Going vegan? All the facts and science you need.

Thinking about going vegan?

In recent years, veganism has seen a tremendous increase in popularity, with millions worldwide engaging with this animal product free regime in the hope of becoming healthier and saving the planet. So what exactly does it mean to be going vegan, is it really more healthy and environmentally friendly and is it right for you?

What is veganism?

It is simple really, vegans don’t consume any food or food product that is in any way derived from animals. So if you are a vegan you will avoid all meat, poultry, fish, dairy and eggs. In addition you will avoid any food product that has even a trace of animal product used in its ingredients list or preparation. So things like gelatin (a gelling agent from animal tissue), isinglass (extracted from fish and used to clarify wine) and even honey (made by bees, needed by bees) are all off the menu.

Why consider going vegan?

There are many reasons why you might become a vegan. The two most common reasons being a love for animals and a wish to promote a more caring and environmentally sustainable world and secondly to achieve and maintain better health and live a longer, better life.
So does becoming a vegan help with these important aims? There are strong arguments on both sides, so let us examine these and see if veganism really is the answer.
Certainly the treatment of many animals in industrial scale farming is shocking and anything that reduces this suffering has to be a good thing. Also, the hormones and drugs fed to the animals is a real concern. So, on this front it looks like the vegans have it right.

Is going vegan better for our health?

So what about the health debate? Vegans point out the many documented advantages of cutting out meat and animal produce from our diet, while meat eaters point out the things that might be missing from a strict vegan diet and the risks that this might carry. So, who is right?
We are all encouraged to eat more fruit and vegetables, so in this respect a vegan diet, providing it is varied, will guarantee high consumption of plant based foods with all the anti-oxidants, vitamins, minerals and fibre they contain. Also, by avoiding meat and dairy and the fats associated with these foods, it is easier to cut down on calories consumed. You won’t be surprised then that vegans are on average slimmer than meat eaters (omnivores) with far less vegans than omnivores falling into the unhealthy overweight or obese category.
So far so good.

Are there any downsides to going vegan?

One potential problem is obtaining vitamin B12 in the diet. B12 only occurs in nature in foods of animal origin like meat, eggs and milk, so vegans won’t get any at all unless they take a supplement. Because B12 is stored in the body, if you become a vegan it may take a year or even longer before B12 deficiency symptoms appear (anemia and depression), so you may not connect the problems with the diet. For this reason, if you do decide to go vegan, you will need top up your B12 with a vegan friendly supplement.
Another nutrient of concern for vegans is vitamin D. Vegan diets contain very little vitamin D, with mushrooms being the only source. Even mushrooms, unless they are exposed to sunlight, provide very little vitamin D. Although vitamin D can be synthesised in your skin under sunlight, indoor living and working means that few people actually get enough sun, especially in winter to create enough vitamin D for good health. So again, if you are going vegan, make sure and get some sun (when it does shine) and look out for foods fortified with this important nutrient or take a supplement, particularly in the darker winter months.
Regarding fats, it is worth noting that the essential Omega 3 fatty acid, alpha linolenic acid, is found in vegan diets in plant oils like rapeseed and in some nuts like walnuts. Research now shows however that not everyone can adequately convert this vegetable source Omega 3 into the key health-giving molecules DHA and EPA. Those people eating fish or taking fish oils get DHA and EPA directly, but of course vegans do not consume any fish products. Fortunately there are now DHA/EPA supplements available which are made from algae and so are suitable for vegans. I would recommend anyone who is vegan to consider taking these to ensure the right body levels of these vital molecules.

In summary

So there are some advantages and also challenges to going vegan. But what does the research data tell us about vegans and health overall? Well, many studies seem to indicate that vegetarians and vegans have lower rates of heart disease, cancer and diabetes and better health status overall than omnivores. As I mentioned, a good intake of fruits and vegetables is always part of a healthy diet. A large recent study however of UK diets and health (Appleby et al 2106) failed to show any distinct advantage of being vegan over being an omnivore, raising the question as to why this study failed to indicate a health advantage of veganism?
It seems that the Appleby study controlled for many things. This means that they accounted for the effects of things like smoking, alcohol use and level of income and education in the people studied (vegans tend on average to be better educated, wealthier and less likely to smoke or drink heavily than omnivores). Once these factors are accounted for, little if any advantage for health is apparent for vegans. So, is it still a good idea to be a vegan and give up meat, fish eggs, milk and cheese forever. Well if you love animals or simply don’t want to eat them, then yes, veganism is one way forward. But if you do become a vegan, be aware that you’ll need to ensure a wide variety of vegan friendly food is eaten and take B12, vitamin D and DHA/EPA supplements.
To be or not to be a vegan? The choice is yours.

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Adam graduated from Queen Mary College London with a first class degree in physiology. Having completed an MSc in Nutrition at King’s College London he went on to research towards his PhD at the Royal London Hospital. He then established a career as a researcher and educator, teaching at major London Universities.
With expertise in anti-ageing, weight loss, clinical nutrition, sports nutrition and management of stress and fatigue, Adam has been featured on CNN, BBC TV & Radio and in UK national and local press.
Adam has published his research findings on multiple aspects of diet and health including diabetes, obesity, fatigue states, human performance and nutrition for healthy ageing.