We know that eating a plant based diet is one of the best things we can do for our health however is it dangerous to totally cut out all animal derived products from our diet? Eating a diet high in animal protein and animal fats may increase our risk of disease yet totally cutting out animal products may put us at risk of certain nutrient deficiencies. Little wonder why we are all getting confused!
Before making any significant changes to your diet such as removing particular food groups (in this case animal derived products) it is important to seek professional help to ensure a healthy, well balanced diet is being followed. Any diet that cuts out specific foods can put the body at risk of nutrient deficiencies. A vegan diet does not contain any animal or animal derived foods which does put the body at risk of certain nutrient deficiencies if these nutrients are not replaced via alternate sources. Vegans need to make a conscious effort to consume foods that will replace the nutrients that will have been lost through cutting out particular foods. For example cutting out animal protein would require replacing protein from plant sources such as chickpeas, lentils, tofu, tempeh etc.
A vegan diet can be low in nutrients that are naturally found in animal products such as Vitamin B12 therefore you need to be aware of your intake of some specific nutrients.
The key nutrients to be aware of are –
Vitamin B12 – Vitamin B12 is found in animal foods. The only reliable vegan sources of B12 are foods fortified with B12 (including some plant milks, nutritional yeast, some soy products and some breakfast cereals) and B12 supplements. Prior to taking any vitamin supplements it is important to seek professional help to ensure you are taking the right supplement and dose.
Iron – There are plenty of plant foods that contain iron such as legumes, tofu, some wholegrains, dried fruits and dark green leafy vegetables however it is in the form of non-haem iron and therefore not as easily absorbed as haem iron found in animal foods. Vegans can boost the absorption of plant based iron by including vitamin C-rich food with meals – e.g. berries, citrus fruit, kiwi fruit, capsicum, cauliflower, tomatoes and broccoli. Avoid drinking tea and coffee with meals as this can hinder iron absorption.
Omega 3 essential fats – These are essential to our health and must be consumed via the diet. Oily fish such as sardines, mackerel, salmon and tuna are good sources of omega 3 which are excluded on a vegan diet. Plant based omega 3 essential fats include flaxseeds, walnuts and chia seeds however the body has to convert these to a usable source and the conversion rate is low. An omega 3 supplement may therefore be needed. There are vegan omega 3 supplements available sourced from microalgae. Supplementation with omega-3 fats may be a particularly important consideration for children and those who are pregnant or breastfeeding, due to the role of omega-3 fats in brain health. Always seek professional guidance prior to taking any supplementation.
Calcium – Dairy (not included in a vegan diet) such as milk, yoghurt and cheese is a good source of calcium however there are some good plant sources of calcium such as calcium-fortified soy or almond milks, firm set tofu, raw almonds, unhulled tahini and green leafy vegetables like kale and bok choy.
Nutrient requirements vary at different stages in life particularly during pregnancy, infancy, childhood and adolescence therefore going vegan during this time without professional guidance is not something I recommend.
With careful planning, those following a vegan diet can cover all their nutrient bases, but when not planned carefully nutritional deficiencies may develop. Many people feel amazing when they first switch to a vegan diet due to the increased vegetables, nutrients and fibre in the diet. Over time however if all nutrient requirements are not being met, nutrient stores can become depleted potentially leading to fatigue and poor health.
Just because someone is vegan doesn’t mean to say they are automatically not eating properly. There are many people that follow a carefully planned vegan diet that are fit and healthy. Likewise there are many people that are not vegan that eat a very unhealthy diet. We need to be mindful with labels and judgements and take every case as individual. Including more plants in the diet such as a variety of different coloured vegetables, fruit, wholegrains and even choosing meat free meal options a couple of times a week can help weave in some vegan choices without completely cutting out all animal products.
The best way to know if your diet is healthy is to seek professional help from a certified nutritionist.