Is a Vegan Diet Healthy?

There’s no doubt that vegan diets are becoming an increasingly popular way of life. Fresh statistics from Veganuary 2019 showed this year’s event proved even more popular than 2018, with an estimated 250,000 people from over 193 countries pledging to change to a plant based diet for the entire month of January.

Venus Williams (holder of seven Grand Slam titles and many other tennis awards), Lewis Hamilton (five-time world champion in Formula 1 Racing), David Haye (world title boxer) and Scott Jurek (ultramarathon champion) are all achieving the highest honours in their respective sports thanks to their vegan diets, which they credit as a major part of their successes.

Sales in vegan food are booming in supermarkets, as well as restaurants. The delivery service, Just Eat, with its customer base of 20 million people, has seen a 987% increase in demand for vegetarian and vegan options in 2018 and Zizzi’s restaurant chain recorded sales of its vegan dishes skyrocketing by 246% in just one year. 2018 was definitely the year of veganism and the growth in this lifestyle area is predicted to continue throughout 2019 and beyond.

So why the sudden interest? Is the vegan diet something that we should all be considering?

Why go vegan?

The vegan diet, which excludes all animal produce including meat, fish, eggs and even honey, is followed for a number of reasons: on the grounds of health benefits, as well as ethical, environmental and sometimes religious reasons.

Food chains across the world are having to cope with the increasing demands for cheap produce and this has led to unhealthy and sometimes horrifying animal farming processes to feed the world’s growing animal protein demands. Not to mention the significant effects on global warming; industrial scale food production is driving climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution due to over-application of fertilisers to grow animal feed and unsustainable changes in water and land use are increasingly common. These reasons alone raise serious questions for many discerning consumers and point towards the need for changes in how we produce and consume foods as “current diets are pushing the Earth beyond its planetary boundaries,” as reported by the EAT-Lancet Commission.

And what about the health benefits of a vegan diet? Several recent large-scale studies and analyses have demonstrated a significant protective effect of vegetarian and vegan diets. For example, vegetarian diets:

  • Reduce incidence and/or mortality from ischaemic heart disease by 25%.
  • Reduced incidence of total cancer 8%.

What’s more, for those following a vegan diet, one study reported the incidence of total cancer may be reduced by up to 15%.[1]

However, what about the optimal balance of macro and micronutrients required for health when excluding food groups such as animal produce from the diet?

Whole food plant-based diets increase certain nutrients

Carefully planned vegan (and vegetarian) diets should focus on increasing levels of vegetables and other plant matter. By default, the vegan dietary approach also avoids processed fatty foods, such as cheese and of course processed meats, which contain trans fats that have been linked to increased risk of many diseases.

Vegetables, pulses, beans and legumes all contain high levels of different types of unique prebiotic plant fibre necessary for supporting gut health. Prebiotics, called oligosaccharides because they are long-chain, natural ‘sugars,’ profoundly benefit health and well-being. First identified twenty years ago by Marcel Roberfroid of the University of Louvain in Belgium, prebiotics have already attracted and stimulated wide-ranging research in nutrition and medicine. The trillions of microbes that reside in our gut are key to our health in part through fermenting carbohydrates we don’t digest ourselves; this fermentation helps to acidify the colon, fine tune and help regulate our immune system, keep pathogenic bacteria at bay and generate short chain fatty acids (SCFAs) and nutrients that help us remain healthy.

Prebiotics from dietary plant matter (as well as found in some food supplements in the form of FOS) offer remarkable benefits when we consume them: selective stimulation of health supporting gut microbiota, improvement in bowel function, protection from infection, relief from constipation, reduced risk of colon cancer, diabetes, obesity, and even depression. Consumption of prebiotic fibres can also enhance brain function so modulating gut bacteria may help to reduce incidence of conditions such as depression , as well as support emotion, mood and cognition.

A prebiotic, found in diets high in plant matter, may be more potent than a probiotic in terms of shifting the microbial composition of the gut.

Prebiotic oligosaccharides also protect the intestinal barrier and maintain the ‘tight junctions’ between the epithelial cells, helping lower inflammatory responses to certain food antigens and to mycotoxins commonly found in grains and nuts. The integrity of the intestinal lining is crucial for overall health as it acts as a barrier between partially digested food and the blood stream. Increased intestinal permeability has been linked to inflammatory bowel disease, coeliac disease, gluten sensitivity, and neurological and autoimmune disease. , , , In essence, a high plant-based diet, low in trans fats and processed food is beneficial for supporting gut health and beyond.

Nutrient deficiencies and the vegan diet

High plant-based diets may well be higher in beneficial prebiotics and phytonutrients but vegan diets are devoid of food sources that contain the bioactive EPA and DHA forms of Omega 3 Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs), namely oil fish and eggs.

Vitamin B12, required for a host of biochemical reactions in the body including energy production, is also found mainly in eggs and meat and is generally not present in plant foods.

The haem form of iron found in meat is much better absorbed by the gut compared to non-haem (plant) forms; absorption of non-haem iron can be further inhibited, along with other microminerals such as zinc, by plant “anti-nutrients” such as phytates and oxalic acids.

Meat is also a rich source of zinc, required for the production of stomach acid to aid protein digestion and a healthy immune system, as well as being a complete protein source, which is rare in plant matter; quinoa being one the of the only complete protein sources in the plant kingdom.

Of course, with some careful planning, vegan (and vegetarian) diets can mitigate against some of these potential nutrient deficiencies. For example:

  • Zinc is particularly high in pumpkin seeds and nuts.
  • Iodine can be found in certain seaweeds, which can be added to the diet.
  • Green leafy vegetables are rich in minerals such as calcium and magnesium.
  • Blackstrap molasses are rich in iron, as well as vitamin B6, calcium, magnesium and selenium.

But this is not always enough. Sometimes the body systems require a little extra support.

Vegan supplements

A reputable food supplement company will focus on products containing bioactive forms of nutrients suitable for all different types of diets, including vegans.

Essential nutrient supplements to consider when following a vegan diet include:

1. Omega 3 essential fatty acids
Flaxseeds (ground seeds and organic cold-pressed flaxseed oil) deliver high levels of omega 3 EFAs suitable for those following vegetarian and vegan diet. However, the omega 3 EFA is the parent form (i.e. ALA) that the body needs to convert to the bioactive EPA and DHA omega 3 fats (found in oily fish). This means that 1-2 tbsp organic cold-pressed flaxseed oil daily may be recommended for those following a vegetarian and vegan diet but alongside magnesium and zinc (in bioavailable citrate form) and Vitamin B6 (as bioactive P5P) to ensure adequate conversion.

2. Vitamin B12
This essential B vitamin is found predominantly in dairy and meat and is required for supporting cellular energy production, brain and nervous system health as well as formation of red blood cells. Vitamin B12 deficiency, such as through low dietary intake, can result in conditions such as fatigue and anaemia. Vitamin B12 is also water-soluble meaning you need a ready dietary supply, as it is not stored in the body.

Long-term deficiencies (either from inadequate dietary intake or reduced absorption such as from pernicious anaemia) require correction with bioactive Vitamin B12 forms such as methylcobalamin and adenosylcobalamin, which work synergistically together. Sublingual (or under the tongue) absorption of B12 supplements bypasses the usual mechanisms of B12 absorption that rely on optimal stomach function and may increase bioavailability.

3. Zinc
This key micromineral is required for immune health and production of stomach acid (among other health requirements) and is found in high levels in meat. Vegan food sources of zinc include pumpkin seeds and nuts but supplementation of this mineral may be recommended, often as part of a nutrient complex. As with all minerals, you want to take a form that supports high levels of mineral absorption and bioavailability. Organic citrate forms of minerals, such as zinc citrate and magnesium citrate, increase bioavailability of these supplements compared to inorganic carbonate or oxide forms.

4. Iron
We have discussed the different dietary sources of iron and why individuals following vegetarian or vegan diets may require extra iron supplementation. Iron gluconate is not associated with the constipation side effects of ferrous sulphate tablets, commonly prescribed by GPs, and supplementing iron gluconate with Vitamin C and A helps to increase absorption of iron in the gut.

5. Vitamin D3
Vitamin D3 is vital for many areas of health including immune and bone health. Many Vitamin D3 products and Vitamin D3 dietary sources are derived from animal sources, including from lanolin derived from sheep’s wool. Vitamin D3 food supplements designed for vegans contain cholecalciferol from a special organic Lichen, which are a small and unique plant species with many attributes including the ability to photosynthesise, survive in extreme climates and have the ability to grow and accumulate meaningful levels of useful nutrients, including Vitamin D3. There are many different species of Lichen and carefully selected strains can provide around 2000iu Vitamin D3 per capsule to support this vitamin requirements, especially during the winter months.

6. Glucosamine
Glucosamine is a well-known and popular food supplement to support healthy joints and tissues in the body. However, many products contain glucosamine sulphate, derived from shellfish. This makes these products unsuitable for vegans, vegetarians and those allergic to shellfish. Glucosamine hydrochloride (or n-acetyl glucosamine) is a more concentrated form of glucosamine that is derived from non-animal sources so is found in popular vegan joint supporting food supplement products.

7. Plant digestive enzymes
Digestive enzymes are required to support the breakdown and absorption of nutrients from the diet. Plant matter has high levels of different materials, including raffinose (a plant sugar that is difficult to digest so may cause bloating), cellulose (a plant fibre that may bind essential minerals like iron) and phytic acid (a plant ‘anti-nutrient’ that may bind essential minerals like zinc and prevent their absorption). These factors need to be digested to gain the full spectrum of nutritious benefits that plants can offer. Supplementing with a plant digestive enzyme supplement containing phytase, cellulase and alpha-galactosidase enzymes may therefore aid digestion and nutrient bioavailability for those on a high plant diet.

So are vegan diets healthy? We would say in the main “Yes”! And we’ve outlined further health advantages of a high plant-based, alkaline diet in previous Nutrigold blogs:

However, there are caveats. With careful planning, a vegan diet can suit many people. Consuming a rainbow coloured spectrum of plant matter everyday provides many important phytonutrients including antioxidants and other nutrients found in vegetables, fruits and also herbs such as curcumin found in turmeric. In fact, all major dietetic societies, including the US Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the British Dietetic Association, advocate the reduction of dietary red and processed meat and suggest that appropriately planned vegetarian and vegan diets are healthy and may provide health benefit for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.

BUT, what works for one person may not suit another. And this is key – it’s the adaption and specific dietary interventions for each person’s circumstances and health requirements that is the overriding important message.

We believe that there are many different approaches to health and vegan diets (and lifestyles) are just one of them. There is no ONE way that everyone should live or eat. There are many paths to health and a vegan diet should be promoted as one of many possible ways to get the body and life that people crave. Eating more vegetables and less processed, chemical-laden junk food can only be a good thing! But, people can still eat healthily and consume meat if they so choose – the message here is:

  • Avoid processed meat (and processed foods in general).
  • Eat less fresh meat, for example have two to three meat free days a week.
  • Choose (local) organic products that support optimum meat quality, and promote a positive message for animal welfare, ethical and environmental concerns.

If you’re interested by the information in this blog, then you may like to read the following Nutrigold blogs:


References

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  2. Orlich MJ, Singh P, Sabaté J, et al. Vegetarian Dietary Patterns and Mortality in Adventist Health Study 2. JAMA Intern Med. 2013;():1-8.
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  17. https://nutrigold.co.uk/blog/simply-magnesium-part2-bioavailability-supplementation/
  18. https://veganuary.com/blog/is-a-vegan-diet-healthy/

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