Veganism in a nutshell!

Author: Jillian Foster   Date Posted:25 June 2019 

Veganism has gained in popularity in recent years as many people now choose to follow a plant based way of eating. Whilst there are immense health benefits, following a vegan diet can leave your body lacking in certain nutrients that are more easily gained through an omnivore diet. Let’s explore more about what veganism is; the possible effects of a vegan diet on the body and important foods to include to gain sufficient nutrients.

What is it?

There is more to veganism than just diet alone. The Oxford dictionary defines vegan as ‘a person who does not eat or use animal products’. A much better way of looking at veganism is ‘a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.’[i]

This means that someone following a vegan way of life will avoid food such as meat, fish, eggs, dairy or anything that is derived from an animal such as gelatine. They will avoid clothing that is produced from animals such as leather and wool. Lastly, they will not use beauty products that have been tested on animals or contain any animal derived ingredients.

Possible effects of a vegan diet on the body

Understandably following a vegan diet can possibly cause a deficiency in some important nutrients.  The main nutrient deficiencies of concern are:

  • Vitamin B12 – a very common deficiency in vegans as it is difficult to obtain this nutrient through plant foods. Some common deficiency signs include: fatigue, difficulty concentrating, mood changes, and pins and needles.
  • Iron – There are a number of plant foods that contain iron, however the iron absorption is significantly lower than what is obtained from animal sources. Signs of an iron deficiency are: fatigue, paleness, lowered immunity, dizziness and breathlessness.
  • Zinc – Vegans are often at risk of zinc deficiency as grains, seeds and legumes contain phytates which prevent the absorption of the zinc from the food. This can be minimised through sprouting and soaking grains, seeds and legumes. Zinc deficiency can present with slow healing wounds, lack of concentration, loss of appetite and decreased sense of smell.
  • Vitamin D – Although it is the sunshine vitamin, vegans also have reduced intake from their diet and have been found to be far more deficient in vitamin D than omnivores. Some deficiency signs include: fatigue, lowered immunity, hair loss, aching muscles & bones and low mood.
  • Omega 3: EPA/DHA – found predominantly in fatty fish, fish oil and some microalgae. Omega-3 is available in plant foods as Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which can convert to Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in the body; however this is not a very efficient process. EPA and DHA are important for cardiovascular health as well as eye and brain functions.

It is imperative that those following a vegan diet are proactive in gaining enough protein as many high protein foods are also derived from animals. Beans and legumes are a great source of protein as are nuts and seeds. Protein is essential to help build muscle, repair tissue and to make enzymes, hormones and other body chemicals.

There are also some great health benefits to following a plant based diet such as a vegan diet. Here are just a few:

  • It is nutrient dense - above we highlighted some of the nutrients that can be lacking in a vegan diet, however this diet also provides a higher amount of certain nutrients, this includes fibre, antioxidants, potassium, magnesium, folate and vitamins A, C and E.
  • It can help shed a few kilos – research has shown that vegans tend to have a lower body mass index than non-vegans as this way of eating tends to have a lower overall kilojoule intake.
  • It’s good for heart health – due to the diet being rich in antioxidants and fibre, both benefit healthy cholesterol levels and overall heart health.
  • It’s anti-inflammatory – a good vegan diet has many anti-inflammatory benefits that can help reduce pain in some conditions.
  • It can improve digestion – this is again due to the high fibre foods and in general many vegan foods are easier to digest.

Priority foods to eat if following a vegan diet

So what foods are essential to include for a balanced diet and to prevent nutritional deficiencies? We often talk about people being a good vegan or a bad vegan. This is used in terms of following a good diet full of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds as opposed to a diet of potato chips and soy lattes. Both are vegan but one is vastly better than the other.

Here is a grocery list of the essential foods to make up a vegan diet:

  • Fresh vegetables – this should make up the majority of your diet. Eat anything you like just make sure it’s varied, i.e. not just potato. Include avocado, beetroot, broccoli, carrot, spinach, sweet potato and zucchini. It’s always best to buy seasonally for best quality and price.
  • Fresh fruit – again choose what you enjoy. Try not to overdose on fruit though, generally 2 pieces or serves per day is a good guide. Include berries, bananas, oranges, watermelon, pears…..whatever you like and also buy what’s in season.
  • Legumes and beans – these will provide protein and fibre as well as some gut-friendly prebiotics. Some great options include lentils, black beans, chickpeas and broad beans.
  • Nuts and seeds – more protein along with healthy fats. Include almonds, cashews, walnuts, brazil nuts, hemp seeds, chia seeds, pepitas and sesame seeds.
  • Grains – these can provide some of those important B-vitamins along with protein and fibre. Include quinoa, oats, pasta, buckwheat and wheat germ.
  • Dairy substitutes – these can include nut milks or non-dairy spreads such as coconut milk, almond milk, soy milk, coconut based spread or avocado based spread and vegan cheese.
  • Meat substitutes – there are some that are full of additives and fillers that should be avoided. Instead get some good quality tempeh or tofu.

These should make up the majority of your diet. Of course some treats here and there are fine, such as vegan chocolate or ice cream, potato chips and vegan cake but these should not be a major part of your diet.

You can also invest in a good quality plant based protein powder to help you meet your daily protein needs; good options include pea protein or rice protein.

If you are concerned you are not meeting your nutritional needs you may need to include a good multivitamin supplement or we recommend speaking to a nutritionist who specialises in vegan diets,


[i] Vegan Australia 2019  

 

Written by Jillian Foster

Jillian (BHSc Naturopathy) is a qualified naturopath who believes through a healthy and balanced diet and lifestyle, we have the power to influence our health and the health of future generations. With a passion for herbal medicine, Jillian loves helping people find the right solution for their health needs and educating people on how they can lead a healthy and happy life. 

Jillian enjoys keeping active with her two young children and baking them delicious and healthy treats.


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