Vegan Health FAQs

Viva! Health FAQs

Need some nutritional knowledge or answers to quandaries, queries or questions? Drop a line or email to Viva!Health’s vegan health experts.

Is it healthy to be a vegan?

Vegans actually tend to be far healthier than their dairy- and meat-eating counterparts! Why? Because a vegan eats no animal products: red and white meats, fish and other water creatures, eggs, dairy and insect products such as honey and cochineal. That means no damaging animal protein, animal fats or cholesterol in their diet. Far from going short, they can – and are more likely to – pack their diet with a wide range of healthy, disease-busting foods high in vegetable protein, fibre, complex carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and good fats. These include fresh fruit and vegetables, a wide range of pulses, including peas, beans and lentils, wholegrain pastas, breads and rice, nuts and seeds, herbs and spices and vegetable oils – especially flaxseed and virgin olive oil. A vegan diet can provide all the nutrients required for all stages of life, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence. It’s great for athletes too!

Vegans also avoid animal products in their clothing, footwear, accessories, toiletries, household items and avoid products tested on animals.

Head on over to Viva! Health for more information. In particular, you may find our A-Z series, of Foods, Diseases, Nutrients and Hidden Nasties, useful.

Where do vegans get their protein?

Years of advertising and marketing of products with a high protein content have created the myth that we constantly need to be looking for more and better sources of protein, but nothing could be further from the truth!

Most people in Western societies have the opposite problem – far too much protein – and protein deficiency is almost unheard of. Provided you eat a healthy and varied vegan diet that provides enough calories, protein won’t be on your worry list.

On average, men need around 55 grams and women 45 grams of protein daily. The best plant sources of protein include pulses (peas, beans, lentils, chickpeas and soya), nuts, seeds and wholegrain foods (wholemeal bread, wholewheat pasta and brown rice).

Find out more about protein here.

Do vegans need to combine foods?

No. A varied, vegan diet provides all the amino acids you need. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein required for growth and repair of all body cells. There are nine essential amino acids which have to be included in the diet as our bodies cannot make them (the other non-essential ones can be made in the body). Plant foods contain all the essential amino acids we need and the idea that vegans need to combine foods, like beans and rice for example, to get complete protein is considered outdated. Simply eating a variety of foods throughout the day will provide the range of amino acids you need.

Find out more about protein here.

Do I need to eat meat for iron?

No, you can get all the iron you need from a varied, vegan diet. Iron is an essential part of the oxygen-carrying molecules haemoglobin, found in red blood cells, and myoglobin, found in muscles. Iron also makes up part of many proteins in the body.

Women aged 19-50 need 14.8 milligrams per day and men (and women over 50) 8.7 milligrams per day. Women have higher requirements as they lose iron during menstruation. Women who lose a lot of blood during menstruation (heavy periods) may need supplements, regardless of diet.

The best plant sources of iron include wholegrains (quinoa, wholewheat pasta and wholemeal bread), fortified breakfast cereals, pulses (peas, beans, lentils, tempeh – fermented soya beans, tofu, baked beans and kidney beans), seeds (pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds and tahini – sesame seed paste), dried fruit (apricots and figs), seaweed (nori) and dark green leafy vegetables (kale).

Vitamin C helps the absorption of iron from foods so it’s good to combine iron and vitamin C-containing foods in one meal, such as beans on toast with orange juice or watercress salad with toasted pumpkin seeds and slices of orange.

Find out more about iron here.

Do I need dairy for calcium?

No. A varied, vegan diet will provide all the calcium you need. You don’t need dairy – most people in the world don’t drink it as over 70 per cent of the world’s population are lactose intolerant and cannot digest the sugar in dairy milk. So, it’s clear humans don’t need to consume cow’s milk for healthy bones.

Calcium is the building block for bones and they contain 99 per cent of the total calcium in your body; but it has other functions too – it’s important for muscle function, nerve transmission, signalling within cells, and hormone formation. Calcium can only build bones properly if your body has enough vitamin D; so even if you eat plenty of calcium, it could go to waste if you are not getting enough vitamin D.

Adults need 700 milligrams of calcium per day. The best plant sources are: tofu (made with calcium sulphate), fortified vegan breakfast cereal (eg Ready Brek), fortified plant-based milk alternatives fortified with calcium, dried figs, kale, sesame seeds and tahini (sesame seed paste used in hummus), tempeh (fermented soya beans), wholemeal bread, baked beans, butternut squash, almonds and Brazil nuts, spring greens and watercress.

Find out more about calcium here.

Do vegans need supplements?

Everyone needs a reliable source of vitamin B12. For vegans this means either taking a supplement or making sure you include enough B12-fortified foods in your diet every day. B12 deficiency is not uncommon in the UK, regardless of diet, and in the US, everyone over 50 is advised to take a B12 supplement as absorption declines with age.

Everyone in the UK, regardless of diet, is advised to consider taking a vitamin D supplement during the winter due to the lack of sunlight. Everything else, you should be able to get from a varied, vegan diet. It’s important, for example, to ensure you get a regular supply of omega-3 fats (found in walnuts and flaxseed oil), iodine (found in seaweed) and zinc (found in pumpkin seeds), but this applies to everyone, regardless of diet. Everything else, you should be able to get from a varied, vegan diet.

For information on specific nutrients see our comprehensive A to Z of Nutrients.

Should vegans worry about B12?

No, you just need to ensure a regular intake. Vitamin B12 is essential for good health; it helps maintain healthy nerve cells and works with folic acid to make red blood cells. It also has a role in immune function and mood. The UK recommended intake is 1.5 micrograms of vitamin B12 per day – so we only need a tiny amount – but getting that small amount is vital.

B12 is made by bacteria in soil and water and to some extent bacteria in the gut (although production in the gut occurs in a different area to where absorption takes place). Traditionally, people and farmed animals got B12 from eating food from the ground – from trace amounts of soil. However, now food production systems are so sanitised, it’s best to take a supplement.

Animal-based foods only contain B12 because farmed animals are given a supplement – making the recommendation to eat meat and dairy for B12 invalid. Cut out the middleman and take your own supplement or include B12-fortified foods in your diet. The best plant-based food sources include yeast extract (Marmite/Vegemite), nutritional yeast flakes, plant-based milks, vegan yoghurts and desserts, breakfast cereals and margarine – all fortified with B12 (check the ingredients).

Whether you choose fortified foods or supplements, you need to consume these regularly. There’s no need to take extra high doses but if you do have a high-dose supplement, taking up to 2,000 micrograms a day of this water-soluble vitamin is unlikely to cause any harm.

Find out more about vitamin B12 here.

Where do vegans get iodine?

Iodine is a trace element found in seawater, rocks and some types of soil. It is essential for the production of thyroid hormones that regulate how energy is produced and used in the body. It is also necessary for the development of the nervous system and cognitive abilities in infancy and childhood. Adults need 140 micrograms of iodine per day. Most people should be able to get all the iodine they need by eating a varied and balanced diet.

The iodine in cow’s milk comes from iodine supplements in cattle feed and iodine-containing disinfectant used to sterilise milking equipment and added to teat dips and udder washes.

The best plant sources of iodine include sea vegetables (arame, wakame and nori) and iodised salt. Wholegrains, green beans, courgettes, kale, spring greens, watercress, strawberries and organic potatoes with skin have varying iodine content depending on iodine levels in the soil in which they’re grown. Some plants milks also contain a source of iodine – a 200ml glass of fortified plant milk may provide around a third of your daily requirement.

Seaweed is a good source – sprinkle a little in soups and stews but don’t overdo it, and avoid kelp as it can contain very high levels and excess iodine can disrupt thyroid function leading to weight gain, hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism. The government says that intakes of up to 500 micrograms a day of iodine are unlikely to cause harm.

Find out more about iodine here.

Do I need oily fish to get omega-3?

No. A varied, vegan diet can provide all the healthy types of polyunsaturated fat you need. We need healthy fats for the development and functioning of the brain, nervous system and cell membranes. They also help regulate blood pressure and are involved in the body’s immune and inflammatory responses.

The omega-3 fat found in plant foods, ALA, is converted by the body into the longer-chain omega-3s EPA and DHA. Good sources of ALA include flaxseed oil, soya bean oil, rapeseed oil and nuts – especially walnuts. Flaxseed oil makes a good dressing for salads and other cold foods but isn’t suitable for cooking as heat destroys the beneficial fats.

It’s simply not true that you need to eat fish for omega-3s. Fish don’t produce their own omega-3, they get it from the algae in their diet. So, if you want a belt and braces approach, you too can get EPA and DHA directly from a vegan algae-based supplement, available to buy online or in some health food shops.

Find out more about omega-3 fats and other fats here.

Is honey vegan?

No, honey is produced by bees so it is an animal product and is therefore avoided by vegans. Many bees are factory farmed and live in extremely unnatural and cruel conditions. The queen’s wings are clipped to prevent her from fleeing the hive. Bees make honey as a store, to provide them with nutrients during the winter months. When humans take the honey, they replace it with inferior sugar syrup. Swap honey for agave, maple or golden syrup which have the sweetness without the cruelty.

Find out more about honey here.

Can I eat foods with “may contain traces of…” written on them?

The ‘may contain’ list on products includes substances that a tiny amount of could have accidentally cross-contaminated the product in the manufacturing process. For example, a company could be making milk chocolate bars one day and vegan dark chocolate bars the next. Cow’s milk would not be listed as an ingredient but they have to say that there could be traces of it in the vegan chocolate bar in case someone is highly allergic to cow’s milk. There are very few 100 per cent vegan food factories so most vegans accept that so long as the ingredients listed are vegan, so is the product.

Is veganism safe in pregnancy?

Diet is very important when you’re nurturing a growing baby but your body still has the same nutrient requirements as before – you’ll just need to eat a little more as the baby gets bigger to ensure you both get all the essential nutrients. Experts agree that a well-planned varied vegan diet is suitable for everyone, including during pregnancy and breastfeeding.

A vegan diet can provide all the nutrients you need (with a B12 supplement and vitamin D in winter) but it is a good idea to pay a little extra attention to ensure you are getting plenty of protein, iron and calcium. Other nutrients you may want to keep an eye on include iodine, zinc and omega-3 fats – to help healthy brain development.

Folate is needed for cell division, a healthy nervous system and plays a part in blood formation. One of its key roles in a growing embryo is the development of the neural tube, from which the brain and spinal cord form. Women deficient in folate have a higher risk of having a baby with spina bifida, which is why all women, regardless of diet, planning a pregnancy are advised to take 400 micrograms (but not more than 1,000) of folate per day and continue this until they are 12 weeks pregnant.

By being vegan, you’re already doing well because you’re not consuming harmful substances such as heavy metal residues from fish, dangerous bacteria in cheese, pesticides and cancer-causing chemicals in meat. A great start!

Is it safe to raise babies and children vegan?

Good nutrition is especially important during childhood as it’s a time of rapid growth and development. Experts agree that a well-planned varied vegan diet is suitable for everyone, including babies and children, as it contains all the healthy fats, plant protein and carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals needed but none of the unhealthy saturated animal fat, animal protein, hormones and other undesirable substances linked to disease.

Eight out of 10 children in the UK don’t get their 5-a-day of fruits and vegetables. Vegan children are much more likely to get the fruit and veg they need, vital for ensuring an adequate intake of vitamins, minerals and fibre. Pulses (peas, beans, lentils and soya), wholegrains (wholemeal bread, wholewheat pasta, oats, brown rice and quinoa), nuts and seeds provide plenty of protein. Calcium-fortified soya milk and soya yoghurt, calcium-set tofu, green vegetables (broccoli, pak choi and spring greens), tahini (sesame seed paste in hummus), nut butters and pulses (peas, lentils, beans including soya) are all excellent sources of calcium and nuts and seeds are a great source of healthy fats like omega-3s. Try adding some ground flaxseed to breakfast cereals or a small handful of walnuts to homemade smoothies. Whole nuts and seeds shouldn’t be given to children under five in case they choke.

Everyone (including children) should take vitamin D in winter due to lack of sunlight. Vegan children should take a daily B12 supplement or consume adequate amounts of fortified foods – they only need a small amount (0.3-1.5 micrograms a day) but this is vital. A healthy, varied vegan diet can supply all the other nutrients they need.

Find out more here.

Can athletes be vegan?

Yes, in fact, since the 2019 Netflix documentary The Game Changers took the sports world by storm, an increasing number of athletes are going vegan to improve their performance.

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t build muscle by eating muscle (meat). Muscles develop by being used and the best diet to fuel this is a wholegrain, vegan one. It provides complex carbohydrates, plant protein, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fibre, while avoiding undesirable saturated animal fats, animal protein and cholesterol; all linked to heart disease, diabetes, obesity and some cancers.

A vegan diet not only provides the best fuel for physical activity, it can also reduce recovery time. Compared with meat-eaters, vegans get considerably more antioxidants in their diets, which help neutralise free radicals, harmful molecules that can reduce athletic performance, cause muscle fatigue and impair recovery. An increasing number of professional athletes are switching to veganism to gain these advantages. Can body-builders be vegan? Yes they can!

Find out more here.

Find out more about vegan athletes here.

Is it safe for men to eat soya?

Rest assured – the man-boob jokes are nonsense! Soya contains phytoestrogens, which are natural plant hormones also found in many fruits, vegetables, peas, beans and wholegrains. Their chemical structure is similar, but not identical, to the hormone oestrogen found in animals, including humans. However, they are 100 to 100,000 times weaker and therefore have very little oestrogenic effect on the human body – if any. Studies on humans concur that phytoestrogens from soya foods are completely safe. In fact, men may even benefit from eating more of them as studies suggest that soya consumption is linked to a lower risk of prostate cancer. And don’t forget, cow’s milk and dairy products contain actual oestrogen.

A UK government in-depth review examining the effects of soya found no evidence that people who regularly eat high quantities have altered sexual development or impaired fertility. Scare stories suggesting that soya can cause such effects are based on animal experiments, which have no relevance to humans as phytoestrogens behave differently in different species due to anatomical differences. Many of these experiments were based on injecting animals with high doses or force-feeding them excessive amounts – again, no relevance to the way humans ingest them.

Soya is a great source of protein, containing all nine essential amino acids and providing more protein than most other pulses. It’s also a source of ‘good fats’ (omega-3 and 6), antioxidants, calcium, B vitamins and iron. It lowers cholesterol and reduces the risk of certain cancers and other diseases.

Find out more about soya here.

Are soya-eating vegans are destroying the rainforest?

Soya growing is indeed a serious problem – but not because of vegans. More than three-quarters of the world’s soya production is fed to livestock – cows, pigs and chickens – so that people can eat meat, eggs and dairy foods. Most of it comes from the Amazon and other places facing environmental destruction, with only around six per cent being eaten by humans either directly as whole beans or in products like tofu, soya milk and soya sauce.

Many of the soya foods consumed in the UK are made with organic beans sourced from Europe and the US, unlike the genetically-modified types grown for animal feed. If you want to see less soya expansion, less deforestation, less biodiversity loss and less global warming, eat more soya!

Find out more about the environmental impact of soya here.

Is soya formula safe for babies?

Breast is best, but for women who can’t breastfeed, soya-based infant formulas offer a safe alternative providing similar patterns of growth and development to those seen in breast-fed infants. In the US, millions of babies have been fed soya formula over the last 40 years with no adverse effects.

Despite this, official guidelines say soya formula should only be used if it’s been recommended by your health visitor or GP.

Find out more about soya here.

 

 

Scroll up