Going Vegan. Are Plant-Based Diets Really Any Better For Your Body?

by Jo Travers

There’s never been an easier time to be a vegan. Even a few years ago the vegan sandwich option just meant taking out the butter, eggs, meat, cheese or fish leaving dry bread with some limp salad between. Now you can breeze into high street chains and be pretty confident that there’ll be something tasty flaunting its vegan credentials. But what are the main benefits and potential drawbacks of the vegan diet? 

Fibre feeds the good bacteria living in our gut keeping our digestive system healthy, helping to lower your risk of developing heart disease, bowel cancer and Type 2 diabetes. Sounds good, right? Well the Western diet is notoriously low in fibre. The UK guidelines recommend getting 30g every day but most of us get only just over half of this. Fibre is found in wholegrains, beans and lentils and fruit and vegetables, all of which are found in good quantities in a healthy vegan diet.

The global population is on the rise and despite innovations in farming practices to make crops pesticide resistant and so on, a third of all the crops grown and a third of all fresh water is consumed by livestock. Over half the World’s available land is used for animals but it provides only 17% of calories eaten globally. It’s an inefficient, resource-heavy industry. Additionally around 10% of greenhouse gas emissions (namely methane) come from animals. If it isn’t already a problem, with a growing population in need of more food, this is likely to end up as one.

Protein is made up of amino acids, essential ingredients of cells, the immune system and almost everything in between. Meat, fish, eggs and dairy contain all the amino acids necessary to make new proteins, whereas plant proteins generally don’t. So when you’re vegan you need to concentrate a bit harder to get them all. Grains and legumes are each missing a different few, with a couple of exceptions such as soy and quinoa. If you get a mix of the two you get the full range. Although the professional consensus is that properly planned vegan diets can cater for everyone’s protein needs, not everyone finds this in practice. Paralympian David Smith (MBE) tried a vegan diet but found that the high fibre content meant it was difficult to eat enough to support his higher requirements, “I struggled slightly with this during my training as I could not get enough food in during big training blocks and lost too much weight.”

There are a couple of key nutrients that are harder to get from a vegan diet.

  • Iron carries oxygen around the body (it’s pretty important). Plant sources of iron are not as well absorbed as those from meat, so you need lots of iron-rich plants. Beans, pulses and dark-green leafy veg are good sources.
  • Calcium is needed for bone health. The main source of calcium in the UK diet is dairy so if you cut this out then make sure to replace it. Milk alternatives like soy or almond are generally fortified with calcium. 
  • B vitamins. The only natural sources of B12 are from animals so fortified products and supplements are the only way to get enough B12 if you are a vegan. 
  • Omega 3 is an essential fat that we have to get it through the diet. It’s important for brain cell membranes and has anti-inflammatory properties. The most well-absorbed source is oily fish but this is obviously off the menu if you are vegan. Flax and chia seeds, walnuts and their oils are good vegan sources.

Perhaps there’s a way you can have the best of both worlds. By basing your meals mainly around plant foods but including the odd meal of higher-welfare animal products, you can cover all bases. David says “I feel much better since re-introducing fish and eggs back into my diet. I hold muscle better and recover better. I feel stronger and have less colds. I believe a more balanced approach has allowed me to have more variety in my meals, more protein, better omgea oils and less grains. I also feel less stressed about food, especially when traveling.” and as an athlete you travel a lot.”

Jo Travers is a leading London nutritionist and author of 'The Low Fad Diet.' For more information, visit www.thelondonnutritionist.co.uk

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