Nutritionist's view: Veganuary gets a health check

By Nikki Cutler

- Last updated on GMT

Getty | minoandriani
Getty | minoandriani
Veganism is very much in vogue this month as a record 300,000 people have signed up to Veganuary but what are the health impacts of shunning all things animal? Registered nutritionist Laura Clark gives her advice.

Whilst many may be cutting their carnivorous ways in an aim to eat healthier, Clark points out that a vegan diet is not necessarily synonymous with being healthy.

 “A well planned vegan diet can provide all your nutritional needs with a few exceptions for example omega 3, vitamin B12 and iodine.

“If a diet is varied, rich in fruit and vegetables and whole grains to meet fibre requirements and meets all nutrient requirements without being loaded with too much fat, salt or sugar then it is healthy.

“Vegans naturally source and eat more plant based foods so should be at an advantage but there's a lot of convenience vegan food which isn't particularly nutritious.”

Meat substitutes - The impact on protein

One big concern people tend to have when following a vegan diet is whether their protein sources will be as high quality as animal sources.

Clark points out it's generally easier to meet our bodies' protein requirements than people think as long as they try to consume some at each meal.

“Protein requirements are relative to body weight so it is easier to meet protein requirements than you'd think but variety and including a source of protein at each meal is key. 

"Protein can be sought from plant based foods through grains, pulses and legumes (beans, peas, lentils) which also ensures the full complement of amino acids is obtained."

Whilst plant-based proteins shouldn't be tough to find, there are a number of other essential nutrients they may lack, including  iron, zinc and B12.

“Meat substitutes are fine for protein but are likely to be lower in these other minerals." ​says ​Clark "Substitutes for iron and zinc include pulses, nuts, seeds and dried fruit.

"As some of the iron in plant foods is not very available to the body consuming these plant sources with a source of vitamin C will improve iron absorption.

"For example red peppers, tomatoes or a small glass of fruit juice served at the same time as the meal. Nuts and seeds are particularly good for zinc so make a nutritious snack.”

Oily options

Perhaps even harder to replace than meat, is fish, thanks to its unrivalled contribution to our intake of Omega 3.

"Omega 3 long chain fatty acids need to be obtained from a microalgae supplement as they're only found in oily fish and the conversion of short chain ALA found in seeds and nuts into long chain DPA and EPA is not very good within the body."

Milk – Drinking the periodic table

Clark describes a glass of cow’s milk as being ‘like drinking the periodic table’. A 200ml glass provides is a source of protein, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, iodine, vitamin B2, B1 and B12 and around 30% of our calcium for the day.

Generally, plant based alternatives will usually be fortified with B2, B12, vitamin D and calcium but organic varieties cannot legally be fortified.

Clark suggests anyone following a vegan diet ensures they get a healthy dose of calcium and vitamins in other areas of their diet.

“Keep in mind other calcium sources in the diet – pulses and lentils, dried apricots, fortified breakfast cereals and dark green leafy vegetables.

"B12 needs can be met through of a combination of fortified plant foods e.g. yeast extract and a supplement.

"Vitamin D is often present in foods through fortification - but sourced from sheep's wool so strict vegan's might also need to consider a supplement if fortification methods cause concern."  

A lesser-known benefit of milk and one of the biggest differences between dairy and plant milk is the iodine content. A 200ml glass provides 40% of our iodine needs for the day. This is an essential nutrient for metabolism and growth yet many people aren’t consuming enough.

 “Iodine makes our thyroid hormone which regulate our metabolism and growth.” ​Clark explains “So, it’s vital for children and adults alike and worryingly, iodine deficiency has re-emerged in the UK with 15% of potentially impressionable teenagers not meeting their requirements. Pregnant women are also susceptible as needs are higher.

“Vegans in particular need to be conscious of iodine and may benefit from a supplement, as the other main iodine source in the diet is white fish.”

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