Updated: Jan 21
Veganuary is under way and constitutes a huge celebration of being vegan. You might have been wondering whether you could go vegan and whether it will help you get healthier, lose weight and (if the vegan lobbyists are anything to go by) improve any one of a number of health markers. Last week I wrote about what a vegan diet looks like, and some of the possible advantages, pitfalls and challenges. This week I would like to debunk some popular misconceptions and misunderstandings because, while it’s true that many studies show that a vegan diet can do wonders for your health, it really takes solid knowledge, experience and awareness to ensure that a vegan diet is balanced, nutritious and capable of providing all the micro- and macro-nutrients essential to true, authentic good health.
Just to be clear (and I know you probably already know this), a vegan diet is a stricter version of a vegetarian diet. On top of not eating any meat, fish or seafood – i.e. dead animals of any species - a vegan diet also cuts out any foodstuffs made from animal sources including dairy products – milk, cheese, butter, cream, yoghurt - and eggs as well as honey, certain wines which have been clarified with animal products, and gelatine. So, no foods at all which are derived from animals of any sort, including fish and seafood.
Now for the million dollar question! Can changing to a plant-based (or even just a more plant-based diet) do wonders for your health? YES, but ONLY IF YOU DO IT PROPERLY!
Here are the 10 most common misconceptions which many people, including vegans, have about a vegan diet:-
1 DON’T BELIEVE THE HYPE
There have been various well-publicised assertions over the years (most notably the book ‘The China Study’ and, more recently, the films ‘What The Health’ and ‘The Game Changers’) which claimed that eating a vegan diet was the healthiest thing you could do. I won’t go into all the inadequacies of the argument but suffice it to say that just because food is labelled ‘vegan’ DOES NOT mean it is healthy or even any healthier than the regular alternative. You can eat white bread, margarine and jam and be vegan.
Of course, eating more plant-based meals is an excellent idea for health, and it’s something I talk to my clients about a great deal. However, since the main vegan protein sources are pulses and grains, and by and large only a combination of the two provides a complete protein, ie containing all essential amino acids, this can be a high carbohydrate diet by definition, and high carbohydrate diets are not helpful in many conditions. And needless to say, any grains consumed on a vegan diet need to be whole and unrefined.
2 VEGAN FOOD IS NATURAL
As mentioned last week, so many people launch into a plant-powered diet by eating fake food! They replace milk, cheese and meat with foods manufactured to look and taste as though they are milk, cheese and meat, but they are often laced with components which are not actual food – stabilisers, gums, thickeners and highly processed protein extracts – and which the body will simply not recognise as a food so it will have great difficulty in dealing with it. Furthermore, if you think that vegan cheese is a good source of protein, think again because many (not all!) are actually made from simple carbohydrates.
3 IT’S EASY TO GET ENOUGH VITAMIN B12
Vitamin B12 plays a variety of important roles in the body. Vegan diets are low in Vitamin B12 (several studies showed 68% of vegans tested were deficient), as it is found only in animal products like eggs, poultry, shellfish, red meat and dairy. While spirulina is said to contain the vitamin, the research in this area is not conclusive.
The reason why we should be interested is this: Vitamin B12 deficiency can lead to potentially irreversible brain and nerve damage, and it can also result in fatigue, depression, and anaemia thanks to the role which Vitamin B12 plays in making red blood cells, providing the body with energy and protecting the nervous system. If you’re thinking of going vegan, you’ll want to take a Vitamin B12 supplement, but you should also be spreading your intake through the day by eating Vitamin B12 fortified foods, too, like plant-based milks and nutritional yeast.
4 AS LONG AS YOU’RE TAKING A VITAMIN B12 SUPPLEMENT, YOU’RE COVERED
Not all Vitamin B12 supplements are created equal. Most vegans probably take cyanocobalamin, a synthetic form of Vitamin B12 and also the cheapest, which is perhaps what makes it an attractive proposition. However, this synthetic form is far less well absorbed than the natural forms methylcobalamin, hydroxycobalamin or adenosylcobalamin, which are identical to the Vitamin B12 found in animal products. There are also some concerns about long-term supplementation with cyanocobalamin and the link to potential cyanide accumulation.
5 YOU CAN RELY ON A VITAMIN B12 TEST AVAILABLE THROUGH YOUR GP TO CONFIRM THAT YOUR LEVELS ARE ADEQUATE
A typical Vitamin B12 blood test which your doctor would run looks at the total amount of the vitamin in your blood. While that might sound like a good idea, it isn’t terribly helpful. The test measures total Vitamin B12, i.e. both the active and inactive forms of the vitamin which is the stuff you can’t actually use, and which might be up to 80% of the Vitamin B12 found in your blood. It is far better to test for active Vitamin B12. It is also helpful to have folate, ferritin and homocysteine levels checked regularly, about every six months.
6 YOU CAN EASILY GET ENOUGH CALCIUM BY EATING PLENTY OF GREENS
It is possible to get the calcium you need from greens rather than dairy, which is admittedly one of the best sources, but you are going to need to put in a fair amount of work. Although it’s easy to think that being vegan – and therefore probably eating more vegetables every day – will make decent calcium intake a foregone conclusion, it’s not as easy as you might think on a day-to-day basis. It’s also worth noting that studies show that most vegans are probably not consuming enough calcium for long-term bone health.
Kale is one of the best vegan sources of calcium, along with collard greens (a bit like spring greens). Spinach and chard provide calcium as well but, unfortunately, they also contain a group of molecules called oxalates which bind to calcium and make it unavailable to your body. Rhubarb, beetroot, carrots, potatoes and broccoli also contain these oxalates and although cooking reduces oxalate acid, raw vegetables are not always a good thing and fermenting these foods is even better! Further good sources include tofu, beans (especially kidney beans and chickpeas), and nuts and seeds (almonds are the best).
7 I’M EATING PLENTY OF IRON-RICH FOODS SO THAT MUST BE ENOUGH
Iron from animal sources, ie meat, is called haem iron, and it’s much, much easier for your body to absorb this form of iron than iron from plant sources, known as non-haem iron. It is a fact that vegetarians and vegans have lower iron stores than meat eaters. It’s not that you can’t get enough iron in this kind of diet, but like so many things when you go vegan, it really is something to address if you want to feel the best version of yourself.
To ensure that you do absorb as much iron from your food as possible, you will need to neutralise another nutrient-stealing molecule called phytic acid, which is found in nuts, seeds, legumes and grains. You can do this by soaking these foods overnight before cooking or sprouting them.
Calcium (although you need plenty of it in your diet) actually reduces iron absorption, so try to eat calcium-rich foods away from iron-rich foods for maximum absorption.
On the other hand, eating foods which are rich in beta-carotene such as orange and yellow foods can actually increase iron uptake. Vitamin C, too, enhances the absorption of non-haem iron, so consider using lemon or lime juice in your salad dressings.
A tell-tale sign of low iron levels is feeling a bit tired or lacking in energy. If this resonates, you may not be making enough red blood cells, which means you could naturally be lower in the haemoglobin responsible for carrying oxygen around your body.
8 YOU CAN COUNT ON FLAX OR CHIA FOR YOUR OMEGA-3
There’s a lot of discussion in the vegan world about omega-3, and it does get a bit complex. Omega-3 is an essential fatty acid, meaning you need to eat or supplement it as the body can’t make it on its own. There are several types of omega-3 – from alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) to docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) – and the latter is crucial for brain health. Oily fish tends to provide both kinds but few plant foods do. So we’re talking about sea vegetables here, including nori (the type of seaweed you see wrapped around sushi) and algae like spirulina and chlorella (often sold in powdered ‘superfood’ form). The ALA type of omega-3 is found in flaxseeds, hemp seeds, and chia seeds. Yes, you do need both in your diet. You may also have heard an argument that humans can convert ALA to DHA. That’s true; however, the ability to convert ALA to DHA is something which has evolved over thousands of years in those communities who have been vegetarian for generations. Most of us convert only about 5% so it’s highly likely that you will need to be making friends with supplemental algae oil to get your quota.
9 I EAT LOADS OF CARROTS – THAT’S VITAMIN A COVERED
When you eat meat, Vitamin A comes in the animal form called retinol, which is easily absorbed by the body. Plant sources of Vitamin A must come from foods containing beta-carotene (the yellow and orange foods, remember, but also some green vegetables like spinach, kale, lettuce and broccoli, as well as sea vegetables), and this is chemically very different. For example, when you eat a carrot, you need to convert the carotene to retinol before it can be used. It’s not the easiest conversion at the best of times, but a further complication is that about 40% of the population carry two genetic variations which slow down that conversion by up to 60%. This has a significant impact on how much Vitamin A you are able to take in.
10 MY GP SAYS I’M FINE
Unfortunately, tests which are routinely available may not only not give you the full picture but you are unlikely to be offered all the tests that would be helpful due to funding priorities by the NHS and even by private medical insurance. On the surface, it may look as though you have a ‘healthy diet’, but chances are that unless you are really putting the work in, your vegan diet may be lacking, simply because you are not eating the correct balance of macro-nutrients (the big stuff like protein, carbohydrates and fats) or micro-nutrients (the small stuff like vitamins and minerals) – and the only way you are going to find out is when your health suffers.
So, during VEGANUARY, be aware! I don’t say all of this to put you off a plant-powered diet. I say this because it alarms me to see how so many people seem to turn vegan with virtually no knowledge or awareness of what this entails, and without understanding how well they need to eat to sustain their health. If you want support to move to (or even towards – there are great health benefits to be had in the latter) a plant-powered diet, do please get in touch and come and have a complimentary 45-minute nutritional consultation. Just click on one of the “booking” buttons on this website to book yourself into my online diary.