A scientist's take on Veganuary
We speak with a scientific researcher who is investigating all things vegan, and learn how to do Veganuary like a pro.
This Veganuary, we spoke to Elizabeth Eveleigh (ANutr), a scientific researcher investigating the impact of vegan diets on health. She helped answer some of our questions surrounding all things Veganuary and gives her top tips to support those who are thinking about transitioning to a vegan diet after January.
In the spotlight: Elizabeth Eveleigh (ANutr)
Tell us about your research – what are you hoping to find out?
My current research investigates the nutrient intake of people who switch to a vegan diet. Last year 250,000 people signed up to Veganuary and pledged to change their usual diet for a short period of time. Making large changes to the foods you eat will affect your intake of nutrients.
My research is monitoring peoples’ diets to uncover what nutritional changes occur, and therefore, determine if specific nutrients are affected. With this information, we hope to understand whether someone changing their diet to one free of animal products may need extra nutritional support.
What is the most surprising thing you have found so far?
We carried out a small study last year investigating nutrient intake in short-term vegan diets. We found out that there was little difference between those following a vegan diet and those consuming meat and other animal products for some micronutrients. For example, iron intake was very similar between the groups.
However, those following a vegan diet in the short term had lower calorie intake and macronutrient intake (protein, carbohydrate and fat). Intake of some micronutrients was also lower, such as vitamin A and vitamin B12, compared to before altering their diets.
What was also surprising was that the reasons for swapping to a vegan diet for a short time differed between people who ate meat and those who didn’t. Vegetarians listed climate protection as the primary motivating factor. However, for omnivores, going vegan for the health benefits was most important.
What do you think are the main benefits of a vegan diet for health?
Several research studies have found that vegan diets are associated with reduced incidence of obesity, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes and some cancers. These health benefits tend to be related to the consumption of lower energy-dense fruit, vegetables and whole grains, which also provide protective factors such as fibre.
Diets that contain less meat are often lower in calories, cholesterol, trans fats, saturated fats and salt, which, if consumed in excess, may be risk factors for many health conditions.
However, it is important to be aware that not all plant-based diets are equal. The health benefits associated with a vegan diet will vary from person to person, depending on their specific nutritional needs.
What do you think are the main risks of switching to a vegan diet?
When you switch to a vegan diet, you may start to avoid foods and food groups previously eating. While it is entirely possible to achieve your nutritional requirements when eating this way. Removing any foods from your diet could lead to deficiencies of essential nutrients over the long term. If you are considering changing your diet significantly, you may need to pay attention to certain nutrients: calcium, vitamin B12, vitamin D, essential fatty acids, zinc, iodine, protein and iron.
For more information, read our blog: Plant-based diets and nutrition.
Also, some products designed to be used as a substitute for dairy or meat/fish often do not provide the same nutrient profile as the product it is mimicking. For example, most unfortified non-dairy milks are lower in calories, protein, fat and micronutrients such as calcium, vitamin B12 and iodine. These products have lots of health benefits and are tasty. Still, it’s good to be mindful that sometimes the swap going from animal to animal-free products isn’t always a like for like!
If you are struggling to know how to best plan your vegan diet, it’s recommended to speak to an AfN-registered nutritionist or registered dietitian. These professionals can help you plan your diet to meet your requirements.
How will you research benefit people who follow a vegan diet?
Optimal nutrition offers one of the most effective and least costly ways to decrease the burden of many diseases and their associated risk factors. It is well known that most vegan diets are high in many beneficial nutrients such as fibre, phytonutrients and are lower in calories.
By exploring the nutritional intake of those following short-term or long-term vegan diets, we can uncover a vegan diet's health effects, such as whether there are nutritional deficiencies, or high amounts of certain nutrients.
From our research, we can see the areas where additional nutritional support may be required, which can be gained from adding certain types of foods or increasing the intake of certain foods. Our research also has the potential to influence policy-level decisions to improve the dietary supply of nutrients for those who do not eat animal products.
Elizabeth’s practical tips to support a vegan diet.
With good planning, appropriate supplementation, and understanding of what makes up a healthy, balanced vegan diet, you can get all the nutrients your body needs!
Below are some tips to help you manage your vegan diet successfully.
Don’t rush it.
Deciding to go vegan is a big lifestyle change, it can sometimes take time to get used to and determine what works best. Instead of going cold turkey (excuse the pun), you could make small changes to the foods you eat every day. Begin by slowly increasing the amount of plant-based foods in your diet and perhaps having a few meat-free or dairy-free meals a week. Taking mini-steps will eventually add up, and you’ll be a pro-vegan in no time! This will give you time to better plan your food intake and discover which of the nutrient-rich vegan foods you enjoy most.
If you are unsure about how you can meet your nutrient intake recommendations, you can seek personalised advice from an AfN-registered nutritionist or a registered dietitian. These professionals can support you and reassure you that your new vegan diet is healthy, balanced, and rich in nutrients.
Diversify your diet.
Variety is the key to a healthy diet: add lots of diverse foods and food groups to your plate. A varied vegan diet includes fruits, vegetables, plenty of leafy greens, whole grain products, nuts, seeds, and legumes. Think- new flavours and experimenting with foods outside of your comfort zone! There’s a whole world with delicious vegan foods and recipes to explore.
Don’t jump to the junk.
Eating a vegan diet doesn’t automatically mean that you are eating healthily! Nowadays, there is an array of vegan junk and processed foods available which are high in calories, salt and saturated fat.
Meat alternatives, made of plant-based proteins, are growing in popularity. These products are created to mimic the sensory properties of meat and act as a substitute. Some products provide lower quality protein compared to meat. In fact, most plant-foods do not contain good quantities of all 9 essential amino acids (the building blocks of proteins). However, it is easy to get all 9 of your essential amino acid with a varied and diverse vegan diet rich in different plant-protein sources. Plant protein can be gained from nuts, peanut butter, seeds, grains, and legumes. Non-animal alternatives like tofu and soymilk also provide protein.
No burger would be complete without a slice of vegan cheese. Whether vegan cheese is healthy depends on the brand and ingredients of the products you consume. Many vegan cheeses are made of coconut oil or palm oil, which are saturated fats. There is a misconception that these oils are healthier, but, in fact, coconut oil contains more saturated fat than animal fats! Saturated fat increases LDL (low-density lipoprotein) and cause plaque build-up in arteries that may increase your risk of cardiovascular disease. Other oils, such as olive oil, can improve our levels of healthy- HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol which has the reverse effect on plaque build-up.
You don’t need to completely cut these products out! They are delicious, tasty and comforting for the most part. Just be mindful about how often you consume these products and think about which nutrients you may need to pay extra attention to.
Following any diet that limits processed foods and favours nutrient-rich ones is important for everyone's health, not only vegans.
Think fortified food.
Fortification is the process of adding micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) to foods. This may be done by manufactures or by the government to improve the nutrient quality of food to help the customer (you!) to meet your requirements.
Many vegan foods now have essential micronutrients added to them. For example, most vegan cheeses are fortified with B12 and plant-based vitamin D. In recent years, some meat-alternatives have been fortified with iron and B12 for example, THIS Bacon and Vivera steaks.
Most plant-based milk alternatives and yoghurts are fortified with calcium and vitamins A, B12 and D. However, they do not provide nutritional profiles equivalent to milk. For example, many alternative milks are not fortified with iodine. Products that are organic or described as “raw” or “unjuiced” are not routinely fortified.
If you are regularly consuming alternative products, always read the ingredients label and select varieties that have been fortified with key micronutrients. Usually, it’s the fresh versions stored in the fridge section of supermarkets that are fortified.
You may even want to top your home-cooked meals with fortified additives such as nutritional yeast. Nutritional yeast (sometimes referred to as "nooch”) is an inactive form of yeast. When fortified, it is rich in thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12. One tablespoon of nutritional yeast contains 2–30% of the recommended intake of minerals including zinc, selenium and manganese. Nutritional yeast has a uniquely cheesy taste and can be popped on soups, salads or added to sauces to boost your micronutrient intake.
Meeting micronutrient requirements.
If you go long-term as a vegan, you may need to start food pairing or change your cooking techniques to boost micronutrient absorption and intake.
Some foods contain substances that improve the absorption rates of other nutrients. For example, eating foods rich in vitamin C, alongside a non-haem iron source, improves your body’s absorption. To use this technique in practice, you could cook iron-rich lentils in a vitamin-C rich tomato sauce to boost your iron.
However, some foods also contain anti-nutrient substances that prevent the absorption of certain foods. Tea and other plant-based foods contain chemical compounds called tannins. These substances give tea its colour and bitter taste. Tannins bind to iron in the foods you eat and reduce the availability. To prevent this effect, simply try to drink your afternoon cuppa at least one hour after eating. Peas and beans also contain tannins, simple changes in cooking practises such as soaking before cooking can help to reduce the effect of these anti-nutrients and improve micronutrient availability.
Supplementing specific nutrients might be a reliable way of improving your micronutrient intake. In the UK, it is recommended that we should all consider taking 10 mcg/day vitamin D as a supplement to keep our bones and muscles healthy. If you are in a group at risk of a nutrient deficiency, or are interested in trying any new supplementation, always seeking guidance from a health professional.
Remember, it’s if you are at the beginning of your journey, and do not know the ins and outs of how vegan works for you yet! It’s important that you keep learning about how best to plan your diet and find foods that you enjoy.
You can find even more information in our Vegan and Plant-based Guide.
By carefully selecting your food choices, giving special attention to current calorie and nutrient recommendations, a vegan diet can achieve the nutritional needs of most adults without issues. A well-planned and diverse vegan diet could provide you with a huge array of health benefits, alongside the well-established advantages to our environment.
Interested to read about our recent Medichecks Veganalysis study. Does the science match up with reality? The results reveal all in our blog: Veganalysis.