The benefits of eating vegan

21 November 2019

Plant-based eating is currently on trend, and the diet is a consideration if you are concerned about animal welfare and the environment. Here at Spire Elland, our physiotherapists have decided to go vegan for a week to experience stopping eating meat. The newer ranges of plant-based meat alternatives that are available have made following the diet more straightforward if you are used to meat-based eating.

Eating a vegan diet can be very healthy for every stage of life, and there is some evidence that these diets can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular health and some cancers. However, it is possible to end up deficient in some nutrients, plus it is not always a recipe for weight management, depending on the choices you make. Planning the diet is key to its success, and consideration of some nutrient intakes are needed before you start.

After the week had ended, our physiotherapists made the following comments about how they felt:

  • "My tummy felt fantastic and my energy levels were great. I struggled eating beans and sweet potatoes after a while"
  • "After the initial bloating I felt much better. I will definitely be having at least two meat-free days (from) now onwards!"

Ensure you eat some sources of the following:

Protein

Not all sources of plant protein contain all the building blocks (amino acids) the body needs to be healthy. Protein builds muscle, and amino acids are the building blocks for the repair of injuries. Quinoa is the only source that is complete in the amino acids that the body needs, although if a wide variety of foods are consumed, most people will get enough. Protein levels are useful in tofu, nuts and seeds, lentils, beans and chickpeas and some processed meat alternative products.

Omega-3 oils

These oils are good for cardiovascular health, although most of the research studies about the benefits have been performed in diets high in oily fish consumption. There are some plant-derived oils that the body can convert to omega-3 oils. Good sources of omega-3 are hemp oil, flaxseed oil and rapeseed oil – food sources include walnuts, hemp seed, flaxseed, soya beans and chia seeds. 

Calcium

Most adults need around 700mg of calcium to meet the bodies requirements, and calcium is an essential mineral for bone health. The primary source of calcium in the UK diet is dairy foods and going vegan can reduce intake. If you are choosing a plant-based milk alternative choose one that is fortified with calcium and vitamin D (this vitamin helps calcium absorption). Other sources of calcium are dried fruit, almonds, green vegetables, sesame seeds (and tahini) and some types of tofu. Three portions of calcium need to be eaten per day (examples of a portion are a glass of fortified milk, a fortified yoghurt, 100g almonds, 150g dried figs, 30g sesame seeds or calcium added tofu 125g).

Iron

The proper function of the blood system, including avoiding anaemia, requires a good intake of dietary iron. Good plant sources of iron include dried fruit, pulses (chickpeas, beans and peas) nuts and dark green leafy vegetables. The availability of iron from plant options is lower than that from animal sources. To facilitate absorption, a source of vitamin C should be taken alongside the source, such as citrus fruits, strawberries, lightly cooked or steamed green leafy vegetables and peppers.

Zinc

This mineral can be poorly absorbed in a vegan diet, so ensuring a correct intake is essential to ensure the body receives enough to achieve a healthy immune system. Good sources include fermented soya products, soaked rinsed beans (use the soaking fluid aquafaba as an egg replacer) nuts and seeds and some fortified breakfast cereals.

Selenium

Selenium is a trace element – meaning the body needs small amounts - but some are necessary for brain function, cardiovascular health and thyroid function. Good sources include nuts, seeds and grains. Two Brazil nuts a day can provide adequate amounts.

Iodine

Along with selenium, iodine is essential for proper thyroid function and a properly functioning thyroid gland ensures the body has the correct metabolism (runs at the right speed). The average UK diet sources of iodine are dairy foods and fish, so try and include fortified plant milk sources if possible. It is also possible to get too much if you consume many seaweed products high in iodine (kelp) or supplements with more than 140 - 150 micrograms per dose. The average adult requirement is 150 micrograms per day. The general advice is to eat seaweed containing meals no more than once a week.

Vitamin D

This vitamin is known as the sunshine vitamin as skin sun exposure is the primary source of the body’s requirements. It is a vitamin that is essential for bone health, but it’s also implicated in many other metabolic pathways. Unfortunately, here in the UK, a deficiency is common, particularly during the winter months as we do not get adequate sunshine via skin exposure for our skin to make enough for what we need.

There are some food sources, but as it is quite challenging to get enough, such as ultraviolet exposed mushrooms, vegetable spreads, fortified dairy alternatives and fortified breakfast cereals. All adults are advised to take a supplement during the winter months of 10 micrograms per day but check the label as many options are based on fish – see www.vegansociety.com for suitable alternatives.

Vitamin B12

This vitamin is found in animal-based foods and consequently can be low in people who choose a vegan diet. B12 is required to keep the blood and circulation healthy, and a deficiency can cause anaemia and neurological problems due to nerve damage.  The only available sources in vegan diets are fortified products (dairy alternatives, breakfast cereals) or yeast extract. Aim for three micrograms per day from food sources (eat fortified products 2 - 3 times a day) or take a supplement containing 10 micrograms per day.

Limit intake of the following:

It is possible to have an excess of calories and a higher intake of salt on a vegan diet. While including nuts and seeds is vital for improved micronutrient intakes, they are also high in calories so these foods should be included in small amounts if someone needs to manage their weight - a portion is 30g or a small handful. Processed vegan meals can be high in calories, and salt check the label and try and include healthy options most of the time - this doesn’t mean a treat can’t be included in the diet occasionally.

Following the diet for one week is unlikely to be detrimental with regards to nutrient intakes and I wish our physiotherapists well on their endeavours, and I do not doubt at the end of the experience, some of them will change their diet to a more plant-based option.

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