The global rise of veganism has coincided with growing climate change consciousness and the wellness boom. In 2022, many people are choosing to ‘go vegan’ for a myriad of reasons such as personal health, animal welfare or environmental concerns.
Australia has one of the largest vegan communities in the world. In fact, 500,000 Australians have already switched over to a vegan lifestyle, which means finding animal-free alternatives to food and clothing.
Today, following a vegan diet can be affordable, accessible and nutritious. Vegan cafes and restaurants are popping up left, right and centre, and there are vegan substitutes available for most animal-based products.
But how healthy is it really? Well, it depends.
There’s no denying the risk of nutrient deficiencies in vegetarians and vegans. Therefore, vegans especially need to consume enough of the vitamins and minerals that are solely found in animal products.
Below, I share four essential nutrients lacking from a vegan diet, and how vegans can increase their intake.
Iron helps our bodies make red blood cells; essential for our vital organs to function. If you don't get enough iron from your diet, you are more likely to suffer fatigue or develop depression.
Red meat, poultry and shellfish are all known for being high in iron, and sure do work wonders for preventing iron deficiency. While there are iron-rich options for vegans too, there’s a catch. Plant foods contain non-heme iron whereas meat contains heme iron. Heme iron constitutes 95% of functional iron in the human body, and is easier to absorb than non-heme.
That’s why it is important for vegans to pair iron-rich foods (like legumes, spinach and quinoa) with vitamin C-rich foods (like berries, citrus fruit, capsicum, tomatoes and broccoli) to help with absorption. Vegans should also get regular check-ups to test iron levels and consider vegan iron supplements.
Similar to iron, vitamin B12 boosts energy and works wonders for general brain functioning. A lack of it in your diet can cause fatigue, weakness and memory loss. Vitamin B12 is onlyfound naturally in animal products. So, vegans need to eat foods that have vitamin B12 artificially added, such as soy milk or cereals. These foods along with nutritional supplements are the only reliable way for vegans to reach adequate levels of vitamin B12.
We grew up being told that dairy makes us strong and will prevent brittle bones in old age. However, in reality, dairy is not a nutritional need for humans. Calcium is, though. Research shows that vegans face a 43 per cent higher risk of bone fractures than non-vegans. So, while it’s true that dairy is calcium-rich and good for bone health, there are plenty of plant-based sources too. These include calcium-fortified soy or almond milk, hard tofu, almonds, unhulled tahini (sesame seed paste) and green leafy vegetables.
Omega-3 fats (and acids) help reduce inflammation in the blood, which in turn helps fight disease. While the most common source of Omega-3 fats are fatty fish and fish oil, most vegans have no trouble consuming enough omega-3. That’s because omega 3 fats in the form of ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) are plentiful in seeds, walnuts and soybean and canola oil. Consume enough of these foods, and our bodies can more easily convert ALA into other essential acids, like EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) which is only found in marine sources.
As a physician, I believe there’s no replacement for a well-planned and healthy diet. While vegans can get most essential nutrients from plant-based sources, supplements may be necessary in some cases. I recommend vegans pay close attention to their diet, get regular check-ups and seek your GP’s advice on the supplements to keep you in optimal health.
About Dr Andrew Thompson
Dr Andrew Thompson is a registered doctor at leading telehealth and prescription service InstantScripts. Dr Thompson has nearly a decade of experience, including as an anaesthetist in the paediatrics, cardiology, trauma, and neurosurgery departments in hospitals, and as a telehealth doctor at InstantScripts, where he consults to 30-50 patients a day. His expert commentary has appeared in major media where he provides advice on maintaining good physical and mental health, and addresses issues around the accessibility and affordability of healthcare for Australians.www.instantscripts.com.au