Whether you are vegan or flexitarian and giving a meat free meal a go, what are the pros and cons for your health?
Vegan diets tend to rely more heavily on whole grains, legumes (beans, pulses, and peas), fruit, veg, nuts and seeds than a typical Western diet, and may contribute to a higher daily intake of certain beneficial nutrients. These include more fibre, vitamins (A,C and E), magnesium, potassium and folate. However, if not planned well there is also a risk of nutrient deficiencies such as vitamin B12, iron, calcium, iodine, zinc and/or essential fatty acids.
It may also be possible to shed a few excess pounds (in weight), as there is a natural tendency to consume less calories on a vegan diet. This may be an issue though if calorie restriction leads to nutrient deficiencies, fatigue or a slower metabolism.
In terms of more serious illness, eating more fruit, veg, and legumes as part of a well-planned diet may lower the risk of heart disease, help with blood sugar control, and certain types of cancers, but more research is required to fully understand this.
What are the pitfalls?
With the increasing popularity of vegan diets there has been a surge in the production of “vegan products” available. Being labelled as vegan does not necessarily mean the food product is a healthy choice and it may be highly processed containing lots of artificial ingredients, and worse still may be high in calories, low in protein, fibre and nutrients. Likewise, substituting meat in meals may not provide the equivalent amounts of protein, iron and zinc, and eating a more diverse range of plant foods (legumes, quinoa, nuts etc.) are required to provide important nutrients.
Main nutrients to consider
Vitamin B12 and iron are mainly found in animal products which puts people following a vegan diet at greater risk of deficiency. B12 levels should be monitored, foods such as edible algae and fortified foods consumed, and supplements considered if required. Iron-rich foods (lentils, beans, oats, nuts, seeds, leafy veg. etc.) should be paired with foods containing vitamin C to enhance the absorption of non-haem iron.
So how do you start?
Swap processed grains (white rice, pasta and bread) for whole grains (brown versions plus oats, quinoa and buckwheat) and add more vegetables to meals to maximise your nutrient intake. Try to incorporate 1 or 2 foods containing protein in each meal, i.e. lentils, nuts, tofu to reach your daily protein requirements. To meet your omega 3 needs, include foods such as walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseeds and hemp seeds. Make time for planning meals to maintain a diverse and balanced diet.
A well-planned vegan diet can be healthy: however, if not well thought out, it may lead to nutrient deficiencies and potential health issues.
Breakfast – chia pudding
Lunch – warm salad
Dinner – Mexican bean and avocado dish
Joanne Jackson is a Cardiff-based nutritional therapist who has seen in clinic how diet and lifestyle directly impact upon energy, concentration, mood, and ability to handle day to day stress, and has developed nutrition programmes which gives people the knowledge and tools they need to look after their own health and wellbeing. She addresses common every day health concerns and offer simple and practical meal and snack suggestions to beat energy slumps, feel clear headed & focused, lose weight, boost mood and concentration, and safeguard your health.