Adopting a vegan diet has become more popular these last few years. According to the Vegan Society, the number of vegans quadrupled between 2014 and 2019 in the UK. When asked why they were doing this, people responded that it was either because of their religious beliefs, caring about animal welfare, for improved health and also due to their concerns about the environment. The British Dietetic Association has suggested that a well-planned vegan diet may also support healthy living. However, there are some concerns about nutrient deficiencies in all age groups and especially in people with health conditions.
How to ensure a healthy vegan diet
Being vegan excludes consuming any form of animal products. So, you need to compensate for the important nutrients which are present in meat, fish, eggs and dairy foods. Try to include protein-rich wholegrains such as amaranth, buckwheat, quinoa, and wild rice. Also, beans, peas, lentils, soya, tofu, and Vegan Quorn™ are all good sources of protein. Texturised vegetable protein or ‘TVP’ may be used occasionally but it is highly processed, so not an ideal choice.
Getting enough essential vitamins
Omega 3 – daily consumption of unsugared, unsalted nuts and seeds including cashew nuts, pistachios, pumpkin seeds, ground linseeds, chia seeds and walnuts are encouraged and these count towards your intake of omega 3 fatty acids. However, for good brain health it is best to regularly take a vegan algae oil supplement for ‘long chain omega-3s’, (known as EPA and DHA). Right now, this is particularly important, as it appears that omega-3 may help to reduce the ‘cytokine storm’ which can cause a bad outcome in a Covid-19 infection.
Iron – another worry for vegans (or vegetarians) is the low intake of iron in the diet. Having more dark leafy green, such as kale, spinach, and watercress can be helpful, also dried fruits including dried apricots and figs and iron fortified breakfast cereals. The best way to “boost” the iron absorption in the body is when it is consumed with a food which is rich in vitamin C for instance kiwi fruit, bell peppers, broccoli and berries.
Calcium – it is recommended to get 2 portions of calcium rich foods daily in our diet. Vegans can choose vegan alternatives to milk, such as ‘Oatly’ or sugar-free almond milk, soya milk or vegan yoghurts fortified with calcium, vitamin D, and Iodine, and tofu.
B12 – is mostly present in meat and milk. Fortunately, there are some vegan products which can help minimise the risks of deficiency. These include low-sodium ‘Marmite’, nutritional yeast flakes, chlorella (derived from algae,) fortified breakfast cereals, and fortified vegan alternatives to milk.
Choline – is an incredible chemical which is especially important for a healthy brain and for prevention of depression. This is mostly present in eggs, but it is also found in broccoli, cauliflower and lecithin powder.
Vitamin K2 – this is often ignored or forgotten. This important vitamin is found in many fermented foods so vegan yoghurts or sauerkraut are good sources. Vitamin K2 has a role in strengthening the bones and improving heart health. Supplements of vitamin K2 can be helpful.
In summary, it is possible to have a nutritious vegan diet if it includes a wide range of fruit, vegetables and legumes and avoids many processed foods. However, it is important to supplement with vitamin D and B12, algae oil and vitamin K2. Blood tests for calcium, iron, B12 and ideally vitamin D levels can be extremely helpful and should be taken at least annually. If you are not sure about the dose of supplementation, ask your doctor or pharmacist.
Useful link: www.vegansociety.com
Authors Dr Jackie Rose, an experienced retired GP who specialises in nutrition, and Eva Lasry, Nutritionist, head up the Nutrition Clinic at Private GP Extra. The service offers sound evidence-based medical and nutritional advice to help people achieve optimum health and wellbeing without using medication. Find out more here https://www.privategpextra.com/nutrition-private-gp-extra/