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Guest blog from Fiona Hayers: Veganism – is it right for me?

March 2024 has started, and you might be wondering where the year is disappearing to. It might be important to stay true to, or indeed revisit, any New Year’s resolutions that you had in mind, designed to improve your overall health and wellbeing.  It has become popular in the last few years to adopt a vegan diet in the New Year; in fact, Veganuary is thought to have been followed by over 700,000 people last year. 


But does going vegan guarantee a healthy diet? And is it right for you? Let’s take a closer look.


Just to be clear, 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), a vegan diet also cuts out ANY foodstuffs made from animal sources (some of which are the most nutrient-dense foods you can eat) – so, not just cutting out chicken meat, but also cutting out eggs.  Similarly, not just cutting out beef but also milk, yoghurt, butter and cream.  And this means honey, too, as well as certain wines and desserts which contain gelatin.


Studies have shown that moving to a more plant-based diet can be rewarding for your health. However, moving to an entirely plant-based diet requires much more diligence to ensure you are actually eating a healthful diet.  For example, you can eat white bread, margarine, jam and chips on a vegan diet – no one could say this would be a healthy diet!

Let’s look at some of the misconceptions around vegan diets:


  • Vegan food is natural… Some people rely on ‘fake food’ to support their vegan diet.  They replace milk, cheese and meat with foods manufactured to look and taste as though they are milk, cheese and meat.  What these ‘foods’ actually are full of is stabilisers, gums, thickeners and highly processed protein extracts.  None of these are ‘natural’ or good for us.  Even vegan ‘cheese’ is made from more carbs than protein so you may not be getting sufficient macronutrients to support good health.

  • It’s easy to get enough vitamin B12… Vitamin B12 plays crucial roles in the body.  Deficiency can lead to mild symptoms such as fatigue, depression and anaemia due to its role in making red blood cells, but it can also lead to potentially irreversible nerve and brain damage as it is critical in protecting nerve cells. This extremely important vitamin can only be found in animal products like eggs, poultry, shellfish, red meat and dairy products.  Therefore, if you are thinking of going vegan, you will need to take a vitamin B12 supplement and to include B12 fortified foods like plant-based milks and nutritional yeast. Supplemental B12 comes in a variety of different forms, some of which are more easily absorbed into your body than others.  So you may be taking a B12 supplement but not actually be absorbing it sufficiently to maintain required levels.  It should be noted that your body has the ability to store B12 so it may take months or over a year before you start to notice symptoms of B12 deficiency.  Please do get in contact with me if you would like to check whether your vitamin B12 levels are sufficient or if you want to review your supplementation. Your GP can also run a test but this tends to measure total B12 which includes both active and inactive forms. Your body can’t actually use the latter, but this may represent up to 80% of the total B12 level, producing a slightly misleading result.  Ask me about testing for active B12, folate and ferritin levels which will provide a more accurate picture of possible insufficiencies which should be addressed.

  • You can easily get enough calcium by eating your greens… Although it is possible to get calcium from greens rather than dairy, it is not as easy.  You will need to ensure that you eat a wide variety of greens (and a lot of them) each day to achieve required levels. Some plant sources of calcium also contain other plant molecules which actually inhibit the body’s ability to use the calcium once in your body!  These are oxalates and are found in a variety of plants including beetroot, carrots, spinach, broccoli, and rhubarb. Other great plant sources of calcium to include on a vegan diet include tofu, beans (especially kidney beans and chickpeas), and nuts and seeds (sesame seeds and almonds are great).

  • I’m eating plenty of iron-rich foods so I should be fine… There are many plant sources of iron; however, iron from animal sources (meat) is called haem iron and is much easier for your body to absorb than iron than from plant sources (non-haem iron).  It is not that you can’t get enough iron from a vegan or vegetarian diet, but it really is something you need to be on top of if you want to feel energised and healthy. Similar with oxalates, some plant sources of iron also contain a molecule called phytic acid which can decrease the absorption of iron.  This is mainly found in nuts, seeds, legumes and grains.  Tannins found in tea, coffee and legumes can also decrease iron absorption so don’t drink tea with your meals or iron-containing supplements.  Some foods do help to increase iron uptake, such as vitamin C and beta-carotene (found in yellow or orange foods). Remember, if you are feeling a bit tired or lacking in energy and you are eating a vegan diet you may not be making enough red blood cells due to low iron levels.

  • You can get all your omega-3 from flax or chia seeds… Omega-3 is an essential fatty acid, meaning you need to eat or supplement it as your body can’t make its own.  The best source of omega-3 is oily fish as this contains both types of omega-3 that we need, whereas plant sources don’t tend to contain all these types.  The types typically contained in plant forms, mainly from spirulina, chlorella and a type of seaweed called nori, tend to be much harder for our bodies to use and convert into beneficial anti-inflammatory molecules. 

  • I eat loads of carrots so I don’t need to worry about vitamin A… You may be familiar with the importance of vitamin A for eye health but vitamin A is also crucial for a healthy immune system and keeping your skin and bones healthy. When you eat meat, vitamin A comes in the animal form called retinol, which is easily absorbed by your body.  Plant sources of vitamin A contain beta-carotene which needs to be converted into retinol before it can be used.  Some people (possibly 40% of the population) are genetically weaker at this conversion leaving some people with insufficient vitamin A despite a diet full of beta carotene.


Of course, I don’t say all of this to put you off being vegan.  I aim to highlight some of the main areas where adopting a vegan diet involves a lot of planning and work to achieve your aims of improving your health.


I spend a lot of my time speaking to all my clients about the benefits of eating more plants - not just vegetables but wholegrains, nuts, seeds and legumes.  Eating a more plant-based diet is an excellent idea for health; however, choosing the far stricter vegan diet does not necessarily mean an even greater health improvement and sometimes can lead to health issues due to difficulties obtaining sufficient vitamin and minerals or worsening metabolic markers due to an increase in ultra processed foods and hidden carbohydrates.


My advice is to make some small changes to your diet by swapping one meal at a time; possibly having a vegan breakfast a few days a week and then adding a lunch and so on.  See my recipe for Thai pumpkin & coconut soup to get you started.


If you are vegan or even plant curious but want to discuss this further to explore if it would be the right diet for you, give me a call on 07734111347 or visit my website to book a free 20 minute health review: www.nourishfromwithin.co.uk.

 

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