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Mind & Body

Thinking about going vegan? You need to read this first

With restaurants, supermarkets and bars now catering for vegans, the vegan movement has transcended buzzword status to be a legitimate dietary option. Thinking of going vegan? We have the lowdown…

Beauty
Singer-songwriter Billie Eilish has never eaten meat: “Becoming vegan wasn’t a huge deal for me because meat was never a thing in my life”

Veganism is gaining serious momentum. The UK’s vegan community has quadrupled in the past 10 years, and the global vegan food market value is estimated to reach around $24.3 billion by 2026. Olympic medallists such as tennis player Venus Williams and stars like Billie Eilish, Natalie Portman and Jessica Chastain have shown that a plant-based lifestyle can positively impact your health, performance and wellbeing. However, veganism requires cutting out significant food groups and it takes effort to ensure that your diet still has all the nutrients you need. So whether your motivations are animal welfare, environmental impact or personal health goals, there are things you need to know before you make the switch.

How to get started

If you have had health problems in the past or are prone to anaemia or digestive issues, the restrictions of a vegan diet can exacerbate matters, so see an expert who can guide you through the transition. It’s also worth supporting your digestive system with pre- and probiotics, plus lots of water to help it cope with the increase in dietary fiber.

Plan and prepare

Even if you load up on nutrients, be aware that you won’t absorb them all. This paradox is due to naturally occurring anti-nutrients found in plant-based foods. In particular, the high levels of phylates in seeds (wheat, legumes, chickpeas and so on) reduces iron absorption, so a vegetarian or vegan’s requirements are 1.8 times greater than those of meat-eaters, according to the US National Academy of Medicine. “Certain nutrients in plant-based food can be less bio-available than those in animal products, particularly magnesium, iodine, calcium, iron and zinc, and fat-soluble vitamin A and E. This means their uptake and absorption can be lower, so you may need to supplement or work a little harder to get them through diet alone,” says Eve Kalinik, a nutritional therapist. “Pulses, legumes and grains – such as protein-rich quinoa and buckwheat – should be properly soaked and rinsed thoroughly in order to remove the substances that may impair the absorption of certain nutrients. Fermenting and sprouting can also help, but not everyone has the time or inclination.”

Beware of hidden dangers

A vegan diet can still consist of processed foods, white carbs and cookies if you’re not careful. As with any diet, there are also hidden pitfalls in seemingly healthy options. Canned legumes can contain one third of the recommended daily salt intake for adults (simmer them in fresh water for 3-5 minutes to reduce levels by 40 percent), and dairy-milk substitutes can be high in added sugars. Sourcing good-quality, organic plant-based foods is vital for your health, so do your research and always check the labels.

Tennis star Venus Williams has shown that a plant-based lifestyle can positively impact your health, performance and wellbeing
Jessica Chastain is one of a growing number of Hollywood stars who say that being vegan has boosted their overall wellbeing

Think about protein

“Getting enough protein is not as difficult as many people think if you’re eating sufficient legumes, pulses and protein-rich foods such as quinoa and buckwheat, which takes dedicated planning,” says Kalinik. If you’re always on the run or regularly working out, vegan-based protein powders can make up the deficit. “Plant-derived pea and hemp proteins are the best wholefood protein sources, but they don’t always contain the full spectrum of amino acids, so look for protein powders that combine both,” says Charlie Turner, former GB swimmer and co-founder of Neat Nutrition. Soy-based protein powders are another option, but be aware that soy contains a phytoestrogen that can impact hormones when consumed in high quantities.

Don’t underestimate the impact on your hair

“While veganism can be super-healthy, you may not be getting enough B12,” warns consultant trichologist Anabel Kingsley. “It doesn’t occur naturally in plant food, so either ensure foods are fortified with it or take a supplement, as a lack of B12 is a very common reason that you may notice a difference in the thickness of your hair. The liver can store B12, so you may not notice a difference for quite a while. There are increasingly better fortified vegan and vegetarian foods, but while it’s possible to get all the vitamins you need, it’s not always easy; you have to be proactive to make sure you are getting what you need, and it can be simpler to take a supplement. There are eight essential proteins that the body can’t make but needs every day, and animal protein contains all of them, while tofu only has four. Essentially, you need to know what combinations to eat – like eating vegetables, whey and quinoa – to get the full quota.”

Supplement your nutrients

There are no reliable plant-based sources of B12, which naturally occurs in meat and animal by-products (except honey) and is essential for creating healthy DNA and red blood cells. It’s also near-impossible to achieve the recommended levels of the vital omega-3 essential fatty acids found in oily fish. There are three main kinds of omega-3s: EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), which are shown to have the most health benefits, and plant-based ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). The body needs to convert ALA (found in flaxseed and chia) into EPA and DHA. “However, at our most efficient, conversion is only around 5 percent,” says Kalinik, so supplementing is your best bet here.

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