diets can support health at all life-stages.
“There’s been a 360% increase in veganism over the last decade„
Health and nutrition on a vegan diet – benefits and pitfalls
The British Dietetic Association (BDA) supports the concept of plant-based diets which contain plenty of fruit, vegetables, nuts and wholegrain starchy foods. They are low in saturated fats and can help manage a healthy weight. Vegan diets have also been linked to lower cholesterol levels and blood pressure, as well as reduced risk of heart disease; they may also reduce risk of Type 2 diabetes and some cancers.
People following vegan dietary patterns tend to have less saturated fat, fewer calories and more fibre in their diets; vegans tend to eat plenty of fruit and vegetables, wholegrains and nuts and seeds. Animal-derived foods are renowned for being useful sources of protein and are highly ‘nutrient-dense’ meaning they have a lot of nutrients in a small portion. For example, dairy foods such as milk and yogurt are high in good quality protein, calcium, vitamin B12 and vitamin B2, as well as providing useful amounts of zinc and iodine. Red meat is also one of the best ways to get easily absorbed iron and oily fish can provide omega-3 fatty acids and selenium. Consequently, a vegan diet needs to ensure that when these foods are excluded, a suitable alternative, or combination of alternatives, are eaten.
“At least 542,000 adults in England, Scotland and Wales follow a vegan diet„
What does a good vegan diet look like?
Fortunately, there are plenty of plant-based foods which can provide the nutrients found in animal-derived foods, but care is needed to obtain some of them. For example, iron in plant foods is not as well-absorbed by the body as that contained in meat, and for a complete set of the amino acid building blocks of proteins, a combination of foods might be needed as there are few vegan complete proteins (quinoa and soya are high quality vegan proteins).
A vegan version of the Eatwell Guide has been developed and this is a useful resource for those embarking on a vegan diet. See http://www.brendadavisrd.com/my-vegan-plate/
In addition, the UK Eatwell Guide has key tips for a vegan diet:
- Eat at least five portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day.
- Base meals on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy foods – choose wholegrain where possible.
- Have some dairy alternatives (such as soya drinks and yoghurts).
- Eat some beans, pulses and other proteins (e.g. nuts, soya).
- Choose unsaturated oils and spreads and eat in small amounts.
- Drink plenty of fluids – the government recommends 6-8 cups/glasses a day.
- If you’re having foods and drinks that are high in fat, salt or sugar, have these less often and in small amounts.
Most nutrients are abundantly available in plant-based diets, but there are a few nutrients that need extra attention including calcium, iron, iodine, vitamin B12, vitamin D and omega-3 fats.
The following table shows which foods can provide these key nutrients in a vegan diet.
Is a vegan diet okay for children of all ages?
Studies show that eating a vegan diet during childhood can support adequate growth and development, although vegan children can struggle to manage the bulky nature of a vegan diet. Nevertheless, if well-planned, a vegan diet is suitable for infants and children as well as adults.
The key is to eat a variety of plant foods that can provide a good balance of nutrients. The Vegan Society and First Steps Nutrition Trust provide resources on feeding vegan infants and children. In the same way as adults need a supplement, it’s recommended that vegan children take vitamin B12. They may also benefit from an additional vegan multivitamin and mineral supplement which includes iodine, vitamin D and an algal source of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids.
Sustainable plant-based eating
A vegan, or largely plant-based diet, can be good for the planet as well. Estimates suggest that in the UK, well-planned vegan diets need just one third of the fertile land, fresh water and energy of the typical British diet. The benefits in terms of greenhouse gas emissions are also estimated to be in the region of 0.8 tonnes of CO2 per person per year. According to the Vegan Society, switching to a vegan diet can reduce carbon footprint by up to 50%.
Vegan diets are increasing in popularity, especially with campaigns such as ‘Veganuary’ encouraging people to try a vegan lifestyle for the month of January. However, nutritional intake and health can be compromised if suitable steps to ensure foods providing ‘at risk’ nutrients are ignored. To help avoid deficiency, key nutrients such as iron, iodine, vitamin D, vitamin B12 and long chain omega-3 fatty acids may need to be added to the diet in formats that are suitable for vegans.
Dr Frankie Phillips is a Registered Dietitian and Nutritionist with over 20 years’ experience in research, communications and consultancy. Her PhD in nutrition researched the effects of changing to a vegetarian diet. @drfrankiep