Time to go vegan? Check if your benefits outweigh your risks
September 3, 2021
There are all sorts of reasons people ‘go vegan’.
For the health benefits of a plant-based diet
For animal welfare
To address environmental concerns
For the benefits of going vegan for skin conditions
To help with sensitivities to animal products
Australia has one of the largest vegan communities in the world. And a balanced vegan diet can be very healthy and nutritious.
However, there are some dangers to going vegan. Vegan diets can lead to nutrient deficiencies which can pave the way for serious health problems.
The health benefits of a vegan diet
There have been many clinical studies into the health benefits of a vegan diet. Currently, a vegan diet is thought to reduce the rates of:
coronary heart disease
hypertension (high blood pressure)
some types of cancer
Vegetarians and vegans also have lower rates of illness and death from some degenerative diseases.
The risks of a vegan diet
But if you’re following a vegan diet, you need to pay attention to your intake of some specific nutrients.
Iron is important for the health of your red blood cells. If you don’t have enough iron in your diet, you could suffer fatigue or develop depression. You may need to take a vegan iron supplement.
Vitamin B12 is important for your blood and nerve cells. A low level of B12 could cause fatigue, or affect your thinking and memory. A good way to get your B12 levels back up is to take a vegan B12 supplement.
Calcium is the mineral best known for its role in bone health. A calcium deficiency is a known precursor for osteoporosis and other bone conditions. A recent study shows that people on a vegan diet have more fractures than those who are not.
Omega-3 fats are essential to a host of cells and body chemicals (hormones, blood clotting regulators). A lack of omega-3 could produce a wide variety of symptoms — from fatigue to dry skin to heart problems. There are vegan omega 3 supplements that may be suitable for you to take.
Vegan diets need to be rich in whole foods — fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
Most nutritional deficits can be addressed with minor changes:
Iron: Plant foods contain non-heme iron, which your body can’t absorb as well as the heme iron found in meat. So you should pair iron-rich foods (legumes, tofu, nuts and seeds, wholegrains, dried fruits and dark green leafy vegetables) with vitamin C-rich foods (berries, citrus fruit, kiwi fruit, capsicum, tomatoes or broccoli) to help absorption.
Vitamin B12 is only found naturally in animal products. So, you’ll need to eat foods fortified with vitamin B12 (such as some types of soy milk or cereals), or take a vitamin B12 supplement. Speak to a GP to find out more about supplements.
Calcium: Good plant sources of calcium are calcium-fortified soy or almond milk, hard tofu, almonds, unhulled tahini (sesame seed paste) and green leafy vegetables.
Omega-3 fats: Plant sources of omega-3 fats include linseeds/flaxseeds, walnuts, chia seeds, soybean oil and canola oil. However, our bodies struggle to convert omega-3 fats from plant sources into the more beneficial form found in marine sources. Speak to a GP to find out more about supplements.
Vitamin supplements for vegans
A vitamin supplement is not a replacement for a well-planned vegan diet. But it can help you through periods of deficiency that can be picked up by a blood test. Speak to a GP to find out more about supplements.