by Sue Kira, Naturopath & Clinical Nutritionist
For some, eating vegan is about choosing foods that best suits their body. For others, it is a way of life that looks at not harming any living creature great or small. Instead, they choose foods to nourish their body from vegetable sources such as nuts, seeds, pulses/legumes, fruits, vegetables and seaweeds. Vegan eating excludes any animal product or the by-product of any creature, including foods like honey or eggs.
The main caution with eating vegan is to be sure to obtain sufficient vitamin B12 and the minerals iron and zinc.
A vegan diet is naturally quite low in these nutrients, but it can be supported by adding foods such as Spirulina for B12, plenty of pepitas (pumpkin seeds) for zinc, and plenty of leafy greens and herbs for iron.
A vegan diet is also naturally high in copper, so caution is needed for women who take the contraceptive pill (boosts copper) or for those who have pyrrole disorder (often low in zinc). Copper and zinc antagonise each other, so care must be taken to ensure there is a balance of these two minerals, because high copper has been shown to cause behavioural and mood issues, and low zinc can slow down the effectiveness of your immune system and hormone pathways and potentially create many other health issues.
If you adopt the vegan way of eating, it is a good idea to get annual blood tests (at least) to ensure your diet covers your needs for these nutrients, otherwise supplementation may be needed. A health practitioner can help you.
Some concerns about a vegan diet
Incomplete protein in a vegan diet
Protein helps to build every single part of the body including muscles, tissue, and cells. Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy, however, fat and protein can also fuel the body. Not every type of food that contains protein offers the same benefits. Animal products such as fish, beef and poultry, are considered to be ‘complete proteins,’ while plants are not.
Different plant proteins need to be eaten together to get the complete set of amino acids required for optimal health.
Proteins are comprised of individual chains of amino acids. Amino acids are usually categorized as essential and non-essential. They are called ‘essential’ amino acids because we cannot make them ourselves, so we must get them from the foods we eat. On the other hand, non-essential amino acids can be synthesized from essential amino acids, so they are less of a concern.
When a food has the complete set of essential amino acids, it’s called ‘complete’. Animal products are complete proteins, so a very easy way for us to get enough of the amino acids needed by the body.
Many vegans and vegetarians feel that they get plenty of protein because they include foods such as whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds. But these are incomplete sources, and their amino acids are not always fully digestible once eaten – which is all to do with protein bioavailability (more on this later).
Many beans and legumes have been shown to decrease protein absorption in the small intestine because of built-in nutrient-blocking enzymes that these foods contain called phytates or phytic acid. These anti-nutrients are present in basically all legumes/beans and cereal grains including wheat, quinoa, corn and oats, which is where most plant-based eaters tend to get their protein. By eating these foods, our assimilation of amino acids can be decreased by as much as 50%.
But there is a way to make the protein more bio-available and easier to digest at the same time, and that is by ‘activating’ them.
This requires first soaking the grain, seed, nut, pulse, or legume overnight to remove the enzyme inhibitors, anti-nutrients and to also soften the fibres. Then the item can be sprouted to activate more nutrient release, or can be fermented, to make the item more digestible and increase its benefits in other ways such as through probiotic bacteria formation.
It is possible to get what you need from a vegan or vegetarian diet, but you need to work a little harder at it and you must combine different types of plant-based foods to get all the aminos needed.
Lack of EPA-DHA Omega 3 fats and high Omega 6 fats
EPA helps to regulate inflammation, platelet aggregation and blood clotting, blood vessel contraction and dilation, muscle contraction and relaxation, immune responses, and regulation of hormone secretion. DHA is useful for the development and maintenance of retinal and neural tissue, and brain development and health.
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are normally found in fish. However, in a vegan diet there is generally low levels of EPA and DHA omega-3s, but a very high level of omega-6 oil. Some plant-based eaters make a point to eat ALA omega-3-containing foods like nuts or seeds, but this is not as beneficial as the types of oils found in fish and seafood. A way around this is a Pescatarian Diet which is a vegetarian diet that also includes fish and seafood.
If this is not a suitable option for you, then you may wish to supplement with EPA/DHA oil sourced from algae, or by eating seaweeds (sea vegetables). Some nuts and seeds contain Omega 3 fats but are very low in EPA and DHA and are often hard to convert into the form needed by the body.
Reduced conversion can be further affected by trans fatty acids (from heated vegetable oils), alcohol, and caffeine. Nutritional inadequacies such as protein deficiency or lack of vitamin and mineral cofactors, especially zinc, magnesium, niacin, pyridoxine and vitamin C, can diminish the activity of conversion enzymes, needed to convert ALA into EPA & DHA.
Non-dietary factors that negatively affect conversion are genetics, sex (young males convert less efficiently than young females), advancing age, chronic diseases such as diabetes, metabolic syndrome, hypertension and hyperlipidaemia, auto-immune disorders, and smoking.
A supplement of 200–300 mg/day of DHA and EPA from microalgae is suggested for those with increased needs, such as pregnant and lactating women, and those with reduced conversion ability as mentioned above.
Low iron, B12 and zinc common in Vegans
Researchers from Japan and Italy reported in the Journal of Agricultural Food Chemistry that vegetarians and vegans have a high risk of developing a deficiency in vitamin B12 and the mineral iron. This is the case if vegans only eat the ‘normal’ plant-based diet, but if they include some super foods like Spirulina or nutritional yeast to boost B12, and eat herbs like parsley and coriander along with many green leafy vegetables, then this can help increase iron levels.
The other nutrient often low in vegans is zinc. Because there is zinc in some vegan foods such as pepitas (pumpkin seeds), most if not all vegan foods are rich in copper. Copper is a very necessary mineral, but it is antagonistic to zinc. Zinc levels need to be at a higher ratio than copper to have a healthy balance for immunity, hormone health and healthy skin, hair, and nails.
It is best to get your levels checked annually to be certain your levels of iron, B12 and zinc are adequate as some people, whether vegan or meat eaters, have trouble with these nutrients. If too low, the first thing you will notice is fatigue or mood shifts and if you only prefer vegan foods then a supplement may be needed to help support your body and keep things in balance. You will need the help of your health care practitioner to be sure of the right types and dosages.
The main reasons why people chose veganism
For animal rights and protection
Vegans do not consume or use any animal products including dairy products, eggs or even honey. Part of the reason is a belief in the absolute right of animals to exist freely without human interference, and because many commercially raised egg-laying chickens, dairy cows and free-range animals are slaughtered when their productivity declines with age.
Modern farms are very different to how they used to be, with many resembling highly mechanized factories where animals are fed products to make them produce more muscle (meat) or milk (dairy) or to get big faster (poultry and meat).
Veganism advocates a cruelty-free lifestyle.
Livestock farming has had a devastating effect on our planet. Food production from animal farming is very inefficient because animal feed production uses massive amounts of water, land, fertilizer and other resources that could otherwise be used for greater amounts of plant food.
Much of our wilderness has been converted to grazing and farmland resulting in the devastation of forests, and significant pollution of groundwater and rivers from animal waste from massive feedlots and factory farms.
There are many studies that show meat eaters have an increased risk of developing cancer, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, hypertension, heart disease, and various other illnesses and conditions.
The fat and protein content of cow’s milk is very different from human milk, leading some experts to suggest that we are not designed for consuming cow’s milk, especially beyond the age of two when a child’s lactose digesting enzyme (lactase) stops being produced.
Many studies on omnivorous diets are based on un-healthy processed foods high in hydrogenated fats and sugar. So when comparing a vegan diet with an omnivorous diet, we need to remove any processed foods from the equation.
You can have a healthy omnivorous diet, but having said that, there are many excellent attributes for a vegan diet. This is more about what is NOT in the diet than what IS in the diet, which is the case for many diets. Healthy choices can be found within different types of diets (apart from gluggy, junk food, high sugar processed diets, or extreme detox diets).
A healthy vegan diet contains plenty of these nutrients:
Antioxidants are one of the best ways to help your body stay healthy. There has been much research about how antioxidants help to protect us from forming certain types of cancer.
A diet high in fibre leads to healthier bowel movements. High fibre diets help fight against colon cancer.
Folate from foliage, also known as vitamin B9, helps with cell repair, generating red and white blood cells, and metabolizing amino acids.
Magnesium aids in the absorption of calcium and helps us relax. Nuts, seeds, dark leafy greens, and herbs are excellent sources of magnesium.
These are found in abundance in a plant-based diet and boost protective enzymes, help to prevent and heal the body from cancer, and work with antioxidants in the body.
Potassium helps to balance the fluids and acidity in the body and stimulate the kidneys to eliminate toxins. Studies on potassium rich diets have shown promising results in the reduction of cardiovascular diseases risk and cancer risk.
Helps to keep your gums healthy and heal bruises faster. Vitamin C is also an antioxidant that supports your immune system.
Vitamin E is contained in nuts and dark leafy greens and has great benefits for your heart, brain, skin, eyes and may even help prevent Alzheimer’s Disease.
Vegan diets may help to prevent diseases such as:
By eating a plant-based diet including nuts, seeds and loads of veggies, and eliminating dairy products and meat, you may improve your cardiovascular health and help prevent stroke and a heart attack.
By eliminating animal products, you will eliminate all dietary cholesterol. Also, eating many plants will help to naturally reduce cholesterol.
A diet rich in plant foods has been shown to lower high blood pressure.
Type 2 diabetes
A well-balanced vegan diet may prevent or reverse Type 2 diabetes.
Scientific studies using men with early-stage prostate cancer found when the men switched to a vegan diet as their only treatment, the diet helped to slow the progress of the cancer, or in some cases cleared the illness.
Studies have shown that a plant-based diet can greatly reduce your chances of colon cancer.
Diets with lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, especially leafy greens and colourful veggies and fruits, helps prevent the onset of age-related macular degeneration.
Similar to how the risk of macular degeneration can be reduced with a vegan diet, cataracts are also thought to be prevented with a plant-based diet. Produce high in antioxidants are also believed to help prevent cataracts.
By eliminating dairy, there have been many who have alleviated arthritis symptoms. A recent study showed that a combination of gluten-free and vegan is very promising to improve symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.
Bone health requires adequate calcium intake, high potassium, low sodium, and good levels of magnesium. A healthy vegan diet can cover all four of these to help prevent osteoporosis.
Physical benefits of a vegan diet
Apart from good nutrition and disease prevention, there are many physical benefits to eating a vegan diet.
Body Mass Index
A diet without meat generally leads to lower BMIs, which is an indicator of a healthy weight and lack of excess body fat.
A healthy weight loss is a typical result of a balanced vegan diet. Eating vegan eliminates most of the unhealthy foods that tend to cause weight issues – provided you don’t eat too many vegan sweet treats or nuts.
When following a healthy vegan diet, your energy may be much higher, unless you are low in iron or B12.
Vegetables, nuts, and seeds contain good levels of vitamins A and E which play a big role in healthy skin, so vegans usually have good skin. Many who switch to a vegan diet notice a remarkable reduction in blemishes. This is usually a result of not eating processed foods, sugar, and dairy products.
Many studies have indicated that people who follow a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle live an average of 3-6 years longer than those who do not.
Eliminating animal products from the diet significantly reduces body odour, so going vegan can help you smell better. The chlorophyll in green vegetables also acts as a deodoriser and cleaner for the body.
Vegans frequently experience a reduction in bad breath. The chlorophyll in greens helps, along with less putrification from animal proteins in your gut.
Many people who changed to a vegan diet say their hair became stronger, healthier, with more body and lustre.
Plant based diets are generally rich in silica which gives rise to strong, healthy nails. Nail health is said to be an indicator of overall health.
The elimination of dairy is thought to play a big role in reducing PMS, so it is no wonder many women who switched to a vegan diet say their PMS symptoms either disappeared or were less intense.
Migraine sufferers who change to a vegan diet frequently gain relief from their migraines, possibly due to the high amount of magnesium in their diet from eating plenty of green’s.
By eliminating dairy, meat, and eggs, many find their allergy symptoms disappear because the more common allergens tend to be animal foods. Many vegans reduced runny noses and congestion problems. If this doesn’t happen, check your zinc levels as a vegan diet is high in copper, the antagonist mineral to zinc needed for your immune system health.
Additional benefits of a vegan diet
Following a vegan lifestyle and diet also provides other benefits:
- Avoid animal infections such as E. Coli, which comes from eating contaminated red meat and is the leading cause of bloody diarrhea. Young children and others with a compromised immune system, such as the elderly, can become extremely ill or die from E. Coli infections. Eating vegan means completely avoiding the risk of an E. coli infection.
- Salmonella is another gastrointestinal illness from animal products, which usually comes from contact with raw eggs or raw chicken meat from chickens infected with salmonella. Going vegan means eliminating this risk.
- Mad cow disease. You can avoid Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease by not eating animals that may be infected with mad cow disease. While the incidence of mad cow disease is extremely low now, it does still exist.
- Hormone consumption. Eating animals that have been given hormones to speed their growth means those hormones go into our body. Not only can this disrupt the natural balance of our hormones, but some of the hormones given to animals have been shown to cause tumour growth in humans.
- Antibiotics commonly given to feed lot animals. Many antibiotics to treat human infections are also used in animal feed. This leads to further antibiotic resistance when we eat meat, and also the pollution of our waterways from hormones going down the toilet further affects us and other creatures.
We can see there are many benefits to eating a vegan diet. As mentioned, veganism is more than a diet, it is a lifestyle. And if you wish to follow a vegan diet, observe and feel how it is for your body, and have regular medical checks and support from a health care practitioner to ensure all your vital nutrients are in balance.
Before you commence your diet, see your medical or health care professional for qualified guidance about what foods and supplements are best for your body. While on the diet do not stop any medications or supplements previously prescribed unless advised otherwise by your medical or health care professional.
During the early stages of a new diet, you may experience symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, or body aches, which may occur because your body is detoxifying. However, if you are unsure about a symptom at any time, check immediately with your medical or health care professional.
Client name and identifying information changed
Brett was in his mid-20’s when he first saw me just after he had been told his gall bladder was diseased and needed to be removed. But first he had to go onto antibiotics and anti-inflammatory drugs before it was safe for him to have the operation. So Brett wanted to see if I could help to support his body through his journey.
My advice was to continue to take the drugs to calm his gall bladder and to also go on a vegan diet which was low fat, so he didn’t eat anything to upset his gallbladder.
He normally ate a lot of red meat and rich creamy foods, but he was happy to have a vegetable-based diet because he felt so sick at that time and couldn’t really bear to eat anything else.
We also arranged a ‘cocktail’ to drink daily with turmeric powder, glutathione powder, and slippery elm powder, mixed into some vegetable juice. We also included rosemary oil for Brett to gently rub over his gallbladder area to help reduce inflammation. I also advised him to do gentle exercise walks at the beach or parks so his lymphatic system could slowly move the poison from his gallbladder.
Against my advice, Brett decided not to take any of the medications his doctor prescribed as he intuitively felt they would make things worse, and because he felt my advice sounded good, he stayed with our plan for several weeks.
When he returned, he said he felt very normal, so he then went to his doctor for some tests. His gallbladder had completely healed and he was no longer in need of an operation, which was a great result and a credit to him for sticking with it. Brett decided this diet really suited him, so he decided to continue with it.
Brett came back to see me when he was in his 30’s, looking to conceive his first child with his wife. He wanted to check that all his levels were fine because he wasn’t sure if his B12 and other nutrient levels were ok, even though he felt good. This was a very sensible thing to do, considering that making a baby takes two healthy people.
We ran some tests and the only thing that was out was his zinc levels, so I put him onto a zinc supplement to pick things up quickly and told him how to add more zinc to his diet with pepitas (pumpkin seeds).
There are other zinc rich foods, but they are also rich in copper, so he was happy to add some extra seeds to his morning muesli, also make a dip with avocado and pepitas, and add pepitas to his paleo style seed bread.
Fourteen months later I met their first child…and all had gone well with the pregnancy and birth.