Veganism is a perennial trigger for the types of people who hate Greta Thunberg or deny the existence of climate change. However, with Veganuary having just concluded, even the most open-minded people are tired of hearing about the merits of plant-based eating. Your best friend is doing it, your boss, your mum’s put her cat on a plant-based diet, and social media is awash with posts extolling the virtues of veganism.
If you’re not on the bandwagon yet then you likely have a host of reasons. Right at the top of the list for many people, will be concerns about their health and wellbeing. I’ve been vegetarian (not vegan) for 24 years this month, and aside from being alive and kicking, I’ve had plenty of time to think about what risks and benefits come with plant-based eating.
Veganism is undoubtedly a net-good when it comes to the health of our planet, but personal circumstances, and reality, still play a part. If you want a plant-based diet that is good for your health it’s frankly a luxury, or a risk. Not everyone should be vegan 100% of the time, but switching to a predominantly plant-based diet can make you healthier and happier if you can do it right.
In this article I’ve taken findings from a well known clinical review that sourced 167 different texts and studies into vegan health in order to assist doctors offering nutrition advice to their patients.
Protein deficiency is one of the most common concerns among those considering veganism, yet evidence has shown that vegans eat well over the recommend daily protein intake, with one study showing only a 1.1% decline in protein intake when switching from an omnivorous diet. That said, if you don’t regularly vary your sources of plant protein then you could end up missing certain essential amino acids.
My advice: Don’t worry about protein! However, if you’re not able or willing to introduce a variety of different plants into your diet, you should consider taking supplements for essential amino acids.
Frankly, this is a big one. Vegans and vegetarians will genuinely have difficulty meeting the recommended daily intake of vitamin B12 if they avoid consuming products fortified with vitamin B12. The consequences are varied, but include things like cognitive disorders, weakness, and fatigue.
My advice: Consider taking a vitamin B12 supplement, but only if you’re not already consuming fortified products. For example, most plant-based milks are fortified with vitamin B12, as are a wide range of other processed vegan foods.
On average, vegans actually consume more iron that omnivores, but there’s a catch. The vegan diet also makes it harder to store iron!
My advice: If you’re eating a varied diet then you’re probably in the clear. For children on vegan diets, or any adults feeling concerned, a periodic assessment with your GP might be worth considering.
Calcium & Vitamin D
Vegans will typically consume lower levels of calcium and vitamin D, but conveniently for us, your gastrointestinal absorption and storage increase when you’re on a diet low in animal proteins and calcium.
My advice: There’s probably little to be concerned with here, especially if you’re consuming fortified products (as most of us, omnivore or vegan, are doing). Guidelines from the research papers suggest a consumption of approximately 525mg of calcium and 15 μg of vitamin D per day.
There are very few risks to dietary nutrition for those vegans that have a varied diet. If you know your circumstances don’t allow for a rich and varied diet, then you should consider taking a few supplements, or perhaps occasionally eat some dairy produce or meat!
Having been vegetarian (not vegan) for most of my life I can tell you it’s had no ill effect on my health, and I’ve not always eaten well! A record 400,000 people took part in Veganuary this year, and there’s a reason why you won’t see a deluge of reports about them falling into poor health in a few months – evidence already shows us there are few serious downsides from the perspective of dietary nutrition.
In conclusion, a varied diet that protects our planet, along with the animals and ecosystems it supports, it’s surely worth considering.
Still not convinced? Then here’s a nice TED talk on veganism…