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Is going vegan good for you?

Niamh Hennessy
Lead Dietitian, Cromwell Hospital
01 February 2022
Next review due February 2025

Reports suggest that during the pandemic, many people have made the move to plant-based eating. The UK’s vegan population is now at an estimated 2 to 3 per cent.

Here, I explain the health benefits of going vegan and explore any potential health risks. I also share lots of dietary tips to make sure you’re getting all the minerals and vitamins you need if you’re going vegan.

What does ‘being vegan’ mean?

A vegan is someone who doesn’t eat any animal products. So they don’t eat meat, fish, any dairy products, eggs or honey. They also avoid animal-derived products, such as gelatine or certain food supplements.

What are the health benefits of going vegan?

Vegan diets tend to include a lot more fruit and vegetables, which are rich in vitamins and minerals and high in fibre. Eating a variety of fruit and veg decreases your risk of diseases such as bowel cancer. Vegans also tend to eat more wholegrains, soy and nuts, all of which can help to protect your heart.

By avoiding foods that are high in saturated fat, such as red meat and cheese, a vegan diet can lower your cholesterol and blood pressure.

Vegan diets are often lower in calories because of the lack of meat and dairy products. This means a vegan diet can be a good way to lose weight if you’re overweight or obese. Being a healthy weight decreases your chances of diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

Going vegan for the environment

Climate change is making a lot of people reassess how they live, travel and eat. Following a vegan diet, or at least eating mainly plant-based food, benefits the environment because it’s more sustainable.

Meat and dairy accounts for around 14.5 per cent of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions. Vegan and plant-based diets use less resources, such as land, water and energy, in comparison to meat-based diets.

Are there any health risks of going vegan?

Going vegan doesn’t automatically mean you have a healthy diet. You can be a vegan and still have chips, biscuits and alcohol every day! Use the Vegan Eatwell Guide (PDF 2MB) to help you get all the nutrients you need without animal products. This includes aiming for five portions of fruit and vegetables a day and balancing this with other important food groups.

A well-balanced vegan diet should give you the vitamins and minerals you need. But there can be a risk of nutritional deficiencies. If you’re going vegan, take extra care to plan and balance your diet. You may need to take nutritional supplements.

Below is some advice to make sure you’re hitting your daily intake of certain food groups and vitamins.

Protein

All of us need a variety of sources of protein in our diet to get the right mix of amino acids. These help to build and repair cells in our bodies. Meat and dairy products offer an easy way to achieve this – a vegan diet needs a bit more careful planning to get the balance right. Good sources of protein for vegans include:

  • pulses and beans, such as lentils, chickpeas and kidney beans
  • meat substitutes, like soya products, tofu and seitan
  • nuts, including nut butter, and seeds

 

Omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3 fats are essential for your health. They help lower your risk of heart disease, as well as playing a role in brain development and vision.

The richest source of omega-3 is oily fish, such as salmon and mackerel. If you don't eat fish, there are other foods you can get omega-3 from, including:

  • walnuts
  • flaxseeds (linseeds), chia seeds and hemp seeds
  • oils such as rapeseed, hemp and flaxseed oil

 

You can also buy vegan omega-3 supplements made from algae.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is essential for good health. If you don’t get enough in your diet you can become fatigued, develop anaemia or suffer with nerve damage.

If you eat a vegan diet, your only reliable sources of vitamin B12 are fortified foods and supplements, such as:

  • breakfast cereals
  • yeast extracts
  • soya yoghurts
  • plant-based dairy alternatives

 

Always check the food label, as not all food products in the above groups are fortified with B12.

Calcium

Calcium is essential for healthy bones and teeth. Dairy foods are rich in this mineral, so if you’re going vegan, make sure you include fortified plant-based dairy alternatives. Other foods that contain calcium are:

  • tempeh and calcium-set tofu
  • dried fruit, such as figs
  • nuts, such as almonds
  • leafy green vegetables, such as kale
  • sesame seeds

 

Iron

Iron is an essential mineral that your body needs to make red blood cells, which carry oxygen around your body. It also supports your immune system and helps your brain to function normally.

Vegans are at a higher risk of iron deficiency. This is because the form of iron in plant foods isn’t absorbed as easily as iron from animal sources, such as meat. This is especially true for premenopausal vegetarian and vegan women.

But the good news is, with some careful planning, you can get all the iron you need from a plant-based diet. Sources of iron include:

  • dried fruits
  • wholegrains
  • nuts
  • green leafy vegetables
  • seeds
  • peas
  • beans and lentils

 

TOP TIP: increase your iron absorption by upping your intake of vitamin C. Rich sources include citrus fruits and strawberries.

Zinc

Zinc is essential for your immune system and plays an important role in growth and development. Like iron, zinc absorption from plant foods is lower than from animal sources, such as eggs. If you’re going vegan, be sure to include the following in your diet:

  • wheat germ
  • beans
  • nuts, seeds
  • mushrooms
  • fortified breakfast cereals

 

Children and pregnant women need to take extra care when following a vegan diet. Dietitians can give more specific guidance in these situations.

Personal stories

Clare, 66, decided to make the move based on environmental concerns.

“I had been a vegetarian for three and a half years before I started to consider taking a further step to becoming vegan. As a vegetarian, I was aware of the damage meat production was doing to our planet. But I hadn’t considered how much the dairy industry was also part of the problem.

“As I did more research, it became clear that dairy was also a major contributor to the degradation of the planet. On top of that, for me, animal welfare is a big issue.

“My reasons are many – concern for the future of the planet, animal welfare, but also my own health. Since becoming vegan, I feel fitter and healthier. I am very happy that I’ve gone vegan: to try and make a small but hopefully significant difference.”

Jenny, 29, makes sure she gets enough iron in her diet by eating lots of dark leafy veg. She especially enjoys Asian and Indian vegan dishes.

“I became a vegetarian at the age of nine! I was very into animal welfare and still very much am. I turned vegan about three years ago. For me, it was a logical and easy next step to take. I make sure I eat enough iron and get the vitamins and minerals I need – lots of dark leafy veg and pulses.

“There are some brilliant meat alternatives now too, so it’s not hard to substitute. Some of my favourites are seitan and tempeh. But I also really enjoy meals that don’t have meat in them anyway – a lot of Asian and Indian dishes are completely vegan and really tasty.”

Brendan, 58, has felt ‘tremendous’ benefits from going vegan.

“I went vegan just over four years ago at the age of 54. No transition, straight from full-on carnivore to plant-based overnight, after watching a certain film on the suffering and welfare of animals.

“The benefits to me have been tremendous. I’m a cyclist and it has increased my energy levels, as well as reducing my bulk. It’s made me feel better all-round.

“Apart from the health benefits, the discovery of new foods and ingredients has been amazing. My taste has changed substantially – I feel that I can taste far more now than I did before. And it has led me to improve my cooking skills and try far more recipes than I could have dreamed of. Other areas that have improved are my concentration, memory and feeling more relaxed and at peace with the world.”


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Niamh Hennessy
Niamh Hennessy
Lead Dietitian, Cromwell Hospital

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