Most of us don’t go vegan for health but at some point along our journey, we usually learn a thing or two about nutrition, often because of repeated inquisitive questioning. Here are some answers to the most common questions.
Is being vegan healthy?
Yes, it is! As a vegan, you eat a lot of healthy foods, such as fruit and vegetables, wholegrains, pulses and nuts and seeds, all of which provide essential and health-protecting nutrients. As scientific studies show, vegans tend to have healthier diets than general population, have a lower risk of heart disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes.
However, you can also be an unhealthy vegan if you eat too much processed food and skip the food groups listed above.
Is a vegan diet suitable for everyone?
Absolutely, with a little planning, a vegan diet is suitable for everyone, including babies, children, pregnant and breastfeeding women, athletes and the elderly. We have different dietary requirements in different life stages so planning your diet to get the vital nutrients you need applies to all diets, not just a vegan one.
Do vegans need supplements?
Yes, we do. Everyone, including non-vegans, needs some supplements thanks to our modern lifestyles and food production systems.
The first non-negotiable is vitamin D. Everyone in the UK, regardless of diet, is advised to take a vitamin D supplement during the winter due to the lack of sunlight, which acts on the skin to produce it. If you always protect your skin from the sun, then you probably need to take a supplement all year long. The recommended daily dose is 10 micrograms or 400 IU (International Units).
The second supplement we all need is vitamin B12. This vitamin is produced naturally by bacteria that live in the soil and traditionally, people and animals would have both got it from eating unwashed plants and drinking well water. Food production is now so sanitised that there’s not a trace of B12 left and most farmed animals are also given B12 supplements. This makes recommendations to eat meat for B12 somewhat invalid – you might as well take the supplement yourself without recycling it through animal. It’s advised to take at least 50 micrograms daily or 2,000 micrograms weekly.
You should be able to get all other nutrients from a balanced vegan diet. For example, calcium from almonds, sesame seeds, green leafy vegetables, fortified plant milks and oranges; iron from beans, lentils, tofu, dried apricots, leafy greens and cocoa; omega-3 fats from flaxseed, chia seeds, walnuts and rapeseed oil; and iodine from seaweed, iodised salt and some vegetables.
Can children be vegan?
There’s no age limit on veganism. Children have different dietary needs in that they need to eat more often and consume more energy-dense foods so although their diet should be a little different to an adult’s, they can certainly be vegan. In fact, vegan children tend to have healthy eating habits and a lower risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Do health institutions support veganism?
Yes! You might be surprised how many institutions support balanced vegan diets as a healthy choice. For example, British Dietetic Association, British Nutrition Foundation, the NHS, Canadian Paediatric Society, American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Harvard Medical School, Dietitians of Canada, Italian Society of Human Nutrition, the Dietitians Association of Australia – and others.
Is soya safe to consume?
There are many scare stories about soya, so it’s not surprising that people are confused about it. They are just that – scare stories – and not based on fact. You can rest assured that scientific studies based on human data all agree that soya is not only safe to consume but is also beneficial to our health. It may lower your risk of hormone-sensitive cancers, such as breast or prostate cancer, it lowers cholesterol levels, may reduce your risk of heart disease and supports your bone health.
Soya is a very nutritious food, offering high quality protein, iron, magnesium, potassium, B vitamins, essential unsaturated fats and disease-busting antioxidants. Calcium-fortified soya products and tofu are also excellent sources of this mineral.
Can a vegan diet make me lose or gain weight?
It can but it doesn’t have to. A vegan diet isn’t ‘one size fits all’ and each person eats different foods in the course of a day. In general, a healthy vegan diet is higher in fibre so you need to eat a little more than a meat-eater because while fibre increases the bulk in your digestive system, you don’t digest it. And that’s great news for most people! Eat more to maintain your energy intake so you don’t lose weight.
If you do want to lose weight, the key is to eat healthy, unprocessed or minimally processed foods, reduce your fat and sugar intake and engage in regular physical activity.
On the other hand, if you eat vegan junk and processed foods and skip healthy wholefoods, you can certainly gain weight on a vegan diet! With the increasing availability of vegan food, it’s becoming easy to live off vegan doughnuts, pizza and chips but as common sense would dictate, it’s not the best diet.
Are processed vegan foods unhealthy?
Processed foods have undergone some changes that alter their natural state but that may be as simple as cooking or grinding it. By processed foods, we usually mean foods that have undergone significant changes and contain salt or sugar, flavouring, added fats and other additives that improve the taste but aren’t necessarily good for you. Vegan examples include burgers, sausages, biscuits, crisps, cakes, pizza and cheese.
Some of these foods are healthier than others, depending on their ingredients. Tofu or lentil sausages are better for you than TVP sausages, oat biscuits with dried fruit are better for you than Jammie Dodgers, and soya or nut-based ‘cheese’ is healthier than products made from coconut fat. Vegan processed foods can be unhealthy if they contain a lot of fat and sugar or salt but many are still healthier than their animal-based counterparts.
Always read the ingredients and nutritional values so you can make informed decisions. As a rule of thumb, processed foods shouldn’t be your go-to at every meal, rather they should be on your menu just a few times a week.