When I started my career in nutrition in 1999, I feel that it's fair to say that being vegan was considered alternative and niche. Certainly, a vegan lifestyle was associated with a way of living that was often mocked by some parts of society. Indeed, vegan anything was the butt of plenty of jokes and tropes, some of which are still used in stand-up routines by comedians looking for an easy laugh.
"FAST FORWARD 23 YEARS AND FOLLOWING A VEGAN DIET NO LONGER NICHE, INSTEAD IT'S MAINSTREAM AND INCREASINGLY COMMON, SO MUCH SO THAT THE NUMBER OF PEOPLE WHO HAVE A VEGAN DIET HAS QUADRUPLED SINCE 2011"
Veganism is a wider lifestyle that eschews animal products in all forms, but when it comes specifically to food, the Vegan Society define a vegan diet as one that ‘denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.’. Following a vegan diet used to be quite a feat, and so I always admired vegans for their dedication, as the choice of food they had when not eating at home was limited and all too often, uninspiring.
But no longer, as vegan food choices are ever increasing which makes following a vegan diet considerably easier, with delicious food to choose from. Data from Kantar shows that the market for meat free food and dairy alternatives have doubled in size since 2015 and are now worth £600m a year, and that’s each, not collectively.
Aside from the benefits to producers, the accessibility of vegan food makes a plant-based diet far easier which in turn helps the market size. It's not just dedicated vegans who choose these foods, as the visibility and availability of such things as vegan ready meals, ice cream and meat-alternatives encourages people who aren’t strictly vegan to adopt what is now termed a ‘flexitarian’ diet, eating more plant-based foods whilst not cutting out meat, fish, poultry, dairy etc completely.
I am often asked about what I eat, and why I am not vegan, but how each of us chooses to eat is personal and differs according to all parts of our lives and experience. In my professional role, I am called on to advise on nutrition matters, and I don’t promote or endorse any one way of eating, instead offering guidance for the individual so that they get the nutrition they need from the diet they choose.
"No diet is perfect, and when it comes to a vegan diet, people unfamiliar with what to eat may have concerns about where they will get the nutrients that they associate with animal products if they adopt a vegan way of eating"
Here are the 6 questions that I am asked about a vegan diet and those nutrients;
1. WILL I HAVE ENOUGH CALCIUM?
The most familiar source is dairy, which has the advantage of being very common and contains a type of calcium that is easily absorbed. Happily, calcium is also found in the staples of a vegan diet such as nuts, seeds, soy, beans and legumes as well as green vegetables. An adult requires around 1000mg of calcium daily and this is entirely achievable eating vegan-friendly foods, as long as portion size isn't very modest.
2. WHAT ABOUT VITAMIN D?
The spotlight was focused more than ever on Vitamin D in the past couple of years given its role in supporting the immune system. When it comes to dietary sources, vitamin D is largely found in animal produce, but it is often added to vegan foods such as orange juice or soy yogurt.
But every one of us should be taking a vitamin D supplement, whatever our age or diet. Vegans should choose vitamin D in the form of D2, not D3 as the latter is derived from lanolin in sheep’s skin.
3. SURELY A VEGAN DIET IS LOW IN PROTEIN?
It doesn't have to be. Protein consists of various amino acids which are broken down and then rearranged to form other amino acids that the human body needs.
There are 22 of these amino acids in total of which 8 (or 9 if you are in the US) are known as ‘essential’ as without them the body cannot build the remaining amino acids to make a full complement. If even 1 is absent, then the body may not be able to make up the numbers as it missing a component. When an individual food contains all 8 it is referred to as a ‘complete’ protein but if it has any fewer, it's considered to be an incomplete protein.
Animal produce has all 8 whilst vegan sources don't always make up the complete set, but as the essential aminos are found in a variety of foods suitable for a vegan diet, albeit not in the same food, getting the essential aminos can be achieved by having a variety of food. You know, like one does in a meal.
That said, there are some complete proteins suitable for vegans including quinoa, beans, nuts, tofu and chickpeas.
4. WILL I GET ALL THE ESSENTIAL FATS SUCH AS OMEGA 3?
Nuts and seeds contain mostly omega 6 fats and are generally plentiful in a vegan diet.
But getting omega 3 is not as straightforward. The essential fat occurs in three forms – two forms, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are found in oily fish whilst the third type, alpha-linoleic acid, or ALA is found in plants.
The valuable benefits of omega 3 are, for the most part, linked to EPA and DHA, less so ALA, the form that a vegan needs to get in their diet. This is not to say that ALA is not beneficial, only that the other forms have the edge. ALA is found in walnuts, chia seeds, linseeds, soybeans, hemp and algae.
5. ISN'T IRON ONLY FOUND IN RED MEAT?
You may have heard the jokes about vegans being pale and listless, typical signs of anaemia, which are founded in the belief that red meat is the only source of iron. Not funny, and also, not true.
There are essentially two types of iron found in food, heme and non-heme, the former being considerably more easily absorbed than the latter. Heme is found in animal foods hence the issue for vegans whilst non-heme iron is found in plants and is rich in chickpeas, peas, spinach, chard, wheat, legumes, nuts, seeds and dried apricots. It is also found in foods that have been fortified, such as cereals and some juices.
Vitamin C has been shown to significantly increase iron absorption and is found in many foods that are abundant in a vegan diet, such as peppers, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and kale, whilst potato, sweet potato, squash and tomato are decent sources. It's found in citrus fruits as well. Consuming 100mg of vitamin C in a meal can increase the absorption of non-heme iron four-fold.
6. WHAT ABOUT VITAMIN B12
B12 isn’t naturally available from foods that are suitable for a vegan diet. But many foods are fortified, including some soy products, spreads and plant milks, so look out for them and if they don’t appeal it's a smart idea to take a B12 supplement.
About the author:
Ian Marber’s interest in food and nutrition was piqued when diagnosed with coeliac disease in his late twenties. He soon after gave up a successful career in investment to study nutrition at the Institute for Optimum Nutrition, graduating in 1999 and founding the now-globally recognised nutritional consultancy, The Food Doctor.
Departing the Food Doctor in 2012, Ian now advises individuals and industry alike. He has since worked with over 8,000 clients, leads seminars, workshops and lectures and works closely with brands such as Innocent Drinks to formulate new ranges. His expertise has lead him to be recognised as go-to contributor within the press, writing regularly in The Times, The Spectator and The Telegraph, as well as making regular appearances on both TV and radio.