Updated: Jul 6, 2019
Veganuary is a charity inspiring people to try a vegan diet for January and throughout the rest of the year. In 2018 a record-breaking 168,542 people took the pledge to be vegan. That is an astounding 183% increase from 60,000 who signed up in 2017, and the trend is on the rise.
Following a vegan diet for a month can certainly be beneficial from a nutrition point of view. Like any diet, it can be approached in a healthy or a non-healthy way. Including more crisps, doughnuts and gin and tonics will probably not turn a diet healthier, even if they are vegan. However, basing a diet on wholesome plant-based products, including vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes, has a vast array of reported benefits. Not only do these foods provide ample of micronutrients, including vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients, they are also fantastic sources of fibre. On a population in the UK average daily fibre intake is 18g - nowhere near the recommended daily 30g. Considering the fact that adequate fibre intake is imperative for a healthy gut and can decrease the risk of chronic disease, many of us would benefit from including more plant-based products in our diet.
While a vegan diet can be very nutritious, there are some nutrients that are significantly more difficult to obtain when comparing it to an omnivorous diet. This includes iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin B12, Vitamin D, iodine, omega 3 fatty acids and complete protein sources. Part-taking in Veganuary this year is unlikely to put anyone at risk of nutritional deficiencies or insufficiencies in the space of a month. However, a transition to a permanent vegan diet must be planned with prior information and more care than an omnivorous diet.
Some nutrients, such as vitamin B12, cannot be obtained by a purely plant-based diet and must be supplemented in order to avoid the risk of deficiency. Deficiency of vitamin B12 can have severe health consequences, as it is essential in the development healthy red blood cells and a healthy nervous system. Supplementation is therefore strongly advised. This also applies to vitamin D – though vitamin D supplementation is recommended for everyone between the months of October and March, irrespective of what diet is followed.
Other nutrients, such as calcium, iron and zinc can be found in plant-based foods. However, they are found in less quantities and are also less bio-available in the body, particularly because absorption is affected by other compounds found in the same foods, including oxalates and phytates. Absorption can be increased with prior preparation like soaking and rinsing grains and legumes before cooking, or, in the case of iron, adding a source of vitamin c.
Adequate levels of nutrients such as omega 3 fatty acids, selenium and iodine can be met with consumption of a variety of seeds, nuts and fortified nut milks and other milk alternatives, though adequate levels are not as easily obtained as with animal-based products.
Lack of protein is typically the first concern that anyone considering a vegan diet has. However, adequate protein levels can easily be met with a vegan diet. Very few plant-based foods contain the full spectrum of essential amino acids (building blocks of protein that the body cannot make itself and must be obtained from the diet), however a daily combination of different plant-based products will provide sufficient protein.
Whether it is informing yourselves of the different protein profile of different foods and combining the right ones to get a complete protein, taking extra time to prepare grains and legumes for increased micronutrient absorption, or investing in good quality supplements, it is clear that a vegan diet requires more thought and care than an omnivorous one. Nutritional concerns of a vegan diet are not imminent if followed for a month, however going vegan long-term, just like any other major dietary restriction, should not be done without due diligence and awareness. Ultimately, with some supplementation and a strong focus on a variety of different foods that provide all essential nutrients, a vegan diet can be very healthy and nutritious, just like a similar diet but with the inclusion of some animal products.