Veganism 101 - A guide to get you started
Veganism has become very popular recently as more and more people embrace it due to environmental or health concerns, or issues concerning animal welfare. The vegan diet is usually part of a lifestyle that seeks to exclude all forms of animal exploitation and cruelty that occur either for food production, clothing or other purposes. For this reason, a vegan diet is free from all animal products such as meat, poultry, fish, seafood, eggs, milk and dairy, and beekeeping products (honey, bee pollen, royal jelly, etc.). Most often due to ethical reasons vegans do not use leather, fur, silk, wool and cosmetics, soaps or other products derived from animal ingredients.
The American Dietetic Association reports that that well-planned vegetarian, including vegan diets, are nutritionally complete and can support healthy living at all stages of the life cycle including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence and older adulthood. Such diets are also suitable for, and can meet the individual needs of athletes. Plant based diets may also provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain chronic diseases. Specifically, a broad range of evidence has shown that vegetarians and vegans are at reduced risk of ischemic heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, certain types of cancer and obesity.
The main characteristics of a well balanced vegan diet are the low intake of saturated fat and high intake of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, soy products, nuts, and seeds - all rich in fiber and phytochemicals. These characteristics produce lower total and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels and allow for better serum glucose control.
Yet though, a poorly organized plant-based diet can, in some cases, increase the risk of developing nutritional deficiencies. The purpose of this post is to give you all the information you need to know if you wish to embrace a plant-based lifestyle and start following a vegan diet.
The proven health benefits
More and more people choose to follow a vegan diet in order to lose excess weight. This is because it has been demonstrated that vegans tend to be thinner and have a lower body mass index (BMI) compared to non-vegans. Of course, this trend can be explained by factors other than nutrition, including healthy lifestyle choices commonly seen among vegans (i.e. increased physical activity). However, several studies indicate that the vegan diet is more effective than other diets in terms of weight loss. Additionally, researchers report that vegans tend to eat fewer calories and thus lose more weight than those following calorie-restricted diets, even when they are allowed to eat until they feel full. This natural tendency to eat fewer calories may be caused by the higher intake of dietary fiber, which leads to a sense of satiety more quickly.
Blood glucose control and type II diabetes
Several studies show that vegans benefit from lower blood sugar levels, higher sensitivity to insulin, and up to a 78% lower risk of developing type II diabetes compared to non-vegans. It has been shown that the vegan diet lowers the blood sugar levels in diabetic patients by up to 2.4 times more than other diets. Part of this advantage could again be explained by the higher intake of dietary fiber, which has been found to delay the rise in blood sugar. Finally, the weight loss that can occur from a vegan diet can further contribute to lowering blood glucose levels.
Studies report that vegans can have up to 75% lower risk of developing high blood pressure and 42% lower risk of dying from heart disease. Randomized controlled trials, which are the gold standard in research, state that the vegan diet is much more effective in reducing total and LDL cholesterols compared to other diets. These results could be of particular benefit since the reduction of blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar can reduce the risk of heart disease by up to 46%.
Other potential benefits
Possible reduction of arthritis symptoms (pain, swelling of joints and morning stiffness).
Possible reduction in risk of renal failure in diabetic patients.
Possible reduction in the risk of Alzheimer's disease.
Keep in mind that more good quality randomized controlled trials are needed before any strong conclusions are drawn regarding whether the vegan diet is directly responsible for these other benefits .
''But, what do vegans eat?''
Believe it or not, taste is also a reason veganism has started to become more mainstream. This is because a well planned and balanced vegan diet is comprised of tasty, easy to make, affordable foods.
Here are the foods you should consume on a daily basis while on a vegan diet:
Meat alternatives (Soy, tofu, tempeh and seitan (wheat protein) - These are very rich in protein, and are all alternatives to meat, fish, poultry and eggs for many recipes. There are plenty of organic vegan burgers made of these available in the supermarkets, and trust me, some of them are super delicious, and need less than 2 minutes to prepare! Some even provide more than 20 grams of high biological value protein per portion which is equal to 90gr of cooked meat.
Legumes - Beans, lentils, chickpeas and green peas are excellent sources of plant protein and many other nutrients. Fermentation and proper cooking of legumes can increase absorption of their nutrients, especially iron. These are also excellent options if you wish to make high protein veggie burgers (i.e. falafel)
Nuts and nut butters - Especially non-roasted varieties are good sources of iron, fiber, magnesium, zinc, selenium and vitamin E.
Seeds - Specifically hemp, chia and flaxseeds are rich in protein and the beneficial omega-3 fatty acids.
Other sources of good fats, including olive and rapeseed oils and avocado.
Vegetable milks, creams and yogurts, but make sure they are fortified with calcium and vitamins B12 and D (soy, coconut, almond, hazelnut, oat, rice) . I would suggest organic soy milk, since it is the only plant milk that can also help meet your daily protein needs, while it is usually low in sugar. You can also find a great variety of vegan cheeses in the market, which taste so good! Just be cautious with the portions because many of those cheeses are usually high in saturated fat, since they are made of coconut or other vegetable oils.
Algae - Spirulina and Chlorella are good sources of complete protein. Other varieties of algae are also rich in iodine. These are usually taken as supplements or added in smoothies.
Nutritional Yeast - It is an easy way to increase the protein content and imparts a cheesy taste to the food. Prefer varieties fortified with vitamin B12 when possible.
Whole grains, cereals and pseudo-cereals - These are great sources of complex carbohydrates, fiber, B-complex vitamins and several minerals including iron. Examples include all kinds of whole-grain pasta, noodles, rice, and couscous. Amaranth, buckwheat, millet and quinoa are examples of high protein pseudo-cereals.
Fermented plant foods - Ezekiel bread, tempeh, miso, natto, sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi and kombucha often contain probiotics and vitamin K2.
Fruits and vegetables - Green leafy vegetables such as bok choy, spinach, kale, watercress and mustard are particularly high in iron and calcium. Carrots, red peppers, yellow-colored fruits, dark green vegetables and tomatoes contain carotenoids that allow adequate synthesis of vitamin A.
Potential risks and how to minimize them
A poorly planned vegan diet raises the risk for developing certain nutritional deficiencies. Specifically, studies show that vegans are at greater risk of developing deficiencies of vitamins B12 and D, omega-3 fatty acids, iodine, iron, calcium and zinc. This may be a particular risk for people with high demands, such as children and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
One way to minimize the risk of nutritional deficiencies is to replace processed foods that have limited nutritional value with whole plant foods. Plant based milks and yogurts should be fortified with calcium, vitamin D and vitamin B12, and should be present on a daily basis in your diet (aim for 2-3 portions per day).
You also want to avoid combining calcium rich foods with iron rich foods, as well as drinking tea and coffee with meals, in order to enhance iron absorption. Combining foods that are rich in iron with sources of vitamin C (tomatoes, lemon, or a vitamin C supplement), can further enhance the absorption of iron.
The addition of ½ teaspoon iodized salt in your meal, or taking seaweed in the form of supplement can help achieve the recommended daily iodine intake. Calcium supplements should not be taken along with foods rich in zinc such as grains, legumes, nuts and soy products because the supplement may decrease the absorption of zinc. Soaking and sprouting seeds may also increase zinc bioavailability.
Foods high in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) can help the body synthesize other essential omega-3 fatty acids that are more difficult to be obtained from a vegan diet, such as ecosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Foods rich in ALA are flaxseeds, walnuts, rapeseed oil and soybeans. However, it is questioned whether synthesis of EPA and DHA from ALA is enough to meet the daily needs for omega-3 fatty acids. Daily intakes of 200-300mg EPA and DHA from a seaweed oil supplement can be an effective way to prevent deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids.
"Should I take any supplements?"
Like in all other types of diets, if someone who is vegan cannot obtain sufficient quantities of nutrients through food alone, he or she should consider taking supplements. This can easily be checked through laboratory tests that will show if there is indeed a nutrient deficiency. It is necessary to discuss with the doctor before taking on a supplement, as he or she will advise you on whether you need to get a supplement or not.
Supplements that may be useful include:
Vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol)
EPA and DHA supplements derived from algae oil.
Iron: Studies show that iron intakes of vegans are higher than non-vegans. Iron should be given only in case of documented deficiency detected through blood analysis.
Iodine supplement or ½ teaspoon of iodized salt
Zinc in the form of zinc gluconate or zinc citrate.
A well-balanced vegan diet has multiple health benefits for most humans. It is essential to take all necessary measures to reduce the risk of developing deficiencies of nutrients including vitamins B12 and D, omega-3 fatty acids, iodine, iron, calcium and zinc. The best option is to try and obtain all nutrients from a varied plant-based diet; however, if the diet cannot provide sufficient quantities of certain nutrients, a supplement will be necessary. Blood test analysis is necessary to be undertaken at least once a year to promptly identify and address any nutritional deficiencies.
To start your plant based living journey, you may wish to try the recipe for our super healthy vegan energy balls, our vegan protein oatmeal cookies, or our vegan chocolate cupcakes! You will definitely not regret it!
Find out more details about veganism from:
Gandy, J. (2014). Manual of dietetic practice. (5th ed.). London: Wiley-Blackwell.
Aung T, Halsey J, Kromhout D, et al. Associations of omega-3 fatty acid supplement use with cardiovascular disease risks. Meta-analysis of 10 trials involving 77,917 individuals. JAMA Cardiology. 2018;3(3):225-234.