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If you are thinking about becoming a vegan you’ll want to make sure you’re doing it right. Like any change to your diet becoming a vegan means doing a bit of research to ensure your new food and drink choices provide you with the nutrients you need.
The Benefits of Vegan diet
- A vegan diet can be packed with micronutrients
Following a healthy vegan diet means consuming lots of fresh vegetables and fruits. The majority of people (7 in 10 adults, 9 in 10 children) in the UK do not get anywhere near the ideal portions of vegetable and fruit in a day. With a well-planned vegan diet it’s easy to eat many more than five portions of vegetables and fruit a day. Furthermore a vegan diet is abundant in whole grains, nuts and seeds. Eating this balance of ingredients means your body will get the required dose of potassium, zinc, folic acid, fibre and other vital nutrients.
- A vegan diet may help prevent disease
Multiple studies reveal that vegan diets may offer protection against obesity, hypertension, type-2 diabetes, and cardiovascular mortality. One study showed that unsaturated fats found in plant-based foods don’t seem to accumulate in visceral fat. It’s higher levels of visceral fat than the norm that we associate with lifestyle diseases such as type-2 diabetes.
- With a vegan diet could benefit your gut bacteria
Vegans and vegetarians have a set of gut-based bacteria that differ from that of omnivores. There are several characteristics that differentiate the vegan/vegetarian gut from the meat-eaters’. The vegan/vegetarian gut has less pathogenic (potentially disease causing) bacteria and a more protective species.
- A vegan diet may help you lose weight
A major study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine reviewed 12 diet trials and found that people on a vegetarian diet lost the most weight. Those who also removed dairy products lost even more weight than the vegetarians. The reasons for this are not completely understood however it is thought that the higher levels of vegetables and wholegrains that naturally have a low glycemic index (GI) i.e. do not cause blood sugar levels to spike, combined with fruits that are rich in fibre, antioxidants and minerals could all play their part.
- A vegan diet can reduce bad fats in the diet
A healthy, balanced vegan diet will coincide with a lack of processed foods and that means a lack of trans fats. Trans fats are a substance used in cheap, processed baked goods such as cakes, biscuits and cake mixes as well as take-away fried food. Trans fats are not only difficult for the body to recognise they’re also incredibly hard to break-down. It seems no coincidence that many newly converted vegans have reported lowering of total cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
Risks Associated with Vegan Diet
There are some pitfalls to be aware of when contemplating a vegan diet. Below is a summary of some health risks associated with the vegan diet but also ways to avoid these becoming an issue.
- Protein Deprivation
Humans must rely on food to meet their protein requirements. Depriving the body of protein can affect the immune system as well as upset the production of and balance of hormones. It’s important, when switching to a vegan diet, to focus on including sources of protein. Vegan sources of protein are found in fermented soy foods such as natto and tempeh, protein powders such as hemp, rice or pea protein, nuts and nut butters and seeds such as chia and flaxseeds and also in quinoa, beans, and lentils.
- Too Much Soy
Soy foods are often promoted on a vegan diet as they’re a source of protein. Whilst there can be lots of opportunities to consume soy-based foods on a vegan diet the healthiest way to consume soy is in the fermented form such as miso, soy sauce, natto and tempeh. Unfermented soy based foods contain natural toxins which are actually anti-nutrients. These block enzymes that are necessary for digestion and absorption of nutrients.
- Calcium Deficiency
Since veganism also requires you to cut out dairy products, some people worry about calcium deficiency. A calcium deficit can lead to brittle bones making you more susceptible to fractures or broken bones. However, there are many races in the world that do not consume dairy and have fine bone health. We know that other food sources of calcium include seeds, in particular sesame seeds, nuts, blackstrap molasses, green vegetables, fruit and beans and these should all be a part of a healthy, balanced vegan diet.
- Deprivation of Vitamin B12
It has been found that vegans can suffer from B12 deficiency. As one of the most important nutrients for the body, B12 deficiency can lead to weakness, lethargy, cognitive impairment, and anaemia. Dietary supplements can be helpful to bridge any gap or lack of nutrients, especially B12 and omega 3. Iron may also be necessary but it is worth checking your iron status with your doctor before supplementing. There are also some vegan food sources of B12 that can be eaten alongside supplements. Nutritional yeast is one of the most helpful as you can use this in or on a range of dishes. Both spirulina and chlorella are also useful additions to the vegan diet for this purpose. They’re great additions to smoothies and smoothie bowls.