What is veganism?
Veganism originated in 1944 in Holborn, London; a small group of people were led by Donald Watson whose doctrine was that “man should live without exploiting animals”. They chose to be called vegans, with the first three and last two letters from the word vegetarian, “because veganism starts with vegetarianism and carries it through to its logical conclusion”. Vegetarianism started 100 years earlier in 1847. In the past four years the number of vegans in the UK has increased from 150,000 to around 600,000.
Why do people become vegan?
There are four main reasons that most people become vegans and seek a life free from the consumption of animals and animal products; animal welfare, personal health, environmental health and religion.
In Watson’s case it was the treatment of dairy cows that drove him to become a vegan. Cows were serially impregnated, so they produced milk, and their calves removed just days after birth. When they were no longer productive, the cows were slaughtered.
Farming of livestock has been shown to cause massive environmental damage, producing 9% percent of all C02 emissions, 37% methane emissions and it also creates 30 million tonnes of ammonia. Creating land for pasture is a major cause of deforestation.
What is a vegan diet?
A vegan diet is plant based, free from all animal products, including milk, eggs and honey. Many vegans also choose not to wear leather, wool or silk.
Thanks to clear food labelling, it is easy to avoid meat, meat products, eggs, fish, dairy and honey. Some foods are not so clearly labelled, such as gelatine (made from animal bones), whey and casein (milk proteins) and carmine (colouring made form crushed beetles).
The easiest way to avoid animal produce is to eat a healthy balanced diet full of fresh foods, prepared and cooked at home and to avoid pre-packaged goods that contain additives, chemicals, preservatives and hydrogenated fats.
Vegan diets, if not well balanced, can be deficient in protein and nutrients such as iron, zinc, calcium, iodine, essential fatty acids and the vitamins D and B12. This is simply because these are nutrients found in animals or animal products or, in the case of vitamins D and B12, they are not present in plant foods. In the 1950s vegans were becoming ill, suffering with fatigue and tingling hands and feet, which was caused by a B12 deficiency (B12 is found in meat, eggs and dairy products). However, vegan societies in England, America and Canada state a well-balanced vegan diet is healthy, even for pregnant woman and infants.
To ensure you get all the important nutrients you need for a good healthy life, it’s important to make sure you eat a wide variety of plant-based foods. Please see our summary below of foods containing important nutrients for a vegan.
Fats are important for the correct and healthy functioning of the body. Fat has many jobs. Fat helps the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, it provides the highest concentration of stored energy of all the macronutrients (50 to 60,000 Kcals) and it helps with regulating hormones. Fat is also the preferred fuel for the body during lower intensity exercises such as walking, sitting at your desk and even when sleeping.
Fat is an important part of a healthy diet. There's more and more evidence that many fats are good for us and actually reduce the risk of having a heart attack or stroke. Fat combines with protein to make cell membranes, which are found everywhere in the body. The cells found in the nervous system, particularly our brain, have a high concentration of these fats. They also help with nutrient absorption, nerve transmission, maintaining cell membrane integrity, plus sugar and insulin metabolism, therefore contributing to long-term weight loss and weight maintenance. The balance of these fats is important especially for the transition of electrical impulse along the nerves.
The type of fats cell membranes are made from determines how well the cells can do their job. A cell made of predominantly essential fatty acids allow a continuous transportation of both nutrients and toxins over the cell membrane. When a cell is made up of too much saturated fat, it becomes rigid, which slows the essential transportation of nutrients and has a less desirable affect, not only on the cell but the whole body.
Prostaglandins are hormone-like substances that regulate many chemical reactions, in the immune system and even in bone formation. They are formed from essential fatty acids. Prostaglandins play a huge roll in the regulation of inflammation in the body. For this reason, it is recommended that essential fatty acids be given to people suffering from conditions such as hay fever, eczema and arthritis. Prostaglandins help relax the walls of blood vessels, which in turn can lower blood pressure. Prostaglandins are also essential for muscle contraction, making them important for childbirth and food digestion.
Essential fatty acids are thought to reduce the amounts of fats circulating in the blood helping to decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease, particularly when this is linked to diabetes. They play a role in suppressing tumour formation, particularly in breast cancer. Dry skin, menopause, PMS, IBS, and ADD are all thought to benefit from eating more essential fatty acids. However, other fats are thought to increase our risks of heart disease, certain types of cancer, weight gain, depression and retina damage of the eye.
There are two types of fat essential for human health, omega-6 and omega-3 essential fatty acids. It is easier to get plenty of omega 6 relative to omega 3 on a plant-based diet, so it is important to balance the two.
Try to follow these tips:
Replace high omega-6 oils, such as sunflower, soya, safflower and corn oils, with oils rich in mono-saturates, such as olive oil and rapeseed (canola) oil. Swap sunflower and sesame seeds for almonds, cashews and pumpkin seeds.
Take a teaspoon of flaxseed (linseed) oil (one and a half tablespoons of ground flaxseed) or a tablespoon of hempseed oil (five tablespoons of hempseed) or one and a half tablespoons of rapeseed oil per day to ensure adequate omega-3 intake.
Walnuts, walnut oil and chia seeds are also good sources.
Eat regular, though moderate, amounts of nuts (about 28 grams a day are generally recommended for health).
Include olives and avocados to boost fibre and fat intake.
Protein is made from chains of smaller molecules called amino acids. These are the most basic building blocks of your body. Your body requires twenty-one amino acids to build proteins, it can make twelve but the remaining nine need to be obtained from food. These are called essential amino acids. These are phenylalanine, valine, threonine, tryptophan, methionine, leucine, isoleucine, lysine and histidine. The body requires the correct amount of protein to provide it with these essential amino acids to build and repair. When you are training regularly body's demand for protein increases, as training damages muscles more than if you are sedentary. However, it’s still vital even for a sedentary person to consume adequate protein to prevent muscle loss and slowing of the metabolism. All the essential amino acids can be found in meat and fish but not in plants. When on a vegetarian or vegan diet it is important to eat a wide variety of plant foods to enable intake of all the essential amino acids. This is normally achieved by combining pulses with cereals such as rice with lentils or soya and quinoa.
To ensure you get all the essential amino acids it’s important to eat a wide variety of plant foods. Good sources of protein from plants include: pulses (peas, beans, lentils, chickpeas, soya products –always organic and from whole beans), whole grains (wheat, oats, rice, barley, buckwheat, millet, pasta, bread), nuts (brazils, hazels, almonds, cashews) and seeds (sunflower, pumpkin, sesame).
It may be a good idea to use vegan protein powders to increase protein intake, especially if you have an active job or exercise regularly.
Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of fuel. Consumed carbohydrates either need to be used immediately or stored as glycogen. Whether the body uses or stores the carbohydrates depends on your glycogen status, and your activity level.
Glycogen is a multi-branched polysaccharide of glucose (single unit of carbohydrate). Our second long-term energy store, glycogen is made in the cells of the liver and muscles. The majority of glycogen is stored in skeletal muscle and the liver. The average human weighing 68kg can store between 60-120 grams (250-500 calories) in the liver and 200-500 grams (800-2000 calories) in skeletal muscle.
Your reserves of glycogen are actually converted back into glucose during a training session. The more intense the session, then the more glycogen that is used. Light or low intensity exercise/activities utilise the first long-term energy store, which is fat (although this doesn’t mean you should be doing low intensity training to lose fat!) It’s essential to replenish your glycogen stores post training, as stored glycogen is important in helping prevent muscle breakdown.
Carbohydrates have received bad press over the years due to their association with fat gain. While it’s true that eating the wrong type of carbs in the wrong amounts and at the wrong time of day will cause fat gain (a process called de novo lipogenesis) carbohydrates are essential to fuel the body.
Conversely, too little carbohydrate will cause a depletion of glycogen, which will subsequently lead to fatigue, especially during high intensity workouts, when you will want to have plenty of energy. It will also lead to the breakdown of protein from muscle.
At YBP we don’t advocate extreme low carbohydrate diets (Ketogenic). The carbohydrate amount we estimate is based on your body type, goal and daily activity levels. Low carbohydrate diets are less than 150g per day, an extremely low carbohydrate (ketogenic) diet is below 50g per day (for more information on this you can read our dedicated article on ketosis).
Eating the right type and amounts of carbohydrates (whole grains) will help you to keep your blood sugar levels balanced. Avoid refined carbohydrates such as white bread, white pasta and white rice. You should also avoid sugary foods, confectionary and sugary drinks (such as squashes and fizzy drinks). Instead, complex carbohydrates release sugars slowly into the blood providing sustained energy and helping to balance blood sugar. These include brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat, sweet potato, whole grain pasta and wholegrain bread. Oats are also particularly good, making them an excellent choice, especially for breakfast.
Fibre is an indigestible form of carbohydrate found in foods of plant origin. There are two main types of fibre – soluble and insoluble. All plants contain some of both kinds of fibre, some however have more soluble and some have more insoluble. Fibre is essential for many reasons, a key one being that fibre slows the absorption of sugars and so plays an important role in maintaining blood sugar levels. Try to include beans, lentils, fruit, vegetables and whole grains in your diet.
Aim to eat seven portions of fresh fruit and vegetables per day as they are a good source of fibre and contain many vitamins and minerals that are needed for blood sugar balance. Try to include a wide variety, including the dark green leafy vegetables such as broccoli and kale.
Plant based sources of zinc like selenium and iodine depend on the soil they are grown in. The best sources are from meat proteins, however, for vegans, beans, nuts, seeds, wheatgerm, oats, brown rice, pumpkin, seaweed, green peas and turnips are good options. Soaking grains and sprouting can improve the availability of zinc.
Alcohol increases urinary excretion, sugar increases zinc requirement, smoking depletes zinc and increases the need of antioxidants, which are made from zinc. Cellulose (polysaccharide that is a chief constituent of plant tissue and fibre), phytates (antioxidant compounds found in whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds that bind onto dietary minerals), high folic acid and high calcium all interfere with zinc levels.
Iron can be stored in the body, and contrary to popular belief, it can be obtained from vegetable sources (non-heme) as well as red meat (heme). It is stored in the liver, bone marrow, spleen and muscles, however 60% is circulating in the blood attached to haemoglobin. Heme is more absorbable than non-heme iron, however the body up-regulates absorption depending on need. Women need 14.8g per day, while men and post-menopausal woman need 8.7g per day.
Iron is needed to make a protein called haemoglobin (in red blood cells) and myoglobin (in muscle). Haemoglobin transports oxygen from the lungs to tissue and after collecting carbon dioxide and other waste gasses from tissue and transporting it to the lungs. Myoglobin transports oxygen around the muscle. A deficiency of iron reduces these proteins, which subsequently causes exhaustion. Iron is also needed for carbohydrate metabolism and is a component of several antioxidants making it essential for immune defence.
The amino acid cysteine helps to increase iron levels and can be found in garlic, onions, broccoli, brussels sprouts and wheat germ. Acids (lactic = fermented foods, citric = citrus fruits, tartaric = grapes and malic = apples, tomatoes) all help to increase iron levels. Vitamin A is required for iron metabolism, copper for iron transport and storage.
Calcium can aid iron absorption by binding to Phytic acid (found in whole grains, nuts and seeds) and oxalic acid (spinach and brassica family), which bind to and prevent iron absorption. Tannins found in tea, coffee, chocolate, apple juice, red wine, beans, nuts, cigarette smoke and many fruits can bind to and prevent absorption of iron. Fizzy drinks contain phosphoric acid, which reduces iron absorption. Stomach acid is essential for the absorption of any mineral, so low stomach acid can reduce iron uptake.
Iron can be found in peaches, apricots, raisins, figs, dates, prunes, nuts and seeds, cooked dried beans, chick peas, bananas, avocado, parsley, watercress, spinach, kale, broccoli, ginger and curry powder.
Iodine is normally consumed through fish and other seafood. Plant based sources, like selenium, depend on the iodine content of the soil they are grown. Vegan options include seaweeds like nori, kelp and wakame. It is worth noting that goitrogenic foods (foods that block iodine uptake) should be avoided, which includes raw cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, brussels, cauliflower etc). Iodine deficiency signs are goitre formation on the neck, fatigue, weight gain and reduced body temperature. Miscarriages can be induced by low iodine levels.
Selenium content in food is reliant on the uptake from the soil, so where it is grown can be more important than the food source its self. Offal, fish and sea food are where the best sources of selenium are found. Plant based sources include brown rice, barley, oats, brazil nuts, cashew nuts, sesame seeds, kidney beans, onions and mushrooms. Selenium deficiency symptoms include, fatigue, muscle weakness and white nail beds. Chronic deficiency could lead to heart disease, cancer, immune problems, and chronic inflammatory conditions.
Vitamin B12, also known as cobalamin, is not made in animals or plants but originates from bacteria, fungi and algae. It is mainly found in animal tissue and many vegetables. It is the only B vitamin that contains a mineral (cobalt) and its absorption relies on stomach acid, protein and a carrier known as intrinsic factor. It is water soluble like the other B’s however it can also be stored in the liver.
B12 is required to make two enzymes. The first enzyme is involved in the activation of an amino acid, methionine, needed for DNA replication and subsequently healthy cell formation. If cells do not replicate normally, they become cancerous. Along with B6 and folic acid, B12 is essential for reducing the amino acid homocysteine, a risk factor for heart disease. B12 deficiency also contributes to nerve cell damage, as B12 is important for the maintenance of the protective coating around nerve cells. Secondly it is also needed to produce energy and to produce haemoglobin and red blood cells, low levels can cause anaemia. Like all B vitamins, B12 needs other B vitamins to work optimally. Low stomach acid and pernicious anaemia (autoimmune condition of the stomach that blocks intrinsic factor production) will reduce B12 uptake. B12 can be hard to get on a vegan diet, root vegetables and fermented foods are the best source. If levels are low a B12 supplement may be required.
We store more calcium in the body than any other mineral and it is known as a macro-mineral. It has an important role in bone health. It is also needed for the contraction and relaxation of both muscles and blood vessels, transmission of nerve impulses and the secretion of the hormone insulin. Calcium is important in heart health due to the simple fact the heart is a muscle. Wound healing is reliant on blood clotting proteins, which itself is partially reliant on calcium for its activation. Calcium deficiency is also linked to high blood pressure.
Vitamin D is needed for calcium absorption. Minerals that help improve calcium levels are magnesium (which works synergistically with calcium) and potassium (which reduces calcium excretion). Inulin is a soluble fibre (found in artichokes, asparagus, garlic, fruits and vegetables) that increases calcium absorption in the colon. Essential fatty acids and probiotics have also been shown to increase calcium absorption from dairy products. Phytic acid (found in whole grains, nuts and seeds) and oxalic acid (from the spinach and brassica family) bind to and prevent iron absorption. Low stomach acid will affect any mineral absorption. Tannins found in tea, coffee, chocolate, apple juice, red wine, beans, nuts, cigarette smoke and many fruits can bind to and prevent absorption of calcium.
Refined sugar, phosphoric acid and high-protein diets create an acidic environment. Calcium is released from bones to buffer the acidity increasing the need for calcium. Coffee and salt affect calcium metabolism.
To get enough calcium it’s important to also eat unrefined plant foods that are rich in potassium and magnesium. Good sources of absorbable calcium are dark green leafy vegetables such as spring greens, kale, pak choy, watercress, pulses, broccoli, dried fruit, seeds and nuts.
Vitamin D is important for teeth and bone health as well as being essential for the absorption of calcium in the gut and to prevent calcium loss in urine. It has been shown to play a role in proper immune function, preventing improper immune reactions (rhinitis and eczema), blood sugar balance and regulating blood pressure. It is thought that it may also be protective against some forms of cancer, particularly breast cancer.
The best way to increase vitamin D levels is to increase sun exposure. Cholesterol in the skin reacts with ultra violet light from the sun to create an inactive form of vitamin D that is then activated in the liver. The activated form is known as calcitriol and is made more potent in the kidneys. Ethical, cultural or religious reasons for covering up can reduce vitamin D levels. Northern hemisphere countries such as Finland, Iceland, Sweden, Norway etc have less sunlight, increasing the need for vitamin D.
Fairer skinned people need less sun exposure than darker skinned people to get the same amount of vitamin D. Exposure should range from 20 to 30 minutes of unprotected sunlight, as sunscreens as low as factor 15 can reduce vitamin D formation in the skin. Other factors that affect vitamin D levels are low fat intake and fat malabsorption (needed for its storage and absorption). Obesity can also have a disrupting affect, firstly by locking the vitamin D away so it can’t be easily accessed and secondly the fat cells in the skin may compromise the formation of vitamin D. Vitamin D is found in oily fish, but not much in plant sources. Soya and shiitake mushrooms do have small amounts. The best way to increase Vitamin D levels is exposure to the sun, if levels are low consult a doctor as D3 supplementation may be advised.
A vegan diet can support a healthy pregnancy. Careful food choices have to be made and a varied diet is essential. Emphasis should be on foods that provide good levels of protein and calcium. A good diet would consist of plenty of nuts, seeds, lentils, beans, fruits, vegetables (in particular green leafy vegetables like broccoli, kale, spinach, greens), brown rice, quinoa and other grains.
A vegan diet is normally an ethical choice rather than a vanity one. From a body type point of view an endomorph (who is generally not as tolerant to carbohydrates as their ectomorph counterparts) may struggle from a fat loss perspective on a vegan diet, as they tend to do better with higher protein levels.