Is a well-balanced vegan diet healthy?
that’s a great question! Yes, a vegan diet can be created to be healthy. It takes some planning and some knowledge of what you need to include on a daily basis. You also need to understand the fundamentals of what is healthy.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of walking through endless supermarket aisles and picking up packaged vegan food and living thinking it’s better for you. I see this all the time in my clinics, not just clients who have gone vegan, but celiacs, keto, low carb. Most packaged foods are prohibited.
I would ask the question what do you consider to be a well balanced diet? Everyone’s needs vary, which may not necessarily be correct for that individual due to factors related to lifestyle, mass farming methods, activity, health, genetic variation, and lack of knowledge. By eating a balanced vegan diet from a textbook, you can still be missing key micro and macro nutrients.
What can those who practice veganism be missing in their diet and how can they get it?
Vitamin B12, iron, vitamin D3, omega 3, iodine and calcium would be the main vitamins and minerals missing, but all macro and micronutrients can be consumed incorrectly.
Vitamin B12 is found in animal products, if you wish to consume with food you can add 1-2 tablespoons of nutritional yeast to a meal or you can consume foods fortified with B12.
Iron is again easily absorbed from animal products, but when consumed in a vegan diet of spinach, nuts, peas, legumes, lentils, raisins, and iron-fortified cereals, further attention to this absorption is necessary.
Calcium supplements or drinking teas and coffees or eating phytate-rich foods like whole grains can block iron absorption. Additional foods rich in vitamin C may help.
Vitamin D3 is not just a vitamin but a hormone and is needed for multiple actions in the body. It is difficult for all populations, especially in the northern hemispheres, to obtain sufficient intake from diet alone, so safe use of sunlight and supplements would be necessary.
Omega 3 is an essential fat that we need for multicellular and brain function. Oily fish is the main source, so a vegan would need to consume nuts, seeds, avocado, and oils or a supplement.
Iodine is mainly found in animal proteins and algae, which are essential for the functioning of the thyroid. Insufficient levels can lead to hypothyroidism, soy milk, potatoes, seaweed and prunes provide iodine in a vegan diet.
Calcium is essential for heart, muscle and bone health. Non-animal sources include tofu, tempeh, seeds, green leafy vegetables like sprouts, and peas.
Other than expectations, are any other food groups a problem?
All food groups, when eaten in incorrect proportions, can lead to longer term health problems, weight gain, depression, poor sleep, osteoporosis, diabetes, heart disease …
This can happen if a vegan has limited tastes or makes poor food choices. It’s easy to get up and go to bed eating vegan or non-vegan junk food.
A good example is the explosion in recent years of fast food companies selling vegan options including burgers, ice cream, etc. When I graduated 25 years ago, vegans were considered a minority group eating beans and rice and a bit wacky!
The fundamentals of any diet are to choose good quality, colorful foods that provide enough protein, healthy fats, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals, fatty acids and antioxidants.
Would you recommend vegans take supplements or can all vitamins/minerals be ingested through food?
Not all, but many people will need to supplement with key nutrients because they will struggle to get everything they need on a vegan diet. Again I see issues daily with clients/patients who assume that if they take a high dose multivitamin and mineral supplement it’s like an insurance policy so they can eat and drink what that they like.
Unfortunately, that’s far from true, and I’ve had some unfortunate recommendations for patients with liver damage due to improper supplementation.
I am a supplement specialist and require blood testing to ensure the correct levels are achieved for each individual before selecting the best, most natural nutrient in supplement form. Monitoring these supplements is also necessary to ensure that neither too much nor too little is consumed.
Is it possible to get adequate amounts of protein?
Yes, you can meet your average protein needs by following a vegan diet. This can be difficult for some people to do, and I see it frequently in clinics where patients resort to multiple vegan protein shakes to make suboptimal nutritional choices.
It’s not ideal and can be an unhealthy way to live. Some extra protein from shakes can help if you have high metabolic needs due to muscle mass, height, or activity. Choosing powders that are as natural as possible is preferable.
Vegan protein comes from several foods and includes tofu, tempeh, seitan, quinoa, nuts, seeds, legumes, beans, lentils, grains, and vegetables.
To see 121dietitian.com for more. Talk to your doctor before starting a new or different diet