The movement for being vegan has grown so quickly in the last few years. In 2018 The Vegan Society surveyed 2,000 people aged 15 or over across England, Scotland and Wales. They found the number of vegans in Britain has doubled twice in the past four years: from 0.25% (150,000) in 2014 to 0.46% (276,000) in 2016 to 1.16% in 2018 (600,000).
More and more people are making that decision to follow a lifestyle that avoids all animal foods such as meat, dairy, eggs and honey; animal derived products like leather; and, as far as possible, products tested on animals.
What are the health benefits of being Vegan
According to The Vegan Society, well-planned vegan diets follow healthy eating guidelines, and contain all the nutrients that our bodies need. Both the British Dietetic Association and the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recognise that they are suitable for every age and stage of life. Some research has linked vegan diets with lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and lower rates of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer.
Getting your nutrients from plant foods allows more room in your diet for health-promoting options like whole grains, fruit, nuts, seeds and vegetables, which are packed full of beneficial fibre, vitamins and minerals.
Vegan diets, which are increasingly popular, have been associated with health benefits because they have higher amounts of fibre, folic acid, Vitamins C and E, potassium, magnesium, and many phytochemicals and more unsaturated fat than nonvegan diets. Although some important nutrients such as protein, iron, and Vitamin B12 are lacking, the vegan diet received the highest diet quality score measured by the Healthy Eating Index 2010 and the Mediterranean Diet Score in a recent study which included 1475 participants (1)
Arguably the most important deficiency for vegetarians to be aware of and to avoid is Vitamin B-12. Unlike most other vitamins, B-12 is not found in any plant. Also called cobalamin, it is the largest vitamin and is very complex. Its roles include cellular metabolism (including DNA synthesis), blood formation, and helping to regulate nervous system functions.
Vitamin B-12 deficiencies have been linked to a variety of nervous system disorders, from depression and fatigue to irreversible brain damage resulting in memory loss and mania. New research is exploring a suspected link between low B-12 levels and Alzheimer’s disease. Vitamin B-12 also helps prevent megaloblastic anemia, which induces fatigue and weakness.
B-12 is readily available in supplement form, either on its own or as a multi-vitamin combined with other nutrients.
Vitamin D is another nutrient that is often missing in vegan and vegetarian diets. Vitamin D's interaction with calcium is essential for bone health, which makes it particularly important for aging people. But it is found primarily in meat and the rays of the sun, which is good news for those who don't consume meat; they can still get it from other natural sources.
Sure, sun worship works to increase Vitamin D levels, but skin cancer is no fun. Although 5 to 10 minutes in the sun (sans sunscreen) can help boost your levels and is probably safe, your best bet if you have insufficient Vitamin D is supplements.
Protein is instrumental in maintaining mass (both muscle and bone), keeping energy levels up and keeping the immune system strong. The problem for vegetarians is that protein is most easily ingested through meat, poultry and fish.
There are alternatives to these traditional sources of protein, although getting enough may take some dedication. There are many plant based sources of protein, including tofu, lentils, chickpeas, chia seeds, nuts and seeds. Quinoa, is a tasty superfood that is also considered a “complete protein” because it contains all of the essential amino acids. If you are struggling to have enough protein you can always buy a plant based protein powder and add it to smoothies.
When you think iron, think muscles. Iron is a mineral that is an essential component in blood cells that transfer oxygen to tissues and muscles, bolsters metabolism and cellular function, and is necessary for the synthesis of some hormones and connective tissues. There are two main forms of iron, both of which are necessary and only one of which is available in plants. Non-meat eaters can get their iron through oatmeal, baked potatoes, peanut butter and broccoli, particularly when these foods are combined with Vitamin C (Vitamin C helps the body absorb the iron found in those foods).
We all need some fat in our diets. A couple of fats are classed as essential because our bodies cannot make them. The essential omega-3 fat is called alpha-linoleic acid (ALA). The essential omega-6 fat is called linoleic acid (LA). Omega-3 and omega-6 fats affect our immune system, brain, nerves and eyes.
If you are eating a varied and balanced plant-based diet, it is likely that you are consuming good sources of LA on a regular basis. These include hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, walnuts and soya spread. However, eating enough ALA may require more planning. There are supplements available to take that will increase your omega 3 levels, as I do see lots of vegans deficient in this nutrient as high amounts do come from oily fish.
As you can see following a vegan diet has many health benefits but just make sure it is balanced and all the nutrients are included. If they are not available in the form of food, you may need to boost levels with a supplement.