Veganism is gaining serious momentum. The UK’s vegan community has quadrupled in the last ten years, while in the US the vegan population grew from 1% in 2014 to 5.5% in 2017. Olympic medalists such as tennis player Venus Williams and snowboarder Hannah Teter have shown that changing to a plant-based lifestyle can positively impact your health and performance. 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 anemia 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.
Think about protein
“Getting enough protein is not as hard 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 Eve Kalinik, a nutritional therapist. 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 amounts.
Supplement your nutrients
There are no reliable plant-based sources of B12, which naturally occurs in meat and animal bi-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%,” says Kalinik, so supplementing is your best bet here.
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, chick peas, etc) reduces iron absorption, so a vegetarian or vegan’s requirements are 1.8 times greater than 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 plan getting them through diet alone,” says Kalinik. “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 mins to reduce levels by 40%), and dairy milk substitutes can be high in added sugars. Sourcing good quality, organic plant-based foods is vitally important for your health, so do your research and always check the labels.