As veganism continues to gain popularity more people than ever before are beginning to explore this way of eating. Veganism appeals to people looking to improve their health while also addressing the wider issues of food production, which include both environmental and animal welfare concerns. However, myths surrounding the vegan diet have led to this style of eating being criticised as unhealthy or lacking in the nutrients that the body needs to function properly.
What are the health benefits of vegan eating?
A well-balanced vegan diet contains more fibre, which is an important nutrient lacking in the diet of many people1. In fact, only 12% of men and 4% of women manage to get enough fibre in their diet according to findings from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey. Plant-based diets such as veganism have also been shown to include more fruit and vegetables which are a rich source of micronutrients and phytochemicals (compounds derived from plants shown to help protect the body against disease)2. Studies also show that eating meat-free may lower the risk of obesity3, heart disease4, high blood pressure5 and type 2 diabetes6.
Why is the vegan diet often criticised?
Criticism tends to originate from a lack of knowledge on how to cater for a vegan diet. This style of eating does require food knowledge and a degree of cooking skill to create heathy balanced meals. Although, there are many pre-prepared options now available to make things a little easier. With the right information there’s no reason a vegan diet cannot supply you with everything your body needs which in turn will dispel many of the myths surrounding this way of eating.
People following a vegan diet need to take supplements
Not necessarily. The vegan diet is often assumed to lack essential nutrients, but this is more about food choice than the diet per se. Plant-based eating does take a little more planning and food knowledge but once you understand what to include in your diet, preparing balanced meals quickly becomes second nature.
There are some exceptions and one is omega 3. Plant-based omega 3 comes from foods such as nuts and seeds, and while these are useful sources, they’re not adequately converted in the body so a vegan supplement may be an option worth exploring. Vitamin B12 can also be tricky to get from a vegan diet and requires the inclusion of fortified foods or a supplement.
The vegan diet doesn’t get enough vitamin B12
Plant foods naturally rich in vitamin B12 are limited to yeast extract spreads such as marmite. Some forms of seaweed do contain vitamin B12 and may be a useful source but not one to solely rely on. But this doesn’t mean you can’t get what you need from your diet as many foods such as plant-based drinks (soya, nut and coconut), cereals and spreads are fortified with B12 and offer a reliable way to top up your intake.
The vegan diet doesn’t get enough iron
There’s no reason why you can’t get enough iron from a vegan diet as it’s found in many foods such as beans, pulses, lentils, nuts, fortified breakfast cereals, tofu and dark green leafy vegetables. You can absorb more iron from plant-foods by teaming them with a source of vitamin C found in fruits, broccoli, red peppers and cauliflower. You should also avoid drinking tea with meals as it contains compounds called tannins which can prevent the uptake of iron in the body.
The vegan diet doesn’t provide enough protein
If heavy weight boxer David Hayes can get enough protein on a vegan diet, then so can the rest of us. Proteins are made up of 21 amino acids, nine of which are referred to as being essential. Many plant proteins are lacking in essential amino acids but if you eat a variety of these foods across the day then you will be able to glean all the necessary amino acids required to build proteins in your body. Plant protein can be sourced from foods such as beans, pulses, nuts, seeds, quinoa, tofu and edamame beans. If you are worried about your protein intake or require higher intakes for sporting purposes then vegan shakes are an option.
The vegan diet is lacking in calcium
Dairy is not the only source of calcium and is available from many plant foods. To ensure a good intake of calcium you should include 2-3 servings of foods such as tofu, almonds, dark green leafy vegetables, sesame seeds, tahini and fortified plant-milks.
The vegan diet is boring and bland
Plant foods are brimming with colour and flavour, you just need to know what to use when cooking them. Fresh herbs and spices are essential to flavour vegan dishes as are sauces like soy or sriracha.
You can create a very savoury ‘umami’ flavour by using ingredients such as dried mushrooms, seaweed or miso to create stocks and dressings. Other foods such as flavour oils, citrus fruits, dried fruits, nuts and seeds add both flavour and texture.
Don’t let the myths outweigh the many positives associated with following a vegan. With a little planning and understanding on how to prepare tasty plant-based dishes there’s absolutely no reason you cannot glean everything your body needs for optimal health.