Veganism is an increasingly popular movement. Currently in the UK, it is estimated that there are approximately 1.5 million vegans and vegetarians, of which around 1/3rd identify as vegan.
People choose to be vegan for a number of reasons; the main two being concerns about animal welfare and suffering, and the impact animal agriculture has on the environment. Some people may choose to become vegan because it is often portrayed as a very healthy diet, rich in fruit, and vegetables.
A vegan diet is likely to contain lots of vitamins, minerals and fibre, although vegan ‘junk foods’ are increasingly available. As veganism becomes more popular, new opportunities to exploit this market means food manufacturers are creating many more vegan friendly foods that might fit in the junk category!
There are some nutrition considerations that anyone wanting to transition to veganism should be aware of. Vegan diets can put people at risk of being deficient in several important essential nutrients, including zinc, iron, vitamin b12 and even some key essential amino acids (from protein) and the fatty acid omega-3.
Transitioning into Veganism
This means, before considering switching to veganism, it is important to do some research and understand where limitations are in the diet and to find ways to overcome them.
For example, although plenty of plant sources (eat your spinach!) contain iron, it is not the most efficient form of iron for absorption. So, in order to increase absorption, we know combining it with citrus fruit containing vitamin C can increase uptake.
It is also a good idea to cook vegetables to break down compounds that bind iron and other minerals that can lead to potential deficiencies. So, get yourself clued up on some of the areas where there might be potential problems. Look at your current eating and cooking habits and see how compatible these already are with a vegan diet and identify how and where there might be difficulties transitioning.
Make Gradual changes
If you are a person whose diet isn’t already highly compatible with a vegan lifestyle, let’s say eating fruits and vegetables isn’t a strong point, taking a more gradual approach to changing to veganism, whilst educating yourself on the next steps might be a sensible approach.
If you don’t already eat plenty of fruit and veg, or understand exactly what vegan friendly foods are, it might be wise to focus on starting by increasing fruit/veg intake into your current diet whilst slowly reducing animal food sources. Then educating yourself on the next steps you might want to take, identifying supplements you might need to fill gaps that might now be missing in the diet, and how to balance your day to day life, work and even socialising with a vegan diet.
Vegan Friendly Swaps
With the increasing number of vegans, many brands and supermarkets are keeping up with demand by putting more energy into providing vegan and vegetarian friendly options. Most cafes have soy, oat or almond milk as an alternative to dairy (which is great for those lactose intolerant too!) and the vast array of vegan ‘treats’ that are made without using dairy (milk, butter etc.) means that transitioning to vegan doesn’t have to mean giving up foods we enjoy.
Then there is of course meat substitutes like Quorn, which is formed into sausages, burgers and all manner of other high protein ‘familiar’ foods.
The primary concern for people who exercise, play sport or are looking to build some muscle is ensuring they consume enough protein to support muscle growth and recovery. There are of course lots of reasonably high protein vegan foods like nuts and seeds. However, for truly maximising recovery and growth, we also need to consider not just protein amount in the diet, but also the quality of that protein.
Protein quality is defined by a few things, the types of amino acid a protein source contains, how available they are after digestion and the amount of leucine (an amino acid) it contains. Plant proteins tend to be lower in quality than animal proteins because they don’t contain all of the essential amino acids (making them incomplete proteins), they have poorer digestibility scores and also a lower leucine content.
There are several ‘complete’ plant protein sources that contain all of our essential amino acids; these include soya (tofu), buckwheat, quinoa, chia seeds and spirulina. These do however tend to be lower in leucine, which is an important amino acid that is responsible for triggering muscle building processes.
Here we have two options to hit our ‘leucine threshold’ of ~3g with each meal. Firstly, add in leucine at around 2-3g with each protein meal, this can be achieved with the use of a branch chain amino acid supplement which is rich in leucine and vegan friendly (we have just the right product here!). Secondly, we can consume a little more protein with each meal than you would normally to ensure leucine amounts are adequate.
Of course, this is only if you are truly focused on optimising recovery and muscle gain whilst being vegan, for most people you can be perfectly healthy just hitting your total daily protein needs for your goals.
You can also make complete proteins from meals containing incomplete ones!
Even though a plant protein source might not contain all the amino acids we need, we can place two proteins together with different profiles to make a complete one. Peanut butter on toast, rice & peas and hummus & pitta bread are all examples of meals that can provide all our essential amino acids.
Eating out options?
With the increasing number of people pursuing a vegan lifestyle, this has made eating out much easier for those looking to transition to veganism. Gone are the days of only being able to have the side salad as the only vegan choice, many chain and even much smaller restaurants are now increasing the amount of vegan friendly alternatives on the menu. Most decent sized towns and cities will also likely have their own specialist vegan restaurants.
Like most changes in lifestyle, the most effective way to achieve this is through small changes in habits over time. Start by transitioning to a vegan diet by adding more plant-based foods in the diet and slowly reducing animal product intake. Use this as an opportunity to research the types of foods you might miss from your diet and find solutions that make your diet enjoyable and that you can build habits around.
The most important factor is to remember that although there are potential health benefits of a vegan diet, there are some aspects that need to be considered nutritionally in order to make sure your diet is optimal for health.