You will be forgiven for thinking about going on a vegan diet will all cure your health – after all, that's what Instagram says, right?
But, as a dietitian, I've been encouraging you to be on the side of caution, as vegans are told to be quite restrictive and risk at several nutrient deficiencies.
But before we get into that, you might be wondering what a vegan diet actually is: in essence, vegan diets shun all foods of animal origin. That means no meat or seafood, no eggs and no dairy – not even honey!
Now, it's all for eating a plant-based diet – one that is rich in fruit and vegetables, legumes and wholegrains. There are health benefits of doing so, like reducing your risk of obesity, diabetes and cancer. But here 's the catch: plant – based does not mean vegan.
Instead, plant-based diets are mostly made up of plant foods, but can be reduced to lean meat, seafood and reduced fat dairy, which are incredibly nutritious and offer some key nutrients that don't typically find in high quantities in plant foods.
So, if you choose to follow a strictly vegetarian diet, careful planning is required to ensure you don't get deficient in one of these key nutrients:
Key for muscle growth and repair, protein is rich in animal foods (meat, seafood and eggs, as well as dairy). I am going to say, "Contrary to what you think", you can get more than enough protein from plant foods – there 's no need to opt for fancy protein powders and shakes.
The best vegan protein options are tofu and legumes (beans, lentils and chickpeas). Nuts and seeds can also provide a significant amount of protein, as can soy milk. So, just make sure you've got these foods in your diet and you're good to go.
Legumes, nuts and seeds are also sources of iron, which is needed for oxygen transport. Wholegrains (like grainy bread and rolled oats) and fortified food grains (i.e. some breads and cereals) are other excellent sources. Leafy greens and dried drinks can help boost your iron intake, too.
What's more, you should consume these foods with a source of vitamin C.
An important nutrient for your metabolism and immune system, some sources are non-vegan foods like oysters, seafood and meat. But, if you are playing games, you can opt for it – legumes, nuts and seeds, along with wholegrains, nuts and soy products.
Luckily, there are some vegetarian products that are fortified with Vitamin B12 – but they are few and far between (reduced salt vegemite or some faux meats). This nutrient typically only comes from animal foods and is crucial for the blood and nervous system function, as well as the synthesis of DNA. Supplementation with Vitamin B12 may be necessary on a vegan diet, so be sure to chat to your doctor or dietitian about it.
Oily fish usually springs to mind when Omega-3s are mentioned, but there are some easy-to-use sources of Omega-3 that are vegan-friendly, too. That's good news, because Omega-3s support a healthy heart, brain and eyes. For your omega-3 vegan fix, be sure to include chia seeds, linseeds, walnuts and hemp. But, for the most benefit you want to combine these with marine Omega-3s, so again, supplementation may be necessary.
Last but not least, calcium is the key for strong bones and teeth. Typically found in dairy foods (milk, yogurt and cheese), calcium can be hard to come on a vegan diet if you don't know where to look. Plant-based sources include fortified plant milk alternatives (look for at least 100 mg of calcium per 100 ml), almonds with skin on the skin, firm tofu and some leafy green veg like silverbeet.
And there you have it! Everything you need to know before committing to a vegan diet (from a nutrition perspective, at least).
Read more stories like this: Should you go vegan? Here's how your body changes from day one. Plus, your dietitian approved 7 day vegan meal plan.
Melissa Meer is a Sydney-based Accredited Practicing Dietitian. You can connect with her at www.honestnutrition.com.au or on Instagram @honest_nutrition.