Over the last few years, the rise in (and reputation of) veganism has sky-rocketed – as have the plant-based food options on offer in supermarkets (shout out to ASDA’s own-brand vegan bacon) and restaurants – in part, due to Veganuary. People make the change for a myriad of reasons, from a passion for animal welfare to personal health factors.
Whether you’ve already dipped a toe into adopting a vegan diet, or are still considering making the change, you may well be feeling a tad *daunted* by the whole thing. And that’s totally okay/normal! Especially as there’s also a tonne of discussion surrounding vegan beauty products and fashion to consider too. However, at the end of the day it’s up to you (and you alone) as to whether or not you’re solely experimenting with making your diet more plant-based, or opting for an entire vegan lifestyle overhaul.
For those wanting diet-based facts, this is everything Sabine Gransden, a nutritionist and health coach for Human Health by The Clinic, wants you to know about going vegan:
1) Avoid processed foods
“Many people who change their lifestyle to become vegan tend to reach for processed vegan foods that we find so easily available on shelves in supermarkets these days,” says Gransden. “Try to avoid too many ready meals, as they can often be full of additives and sugar and are highly processed. Make sure you thoroughly read the ingredients list too!” She advises planning ahead and opting for whole foods, including lots of different coloured fresh vegetables and fruit.
2) Don’t scrimp on the protein
There are plenty of brilliant vegan protein options out there, however as the proteins we get from plant-based foods aren’t as well digested as those from animal-based foods, you’ll need to make an effort to ensure you’re eating enough. “Aim for at least 3 servings per day of legumes (lentils, beans, peanuts, peas, tofu or tempeh),” says Gransden. A word of warning here though: if your body isn’t used to eating a lot of legumes, start by introducing them slowly. “They can potentially cause digestive issues, such as bloating, to start with but this will reduce once your body adapts.”
3) Take a vitamin B12 supplement
Vitamin B12 deficiency is very common in vegans, notes Gransden. In fact, according to recent studies, over 90% of vegans are B12 deficient compared to 11% of omnivores. “It’s a common myth that it’s possible to get enough B12 from plant sources alone, such as fermented soy and seaweed, but they contain a different form of the vitamin.” A vitamin B12 deficiency can cause anaemia and nerve damage, so taking a daily supplement could be a good idea, but it’s always best to book in for a chat with your GP first – they’ll be able to guide you on how best to approach diet changes or supplements. Sprinkling nutritional yeast (a good fortified source of B12) can help too.
4) And one for EPA and DHA levels
Get ready for a bit of a science lesson, lads: the fatty acids EPA and DHA are vital for the functioning of our brain and body. “Your body can make them from alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), however, fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring and halibut contain the highest levels of EPA and DHA,” says Gransden. “Plant foods contain ALA, but the conversion to EPA and DHA is poor in humans according to studies. Vegans tend to have 50% lower EPA and nearly 60% lower DHA levels, so it’s likely you’ll have to supplement those too.”
5) Eat lots of iron-rich foods
“As iron from plant foods isn’t absorbed as well as iron from meat, vegans have higher iron requirements,” explains Gransden. Plant-based foods with a relatively high amount of iron include lentils, tofu, quinoa, chickpeas and beans. “You can increase the absorption from iron in plant foods by adding a small serving of a vitamin C rich food (for example broccoli, parsley, red peppers, kale or watercress) to your meal.”
6) Don’t forget about calcium and vitamin A too
Calcium is vital for bone health, muscle and nerve function and it’s involved in blood clotting. “Whilst leafy greens such as spinach and kale have a relatively high calcium content, it is not efficiently absorbed during digestion. So you might not be getting enough calcium from a plant based diet alone,” says Gransden. If your nails begin to feel brittle, your hair feels coarse or you develop dry, scaly skin, book in with a doctor to discuss calcium deficiency.
As for vitamin A – which promotes healthy immune function, eyesight and skin – Gransden notes it’s an important fat-soluble vitamin found almost exclusively in animal foods, like seafood, eggs and dairy products. “Plants contain beta-carotene, which can be converted by the body into vitamin A, but the conversion is inefficient.” she explains, adding that you’d need to eat two cups of carrots, one cup of sweet potatoes, or two cups of kale every day to meet the recommended amount of vitamin A. Mild forms of vitamin A deficiency may cause no symptoms, but tiredness (fatigue) can also be a sign.
7) Talk to family and friends and stay inspired
As a health coach, Gransden says she often helps clients to inform their nearest and dearest of their new diet plans. “It’s important to make sure they’re on board and understand your reasoning, to prevent any surprises in future and so that you get the support you want and need.”
She also adds that stocking up on vegan cookbooks will help you stay inspired too. “Check out The VGang Cookbook by Millee Johnson and Timothy Shieff, or Deliciously Ella Quick & Easy: Plant-based Deliciousness by Ella Mills. I find it is easier to follow recipes, especially at the beginning, and it helps stocking up cupboards with the basics.” The BOSH! team (Henry Firth and Ian Theasby) also have a plethora of recipes, ranging from healthy to indulgent, available in book form or on their social media channels.
What else makes going vegan easier?
Check out these tried and tested tips, from those who’ve been there and done it:
Find tasty swaps for your favourites
“Going vegan initially for health reasons, I wanted to find a way to make my food as tasty as before, without compromising my health,” says Loui Blake, founder of Erpingham House, a group that includes the UK’s largest vegan restaurant. He adds that one of his former favourite indulgences was ice cream, but that he’s since discovered a vegan alternative. “I’ll freeze three bananas (adjust according to your appetite!), then blend with a splash of plant-based milk until a smooth consistency. Add choice of toppings – my favourite are chia seeds, blueberries & walnuts – to make a wicked bowl of ‘nice cream’.”
Big up your vegetables
“A great meal doesn’t have to contain meat,” says Aaron Bryans, founder of Plant Hustler, Hoke Poke & Plant Hustler Deli. “I try to make vegetables the star of my meals, they’re full of vitamins like A and K plus minerals such as potassium. Vegetables are also high in fibre which is good for your gut and helps you feel more satisfied.” He adds that plant-based meat alternatives are better than ever these days, too. Bryans’ favourites? “Beyond Meat, Moving Mountains (famed for their burger options), Mock and Vivera.”
Make the change gradually
“I’d advise building vegan days into your current routine before diving in full-time,” says Stuart Jack, co-founder of Musclemary vegan supplements. “Drastic changes to an existing diet can be difficult to sustain for a significant period as most dietary habits are deeply ingrained.
He adds that using a food diary app can be helpful too. “The removal of animal products can often lead to deficiencies in certain macronutrients (protein, fats and carbs), micronutrients (Vitamins and minerals) and overall calories – the best way of identifying this is to use a tracking app, such as MyFitnessPal, to get a breakdown of your intake.” Having this information will allow you to make an informed decision on how to tailor and optimise your nutrition.
Create your own vegan diet plan
“Whilst vegan cooking may require a bit more advance planning to begin with, it doesn’t require you to become a pro chef overnight!” says Andrea Harburn, Brand Manager at Cauldron Foods (who, in my humble opinion, do the best tofu!). She recommends mastering a few staple recipes that are both quick to make and nutritious, then work on building that repertoire.
Master dairy-free alternatives
Avoiding meat is fairly straightforward, but forgoing dairy? That’s another story, says Will Moxham, co-founder of delicious plant-based meal delivery service, Planthood. “While dairy replacements in supermarkets have come a long way, if you have a bit more time, why not get creative in the kitchen yourself?” he suggests. “Making vegan mayo is really simple. The recipe is the same as normal mayo, only you substitute the egg for aquafaba (the leftover water in chickpea can).”
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