The Beginners Guide to Vegan Diets

The Beginners Guide to Eating Vegan Food – a nutritionist’s perspective. Veganism is on the rise, particularly amongst younger people. Many people are turning to this way of eating as an ethical choice but an increasing number of us are making the switch for health reasons. But is a vegan diet healthy?

Increasing numbers of people every year are switching to a plant only diet for the first month of the year. Some will do this as a way of counteracting a diet full of rich foods over the Christmas period and will then return to their usual patterns of eating. For others it may be the start of a new way of eating. Wherever you are on this spectrum – or if Veganuary totally passed you by – here are some thoughts on plant-based nutrition.

Is a Vegan Diet Healthy?
Kicking off with my initial question. Is a vegan diet healthy? The answer is it can be.

As with most nutrition questions there isn’t one lovely straightforward answer. Some people do very well on a vegan diet – others have a really hard time digesting large quantities of beans and legumes or have allergies to nuts and soy. We are all individuals. Veganism can work for many but won’t work for everyone.

The best available research on what makes a healthy diet suggests that it is a whole food diet (one where most of your meals are prepared from scratch rather than highly processed or ready meals) and is full of a wide variety of fruit and vegetables and other plant based foods. A vegan diet that ticks these boxes and has appropriate supplements or fortification (where vitamins and minerals are added to food) can be a very healthy diet. A vegetarian or omnivorous diet that includes plenty of plants is also a very healthy way to eat.

A vegan diet that is packed full of meat substitutes and other highly processed foods (high in refined carbohydrates, salt and sugars) is not going to win any healthy eating awards – neither is the equivalent vegetarian or omnivorous diet! The thing is that this is an argument that has become really polarised. There is a lot of propaganda and cherry-picking of science on both sides. It is pointless to compare a healthy vegan diet with an unhealthy omnivorous diet or vice versa. You are not comparing like with like – but that is what happens repeatedly.

Bottom line. If you are switching to a vegan diet for ethical reasons you can eat a very healthy diet. If you are switching for health reasons that’s fine but know that there are lots of different ways to eat a healthy diet.

Can you get all of the nutrients you need from a vegan diet?

To eat a healthy vegan diet you do need to take some supplements or seek out fortified foods (foods that have had vitamins and minerals added). The biggie here is vitamin B12. We have stores of vitamin B12 that will last us a few years so it can take a while before someone moving to a vegan diet would notice the impact of this. Vitamin B12 is essential for brain health, our nervous system and for formation of blood cells. We get vitamin B12 in our diet from animal proteins including dairy and eggs.

With a special interest in nutrition for brain health and mental health I would also point out the importance of omega 3. Omega 3 is found in plenty of plant sources – nuts, seeds, olive oil to name a few. The thing is our bodies are pretty poor at converting this into the type of omega 3 that we need. Plant sources are great for cardio-vascular health but much less so for brain health. Oily fish is really our only good dietary source of omega 3 for brain health. There are vegan omega 3 supplements available.

Some of the other nutrients that vegans can be deficient in are calcium, zinc and iron. You can get all of these in sufficient quantities in a vegan diet, it’s just that a vegan diet that is high in junk food is likely to be more deficient in these nutrients than a meat-based junk food equivalent. If you have chosen a vegan diet for health reasons then you probably are looking to avoid junk but it’s easy to slip into lazy habits when tired and busy so it’s worth checking in on the variety in your diet from time to time.

Final word on nutrients – I can’t recommend supplements to you in a generic blog post – if any of the above has you thinking you would benefit from supplements then seek advice.

Is there a wrong way to eat vegan food?

I already covered the junk food approach. Junk food is junk food whether it is meat free or not. When I talk about junk food I’m taking about things that are typically high in calories but low in nutrients. They fill you up at the expense of a balanced diet and can leave you with deficiencies so that you are not as healthy as you could be. I’m not saying avoid all biscuits and cakes but I am saying that if most of your diet is made up of high calorie low nutrient foods you are missing out.

The other thing to think about is the rising market of meat substitutes. These are often packaged as being healthy but can be high in salt and trans fats and have additional ingredients that can exacerbate digestive issues. A high number of these products contain soy. If you are swapping meat for large amounts of soy then it may be a useful protein switch but again it means you are lacking variety and losing out on nutrients.

The final thing I would highlight is maybe a little less obvious. A sudden switch from an omnivorous diet to a vegan diet may not be good news either. This is where our gut bacteria come in. Each of us have a unique gut microbiome. My gut bacteria won’t be exactly the same as yours. But the gut bacteria of someone who eats a predominantly plant based diet will look very different to someone eating lots of animal based products. If you make a sudden extreme shift and include lots of food that are new to you – or high amounts of food you previously ate occasionally your gut bacteria may not be able to deal with it. Gradual changes, starting with familiar foods and adding in one or two new things a week allows your gut microbiome to change over time.

The Beginners Guide to a Vegan Diet

  • You don’t need to be vegan to get the health benefits of a plant based diet. Reducing the amount of meat, fish, eggs and dairy that you are eating and replacing with a wider range of vegetables, nuts, seeds and wholegrains will be of benefit to your health.
  • You can get the protein you need from a vegan diet but to get the most from a health perspective try to limit meat substitutes to once or twice a week and eat a wide variety of beans, pulses, nuts, seeds and wholegrains.
  • You can get MOST of the vitamins and minerals you need from a vegan diet but you have to be careful and make sure you are making healthy choices regularly. Minerals like calcium and zinc can be harder to get in sufficient quantity from a vegan diet. This means a vegan junk food diet is less forgiving than equivalent omnivorous diet. Make sure you are getting vitamin B12 from fortified foods or supplementation or get your levels tested every few years. You can read more on vitamin B12 here.
  • If you are transitioning to a vegan diet start with foods that are familiar to you and gradually add in new foods to allow your digestive system time to adjust.
  • Seek out recipes for foods that are naturally vegan or easily adapted and add in plenty of herbs and spices for flavour rather than relying on processed foods that will be high in salt, sugar and refined fats.
  • Enjoy the experience and opportunity to try new things.​
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