Congratulations on taking your first step to a brand new (vegan) you. You’re about to feel healthier and better, knowing that you’re saving animals and the environment everyday. I did Veganuary in 2017, having half-heartedly tried veganism on and off for some time. I don’t know what my light-bulb moment was, but I am so glad it happened, and I’ve never looked back. I felt healthier, more energetic, I lost weight, and my conscience is now clearer. And once I’d fully opened my eyes to the suffering of farmed animals, there was no way I was going back to eating the cheese that stopped me from fully committing for so long.
I found it quite easy to transition to a vegan lifestyle, but I was doing it as a vegetarian, softening the impact a little. However, there was still so much to learn along the way. Being a GP made some of this easier, as much of what you need to know revolves around your health. I’ve made a point to share what I’ve discovered with those who are testing out veganism for the first time. So let me get you started with a few tips to keep you healthy this Veganuary.
There are a few nutrients which can be difficult to obtain on a vegan diet, and no, protein isn’t one of them! The one you will become very familiar with, as it’s something a lot of vegans are either worried or talking about is vitamin B12. The reason B12 is such a concern to vegans, is that it truly is the only nutrient which can not be obtained from plant sources. It’s a vitamin normally found in animal-derived products, which is made in the gut of animals from bacteria in soil. It isn’t as plentiful as it used to be, and isn’t always well absorbed in humans, so many people, not just vegans, can find themselves deficient. Several vegan foods are fortified with B12, such as marmite, plant milks, and the vegan golden nectar, Nutritional Yeast. Nutritional yeast is also known as Nooch in the vegan community, and is a great source of B12 which can be sprinkled onto and mixed into so many different foods. But because B12 deficiency can potentially be rather serious, I recommend that all vegans take a daily or weekly supplement, unless you are certain you are hitting your target with fortified foods. There are several supplements on the market, many of which are suitable for vegans.
Although you can find iodine in some plant sources, such as seaweed, many people rely on fish and milk for their daily recommended dose. The problem with seaweed is that the iodine content is unpredictable, so you don’t know whether you’re getting enough, and you can even consume too much, as iodine is a nutrient which can be harmful in excess. It’s for this reason that I recommend a daily iodine supplement for vegans, particularly for pregnant and breastfeeding women. Again, iodine deficiency can be serious, and is difficult to pick up with tests from your doctor, so avoiding it completely by taking a supplement is safest.
Vitamin D is often sourced from oily fish, meat and eggs. It is, however, found in some vegan foods, such as mushrooms, fortified plant milks and tofu. But most of it is created in the skin when exposed to sunlight. As we can’t rely on the UK for sun exposure, it is now recommended that everybody over the age of 4 years old should take a supplement of 10 micrograms per day, vegan or not. Many vitamin D supplements are made from sheeps’ wool, but vegan formulations are readily available, and should be taken daily over the winter months, if not all year.
Omega-3s are a type of fatty acid which many people obtain from fish. For vegans, however, the problem isn’t necessarily with finding sources of omega-3s like EPA and DHA, which are also found in flax and chia seeds, as well as walnuts, but it’s in the balance between the amount of omega-3 and omega-6 we consume. Omega-6s are also very important, but are much easier to find in plant sources, and if the amount consumed of these far outweighs omega-3s, then we don’t convert and absorb our omega-3s particularly well. The way to get around this is to use rapeseed oil, which is rich in omega-3, instead of omega-6 rich sunflower oil for cooking, and to take sunflower and pumpkin seeds in moderation, while aiming for a plentiful supply of omega-3 rich foods. Another way to ensure adequate omega-3 consumption is to supplement. Many non-vegans supplement omega-3 using fish oils, but you can easily get yours in a supplement made from algae. Again, I would stress that omega-3 is more important in breastfeeding and pregnant women, who should be taking an algae oil supplement.
There are plenty of other micronutrients which vegans could be at risk of becoming deficient in, such as calcium and iron, but non-vegans are also at risk if their diets aren’t carefully planned. So this is no reason to avoid giving Veganuary a go. Just do your reading and be aware of plant sources of these nutrients, of which there are plenty. The Veganuary website has so many resources to help you stay well and get used to your new way of life, and the NHS website even includes information on a healthy vegan diet. The Vegan Society is a fantastic source of information, and they even do a multivitamin which contains some of the nutrients discussed above.
Please remember that a vegan diet, when carefully planned and properly done, can be a very healthy one indeed, with many benefits to your health, the animals and our planet. The British Dietetic Association even confirmed that “well-planned vegan diets can support healthy living in people of all ages”, so go ahead and enjoy your new lifestyle!
Thanks for reading,
The Vegan Doctor