What you should know if you’re thinking about going vegan
Monday 21 January 2019
Vegan has become a lifestyle buzzword in recent years, but with many varied opinions on the health benefits and implications of a vegan diet, it can be hard to know what’s fact and what’s fiction.
We asked Public Health Nutritionist Mathew Dick for the nutritional low down on what you should consider if you’re thinking about going vegan, or if you’re already vegan.
What is a vegan?
The definition of a vegan is a person who does not eat or use animal products. Put simply, someone following a vegan lifestyle doesn’t eat meat, eggs, seafood, dairy or other animal products, like gelatine. Many vegans also avoid purchasing items that are made using animal products, like leather clothing, or are tested on animals.
Recent Roy Morgan research found that the number of Australian adults that eat completely or almost meat-free diets has risen in recent years, from 1.7 million people in 2012 to almost 2.1 million in 2016, or 11.2% of the population.
What should I be eating if I go vegan?
If you’re considering going vegan, you may be thinking about the animal-based foods you will be eliminating from your diet, like meat, dairy and eggs. “These foods are rich sources of vitamins, minerals and macronutrients that are needed in a healthy diet,” says Mathew. If you do decide to go vegan your focus will soon shift to the foods you will be eating as part of your new lifestyle.
Mathew confirmed that the same principles of healthy eating that apply to a ‘regular’ diet still apply to a vegan diet – consume the daily recommended servings of the five core food groups, drink plenty of water each day and limit your consumption of discretionary foods and drinks.
“The meat and dairy food groups shouldn’t be eliminated from the diet entirely,” says Mathew. Instead, people eating a vegan diet need to consider what items of the traditionally meat and dairy food groups they will eat each day. For example, instead of meat, they might have tofu, legumes or beans, while dairy might be replaced by dairy alternatives like soy milk.
“People who adopt a vegan lifestyle need to look for other sources of food that can still provide the nutrients that predominantly come from the meat and dairy food groups. These include iron, zinc, B vitamins and protein,” says Mathew.
While replacing the animal-based foods in your diet is important, so is eating a variety of fruits and vegetables.
“If you don’t eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables then you run the risk of not getting the full range of nutrients in the amounts your body requires,” Mathew explains, a fact that is true whether you are eating a vegan diet or not.
Mathew recommends that new vegans place a strong focus on the serving sizes and quantities of serves they are eating while they develop a new cooking repertoire, trial new foods and try new recipes to ensure they aren’t becoming deficient in any nutrients.
“Giving a lot of focus when you first change your diet is really important and I would recommend new vegans write down what they eat for the first few months,” he says. “It’s important to do this early on to make sure you are getting enough of the important nutrients in your new diet. You can then give this information to your dietitian or doctor.”
Mathew suggests that there are free online tools and apps, like Easy Diet Diary where you can enter your daily food consumption to get a breakdown of the amount of energy, protein, fat and carbohydrates you are eating. “You just need to be careful that the tool you use is from an Australian source, as databases from other countries differ,” he explains.
For more information about how many serves of each food group you should be eating every day, head to the Eat for Health website.
What meat and dairy alternatives should vegans eat?
By swapping animal-based foods for plant-based alternatives in the same food group, vegans are able to nutritionally compensate for the foods they are removing from their diet.
“There are some very good meat alternatives available to vegans, including legumes, lentils, nuts and seeds,” says Mathew. “These can be incorporated into meals in many different ways and are good sources of protein and iron.”
For dairy alternatives, Mathew recommends choosing options that are high in calcium or are calcium fortified.
“Dairy products are such a rich source of calcium. Finding that calcium through other foods can be a challenge, however there are some good vegan alternatives like nuts, calcium-fortified soy milk, almond milk, rice milk and other milk alternatives,” Mathew explains. “It’s very important to look for alternatives that have calcium, and sometimes protein, added to them.”
Regarding serving sizes Mathew encourages vegans to use the Australian Dietary Guidelines as a guide for the meat and dairy alternatives they are eating. “The Australian Dietary Guidelines provides serving sizes for all of the food groups, including meat and dairy, and these are intended to be direct swaps,” he explained.
The Australian Dietary Guidelines state that:
One serve of dairy is equivalent to one cup of soy, rice or other cereal drink, provided there is at least 100mg of added calcium per 100ml.
One serve of cooked lean meat is equivalent to one cup of cooked or canned legumes or beans, 170g of tofu or 30g or nuts or seeds.
What should I look for when purchasing food?
If you’re a new vegan, or you’re thinking about going vegan, a trip to the grocery store might feel overwhelming, but there are a few things you can do to make your weekly shop less stressful.
Meal planning is a great way to ensure you’re eating a healthy and balanced diet and can help you to create a shopping list.
“Planning your meals in advance is a good way to ensure you’re meeting all of your nutritional requirements, especially in the early stages of going vegan,” says Mathew.
Mathew notes that there are also more and more vegan-friendly products available at the supermarket as the number of vegans has increased. “The food industry has responded with an increase in the range of products that are available and the labelling of vegan-friendly products as well.”
But it’s important to remember that just because it’s vegan doesn’t mean it’s healthy. “You definitely need to look for the amount of saturated fat and salt in pre-packaged vegan food, as with all foods,” says Mathew. “You should also look at how much protein is in the food.”
When reading nutrition information on packaged food labels try to find products with 3g or less per 100g of saturated fat, while products with less than 1.5g saturated fat per 100g are the healthiest options. High amounts of added sugar can also be found in some packaged foods. When looking at the nutrition information panel on a food packet, aim for a food with 15g of sugar per 100g, or less.
You can read more about what to look for on packaged food nutrition labels on Healthier. Happier.
What are the health benefits of going vegan?
It’s possible to live a healthy lifestyle and be a vegan at the same time. In fact, there may even be some health benefits to being vegan.
“There are many foods that are eliminated in a vegan diet that are clearly linked to the development of chronic diseases, overweight and obesity,” explains Mathew. “Additionally, the eating patterns of vegans will generally be healthier than the standard diet of most Australians, unless they are eating a lot of discretionary foods like vegan baked goods and pizzas.”
While a balanced vegan diet is consistent with other healthy eating patterns, and may even reduce your risk of developing chronic diseases and other health concerns, Mathew encourages vegans to remember that being vegan doesn’t mean you have a free ticket to eat all the sweet treats, sugary drinks and other discretionary foods that are vegan friendly.
What are the health implications of going vegan?
A healthy and balanced vegan diet doesn’t make you immune to illness, injury or disease – vegans are human after all and face the same health concerns as non-vegans. However, there are a few health implications that are more common in vegans, so if you’re considering going vegan you should be aware of these and take steps to prevent them.
“The main health implications of being vegan are nutritional,” says Mathew. “Anaemia is a key one, especially for women, so it’s really important to ensure you get enough iron in your diet. Vegans also need to be aware of their B12 levels.”
The symptoms of anaemia include tiredness and lethargy, feeling short of breath and looking pale. People with a B12 deficiency may also feel tired, light headed or bruise easily. Learn more about the symptoms, causes, diagnosis and treatment of anaemia and B12 deficiency.
If you are concerned that you may be anaemic or deficient in B12 you should speak to your doctor and request a blood test.
Should I talk to a doctor about going vegan?
Anyone considering going vegan should speak with their doctor or a dietitian about the changes they are planning to make to their diet.
“It’s well worth talking to a dietitian or a doctor and getting some advice on what the key foods and nutrients of concern are and some good sources for those nutrients,” says Mathew.
Mathew suggests that you should also ask your doctor for a blood test when you’re first thinking about going vegan, so you can identify your iron and B12 levels. “This will give you a baseline so that three or six months later you can have your iron and B12 levels tested again to check that they are tracking okay,” he explains.
“If you see a dietitian you will also be able to get some tailored and specialised advice, because they will base their advice on what you like to eat, your lifestyle and how much time you have to prepare meals,” says Mathew.
Should I take vitamins and supplements if I go vegan?
It is possible to meet all of your body’s nutritional requirements for good health on a vegan diet, so you do not need to take vitamins and supplements if you decide to go vegan.
“Ideally, it’s best not to rely on supplements and to get all the nutrients you need from food sources,” explains Mathew. “That’s where having a baseline blood test and health check before you go vegan can be good, so you have something to compare to if you are finding that you’re feeling a bit lethargic or if something’s not feeling right.”
But what if you’re not sure that you are getting the required nutrients from your diet?
Mathew says, “This is where professional advice is helpful because there may be a need for supplements in some cases, for example if you can’t get enough B12 or iron from the foods you’re eating, or if the plant-based sources of B12 aren’t your preference.”
If you do decide to go vegan you should have an ongoing conversation with your doctor and other health professionals about your general health, your diet and any vitamins or supplements you are taking so any concerns can be dealt with quickly.
Is there anyone who shouldn’t go vegan? Is there a reason I shouldn’t go vegan?
Mathew confirmed that there are some people who should approach a vegan diet with special care and who should definitely speak to health professionals before making any changes to their diet.
Pregnant and breast-feeding women
Some nutrients are required in higher amounts during pregnancy and breastfeeding so a lot of attention needs to be paid to ensure that pregnant and breastfeeding women are meeting these nutritional requirements, especially if they are vegan.
“It can be difficult to be vegan and pregnant, although not impossible,” says Mathew. “It’s not recommended that pregnant women be on a vegan diet unless they have been vegan for quite some time and are well versed in their recipes and food sources, and know that they can get enough iron, zinc, protein and other nutritients in their diet.”
You can learn more about nutritional requirements for vegan pregnant and breast-feeding women in this guide on healthy eating for vegetarian or vegan pregnant and breastfeeding mothers.
If you’re vegan and pregnant, it’s advised that you seek extra medical support and nutritional advice.
While many medical experts agree that a well-planned vegetarian or vegan diet can be a healthy way to eat, it is generally not recommended that young children adopt a vegan diet and parents should be cautious about putting their child on a vegan diet.
You can learn more about vegan and vegetarian healthy diet planning for children in this article about nutrition needs for vegetarian children.
If you’re thinking about putting your child on a vegan diet, if you’re not sure your child is getting all the necessary nutrients, or if you have any questions about vegan diets get in touch with your family doctor, paediatrician or a registered dietitian.
Thanks to Public Health Nutritionist Mathew Dick for providing his insight into healthy eating for this article.