Going vegan this January? Here’s what you need to know!


Every January sees the return of the ever popular ‘Veganuary’ campaign. A campaign that aims to encourage and support people to go vegan for the month of January. In 2021, 580,000 (1) people signed up to this pledge, which saw them give up all meat and meat products for the 31 days of January.


For some of us, trying Veganuary or switching to a more plant-based diet is a great opportunity to get more vegetables into your day-to-day, try out new recipes and explore different dishes.


When it comes to going vegan, there is often a great deal of talk around how it could impact our health. With the growth in popularity of Veganuary, we have seen this increase go hand in hand with a growth in misinformation around its proposed benefits for our health.


To start to get our heads around this, this January, I’ve picked five of the biggest myths about nutrition when going vegan.


1 - “Going vegan is the best thing you can do for your health”

There is often an assumption that due to its high plant density, a vegan diet is the healthiest one out there. Without going into too much depth on what ‘health’ means, it is worth noting that no two people eat the same. There can be a huge diversity in what someone is eating, even if they are following the same dietary pattern.


Vegan diets that are centred around a variety of plant foods such as beans, nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables and wholegrains can provide a wide selection of nutrients that are important for our wellbeing. However, there are also lots of reasons why dietary patterns that contain meat and meat products can be beneficial to our health. Indeed, recent research comparing processed meat alternatives, such as mince or burgers, found that in more than half the products they had a higher salt content than the 2017 salt reduction target (2). Equally, a report from safefood, found that 25% of processed vegetarian meat-substitutes are not a source of or high in protein (3).


It’s extremely challenging to say which dietary pattern is the healthiest. Or what eating vegan would be like for you and your health. It’s always worth bearing in mind that your mental health and your relationship to food is a very important part of your health, as well as nutrition.


Changing or altering your dietary pattern can sometimes feel daunting and overwhelming. If you are deciding to go vegan this January take your time and don’t worry if it’s not for you. Not everyone feels great following a vegan diet and it’s often difficult to get access to certain foods, find recipes you like, or to fit it into your lifestyle.


2 - “You’ll eat more vegetables as a vegan”

When we think of a vegan diet, we often think of vegetables. According to the vegan society, veganism is not just about food, it includes a ‘philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude - as far as is possible and practicable - all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to animals (4).’ Generally, we might assume that a vegan diet is one that contains plants, including vegetables, grains, nuts and fruits as well as food made from plants (5).


Although, we often think of a vegan diet being one that only contains a vegetable-based plate, this doesn’t necessarily mean all you’ll be eating is vegetables, or in-fact you might be eating more veg than you were before. As always, there is a huge variety in what we eat from person to person, but It’s worth noting that lots of foods fall under the ‘vegan’ umbrella. Equally, with the growing popularity of plant-based foods on our high streets there are more and more ways to eat vegan that aren’t necessarily based around vegetables.


There are also many barriers to including more vegetables in your diets. We all face a variety of challenges when it comes to our health and things such as our working pattern, the time we have available to us, finances, where we live and stress can all play a role in our health and access to fresh fruit and veg.


3 - "You’ll never get enough protein as a vegan"

This is a question I get asked far more than any other when it comes to eating a vegan or more plant-based diet. Our protein requirements vary from person to person and can be impacted by your age, activity levels and muscle mass. The average requirement for women is 45g per day and for men is 67g per day (6).


Protein is something we need for growth and development. All proteins are made up of building blocks known as amino acids. These can be grouped into two different categories ‘essential’ and ‘non-essential’. Essential amino acids are those which cannot be made in the human body and need to be found in food. A ‘high quality protein’ is one that contains all the essential amino acids. Generally, foods that are derived from animals provide high quality proteins, whereas plant-based foods have a more diverse amino acid pattern. Meaning that we need to eat a wider diversity of these types of foods to make sure we are getting our essential amino acids.


There are so many great places to find protein in plant-based foods. Variety and mixture is key to getting not just protein, but vitamins, minerals and fibre into your diet. When choosing meat based alternative, it is worth bearing in mind that they don’t always have the same or comparable levels of protein as it’s meat counterpart. Places you can find protein in plant-based foods include:


  • Nuts and seeds such as sunflower seeds, chia seeds and pumpkin seeds.


  • Beans and pulses such as peas, baked beans, lentils, red kidney beans and chickpeas.


  • Meat and dairy substitutes such as tempeh, tofu, soya, seitan and Quorn alternative.


  • Grains including quinoa, wholegrain rice, couscous and oats.


4 - “Soya is bad for our health.”

Soya, and soya based products can have a large role in a vegan diet, with many meat-based alternatives being made from or containing soya.


There have been many headlines around the potential impacts of eating soya over the years. Notably, it has been linked to breast cancer as well as a suggestion that it interferes with male hormones in the body. Soy contains isofalvones, which are termed a phytoestrogen due to their similarity to the human hormone oestrogen. With much of the fear over its health impact linked to this similarity and a concern over how a phytoestrogen may respond in the body.


However, while research into the health impacts of soya is consistently ongoing, numerous scientific reviews have indicated that in the human body isoflavones (those found in soya) do not act the same as the human hormone oestrogen. Many studies that link soya to the side effects listed above in humans are done on animals or in labs, often testing high doses of isoflavones, which is not comparable to how we eat in day-to-day life. Indeed, research from the World cancer research fund, European food safety authority and the world health organisation concluding that soya can form a safe and healthy part of your diet (7).


Soya foods also contain a range of essential nutrients as well as protein, fibre and essential fatty acids. You can find soya in many meat replacements such as tofu, dairy alternatives to yogurt, milk and desserts.


5 - “Coconut Oil is healthier that other fats”


Coconut oil launched into the world of health and wellbeing a couple of years ago and is often featured in vegan recipes as a replacement for butter. There have been various claims about coconut oil over the years including suggestions that it is a ‘superfood’, can promote weight loss and lower cholesterol. It’s been promoted by many wellness bloggers, endorsed from celebrities and influencers as well as finding its way into many recipes. It’s always worth bearing in mind that when a food is labelled a ‘superfood’ it is just a good marketing tactic, rather than something which is based on any scientific evidence, as there is no scientific definition of a superfood.

Although coconut oil can be useful as a replacement for butter due to its properties as a fat, it is worth nothing that many of the claims relating to its benefits are not based on strong evidence. Coconut oil has a very high saturated fat content. When it comes to looking after our hearts, it’s advised that we look to more unsaturated and polyunsaturated fats in our diets rather than saturated fats (8).


Unfortunately, many of the health claims that are associated with coconut oil are not based on strong scientific evidence, or they come from anecdotal claims. If you enjoy the taste of coconut oil, and like to include it in your recipes, then it’s okay to include it in your diet. However, when it comes to replacing it for butter or other fats and oils, coconut oil doesn’t offer any additional health benefits and in some cases, can dramatically increase the saturated fat content of a recipe, with the addition of a coconut aftertaste.


By

Hebe Richardson Bsc(Hons) ANutr

Talkington BatesNutritionist


References:

1. Veganuary - the international movement inspiring people to try vegan!. Veganuary. 2021

Available from: https://veganuary.com/

2. Queen Mary University of London. ‘Healthy’ processed meat alternatives found to have excessive amounts of salt. 2018.

Available from: https://www.qmul.ac.uk/media/news/2018/smd/healthy-processed-meat-alternatives-found-to-have-excessive-amounts-of-salt-.html

3. Safefood. Vegetarian meat substitutes. Cork: safefood; 2021.

4. Definition of veganism. The Vegan Society.

Available from: https://www.vegansociety.com/go-vegan/definition-veganism

5. The vegan diet. nhs.uk. 2018.

Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/the-vegan-diet/

6. Protein - British Nutrition Foundation. Nutrition.org.uk. 2021

Available from: https://www.nutrition.org.uk/healthy-sustainable-diets/protein/

7. Soya foods. Bda.uk.com.

Available from: https://www.bda.uk.com/resource/soya-foods.html

8. Facts about fat. nhs.uk. 2020.

Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/different-fats-nutrition/