While veganism’s popularity in the mainstream consciousness has picked up over the last few years (thanks in no small part to companies putting out delicious plant-based alternatives), vegan nutrition continues to largely elude understanding. Is veganism healthy by default, as some may tout? Or is it a sure-fire road to malnutrition, like others allege?
A typical vegan diet eschews all animal products and by-products, meaning meat, fish and dairy are all out of bounds. According to registered dietician Jack Norris, plant-based ways of eating may have numerous health benefits like lower rates of high blood pressure and lower cholesterol levels. But the inherent restriction the diet necessitates also means that without some level of planning, you may be at risk of falling short of some nutritional needs. “A vegan diet omits foods that are traditional sources of nutrients. So, when people stop eating animal foods, they need to know a few things about nutrition,” shares registered dietician Ginny Messina on her website.
Still, there are fewer things you need to worry about than you might think. Eating a balanced, healthful vegan diet may take a little bit of learning and adjustment, but ultimately, major dietetic organisations agree that it is entirely possible—especially if you take the experts’ advice, skip overly-restrictive diets and watch out for possible blind spots.
For example, vegan diets tend to be low in B12, a vitamin that is typically only found in animal flesh. While this problem is solved with an easily available and relatively inexpensive supplement, it is essential that you start supplementing early instead of waiting to develop a deficiency. To do that, you need to be aware of where the vegan diet’s potential nutritional risks are.
“There is nothing especially logical or beneficial about eating only raw foods”
For anyone who is taking the plunge into plant-based waters: here are a few evidence-backed tips to keep in mind as you begin your transition.
Don’t forget your protein—especially lysine
Plant foods like vegetables and fruits tend to be lower in both calories and protein, so just loading up on a ton of fresh greens may not be enough to meet all your nutritional needs. Since animal based sources of protein—which tend to be more nutritionally dense—are no longer viable options, it may be wise to make conscious decisions about including alternative protein sources in your diet that are both satisfying and healthy. Norris shares on his website that legumes like beans, peanuts, peas, lentils, along with soy, seitan, and quinoa are the best sources of protein for vegans. According to Messina, legumes are a particularly fantastic choice, especially since they provide good amounts of lysine, an amino acid that vegan diets often fall short on.
Alongside natural sources, faux meats and cheese can also be a really good source of plant protein, despite some assertions that they may not be healthy. Registered dietician Abbey Sharp believes that these “fun” foods can be added to your diet in moderation with no harm to your health. Messina agrees, sharing on her website that there is “no evidence that a few servings of veggie meats per week will harm your health. And it’s not just about convenience—although that is a big part of the benefit they bring to vegan diets. Just as importantly, these foods and others may make veganism more socially and psychologically comfortable for some people.”
While these processed options are often creatively used by the best plant-based restaurants in Singapore, Impossible Foods has just begun to launch their range of plant-based meat options at supermarkets here—making it easier than ever before to jazz up that homemade veggie stir fry with some Impossible mince pork, or serve up a vegan breakfast muffin with a plant-based sausage patty.
Forgo unnecessarily restrictive diets
There are sections of the vegan community that advocate not just for a plant-based diet—but far more extreme versions that can turn harmful. One phenomenon that has picked up speed in recent years is the fruitarian diet. It is exactly what it sounds like: followers of this diet subsist purely on calories from fruit while cutting out all other food groups. Another increasingly common movement is the raw vegan diet, which discourages the practice of cooking food. Popularised by fitness bloggers and Instagram models, this diet limits your options to only foods that you can eat completely raw and unprocessed. This means that raw dieters can pick only from vegetables and fruits, adding a few nuts and seeds to supplement their food intake.
While these diets tout several unfounded health benefits and emphasise the fact that they are “natural”, there has been no evidence to support that they have any real nutritional advantage. Not only are they pricey and unsatisfying, these ways of eating have very real potential harm if you keep them up for a significant period of time. “There is nothing especially logical or beneficial about eating only raw foods,” says Messina on her website. “Cooking has some important benefits, like improving nutrient absorption. Some studies have shown that iron is better absorbed from cooked vegetables compared to raw. And leavening grains—which is what happens when flour is cooked with yeast to make bread—improves availability of minerals like iron and zinc.”
“Cancer-fighting antioxidants like lycopene in tomatoes (which reduces risk for prostate cancer) and beta carotene in carrots, are available to the body only if a food is cooked. Cooking can also neutralise toxic compounds or anti-nutrients that occur naturally in foods,” adds Messina.
Pop your pills (or at least a B12 supplement)
When you cut out several food groups from your culinary rolodex, the resultant reduction in your options means that you may now not be able to meet one or a few of your nutrient needs through just your diet alone. This is not to say that omnivores have nutritionally complete diets by default—in fact, many don’t. But the fact remains that a few vitamins and nutrients are of particular concern for vegans because their common sources happen to be animal-based. The answer to this problem is clear: supplementation.
“A vegan diet omits foods that are traditional sources of nutrients. So, when people stop eating animal foods, they need to know a few things about nutrition”
According to Messina, all vegans need to take careful note of their Vitamin B12 intake. “You cannot get enough vitamin B12 by eating unwashed organic produce or mushrooms grown in B12-rich soil. The evidence also does not support the idea that you can get it from sea vegetables or fermented foods.”
Messina instead urges that you turn to supplements. Her recommended dose for your B12 supplement is 25 to 100 micrograms of cyanocobalamin per day or 1,000 micrograms of cyanocobalamin two to three times per week. She also flags Vitamin D, Iodine, and a host of other nutrition deficiency concerns that vegans may face on her website. Each one is easily and pre-emptively solved with a quick trip to a pharmacy like Guardian or Unity to pick up the supplements you need.
Moderate your fibre and FODMAPs intake
The vegan diet has earned a rep as the bloating diet due to the high volume, fibre and FODMAPs intake this way of eating tends to promote. According to Sharp, “FODMAPs, which stand for “Fermentable Oligo-, Di-, Mono-saccharides And Polyols”, are short chain carbohydrates often associated with digestive symptoms like gas, bloating, and constipation because they are often difficult to breakdown.”
Many vegan staples like wheat, some legumes like chickpeas and kidney beans, and several fruits and vegetables like apples, watermelon, cauliflower and asparagus are high FODMAP foods, so keeping track of which meals cause discomfort and excessive bloating may be a smart way to catch and minimise your consumption of trigger foods.
If you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), watching your fibre intake is also an effective way to alleviate your symptoms. “A vegan diet is typically high in fruits, veggetables, beans and legumes, which all happen to be rich sources of fibre,” shares Sharp on her website. While fibre is healthy and an essential part of any diet—too much, and your digestive system will fight to keep up, so moderation is key.