Let me start by stating that I am not a doctor or a nutritionist. What knowledge I have on the subject of vegan nutrition, I’ve gained through research, testing, and experience. While I am very happy to share my experience and learnings here, I urge you to do your own research as well.
In my almost-two-year vegan journey, I have learned quite a bit about proper nutrition, and how attainable it is on a vegan diet: as well as what scary things can happen to your body if you aren’t getting proper nutrition. Though the average person often assumes they are quite knowledgeable on the subject, it is amazing how little the average person understands about nutrition.
Each country proposes a national food guide to give its populations a shorthand advisory on what to consume, which is often met by trusting consumers who put little critique into it. That’s the point; well-educated consultants do the research and put together the recommendations so that the community won’t have to think about it. If the research is sound, as we believe it to be, shouldn’t the national food guides of the world match? Would it surprise you to know that they don’t?
Comparing Canada’s Food Guide with Belgium’s, for example, shows similarities, but different priorities. While both encourage more consumption of vegetables and grains, Belgium has identified animal food items, such as butter and steak, as much less heart healthy, and processed foods and meats to be restricted as much as possible, or eliminated. Canada’s guide suggests these items to still be part of a balanced diet.
Looking at Japan’s food guide, as well, we see quite different recommendations from both Canada and Belgium.
Though there seems to be a general consensus that plant-based foods should be consumed in larger quantities and more often than meats and animal by-products, the specifics are not consistent.
What this suggests to me is that, firstly, plant-based foods are the most healthy choices; and, secondly, it would be worthwhile to do my own research — and I have.
Animal Vs Plant Nutrients
Rather than simply including animals and their by-products in dietary recommendations, why not look at their nutritional properties to find alternative sources? There are certain nutrients that we need to survive that are easily found in these foods (and I’m not talking about protein — yet), but the majority of these nutrients are also found in plants. There are two exceptions: vitamin D3, and vitamin B12, sort of.
Humans produce their own vitamin D3 with sun exposure, but cannot consume vegan food sources for it. For omnivores, D3 is found in fish and eggs and other fatty animal sources. Vegans can only get D2 from food. However, it is vitamin D3 that is the essential nutrient. Like B12, D3 is one of those essential vitamins that most people — vegan OR omnivore — are deficient in. Supplementing with vitamin pills is advantageous for all. However, most D3 is sourced from the fat in sheep’s wool, which is not vegan friendly. There are vegan supplement sources from lichen, so be mindful when choosing which to take.
The other vegan-challenging vitamin, Vitamin B12, is one of the most highly contentious vitamins in the Vegan/Omnivore war. The vitamin is produced in only two ways: in the intestines of animals, and in soil. (Yes, human animals can produce B12, but because of the location of synthesis, we can’t absorb it to utilize it and it passes.) In order for soil to produce B12, there needs to be a combination of the vitamin-specific bacteria with the mineral cobalt. In short, it is not the most easily accessible nutrient to find naturally in a vegan diet. However, it is extremely easy to get enough B12 through fortified foods, like nutritional yeast, and in supplements. No big deal.
Other than the two challenges mentioned above, it is fairly simple to replicate essential animal-based nutrients in plant sources. There are a handful of nutrients that are more easily absorbed through meat sources, that vegans who are less cautious about their food choices might want to artificially supplement. Check out the list from Healthline.
While it may be more work to consume all necessary ingredients from plant sources, it is absolutely possible; the same cannot be said for the reverse.
Protein & Diversity
When I first started eating vegan, I still had much to learn. It is surreal to think back on that time and remember just how clueless I was about what I had been consuming as an omnivore, and what I could consume as a vegan. I remember the very first week was particularly challenging. I learned quickly. I was depending too much on food I knew I could eat, and not diversifying my diet enough.
I started my journey with false beliefs that led me astray. Echoing in my head were the anti-vegan jingles “where do you get your protein?” and “what about your iron?” so that I put too much importance in consuming legumes and nuts. As a result of these missteps, I ended up with a belly full of gas bloat for the first month or so. (Surely, you’ve heard the old adage, “beans, beans the magical fruit; the more you eat, the more you toot.”) This bloating was in part due to the kinds of foods I was consuming and the lack of diversity, but also due to the shifting microcosm in my digestive tract.
Still, I started to think that a life of eating only plant-based would be a life of uncomfortable bloating and embarrassing gas. Fortunately, that has not been the case.
I took breaks from the foods I had been over-consuming (mostly hummus and cashews), opting for more of mix of similar foods, and ate less protein heavy. This, combined with my digestive tract getting the memo of the shift, helped to get my gut back on track.
So, why is it that veganism is so oft attacked by protein worshippers? I think what it comes down to is a lack of understanding of protein. It is not actually the protein that is of concern, but the amino acids that build it. Amino acids must be consumed from outside sources*; but, in combination with others consumed, will form complete proteins. *We can make them, but not at the rate we need them.
The tricky part, is that for vegans and vegetarians to be getting the right proteins, they need to be getting all the essential amino acids, and that is achieved through diversity, and smart food combinations. This, of course, is not unique to vegans; everyone needs to eat diversely to get the right nutrients. The difference is that proteins tend to already be synthesized in animal food sources.
It isn’t actually an issue of larger amounts of protein in animal sources versus plant sources. Take the beloved tofu as an example. Tofu naturally contains all nine essential amino acids, and is, therefore, a complete protein. It is also a good source of protein because of its protein density. There are 8g of protein in 100grams of tofu, compared to 13g of protein in 100grams of egg. Even better, if you compare proportionality of calories to protein content, tofu has much more protein. Per 100 calorie portion, tofu yields 11g of protein versus 100 calorie portion of ground beef is only 8.6g of protein (Spruce Eats).
It is also possible to consume complete proteins through the right combinations of plant-based foods. There is a great and very simple article from Peta that lists 11 vegan food combinations for complete proteins — check it out! Foods like rice and beans, together contain all essential amino acids, become a powerful protein source.
More on Diversity
Not only is diversity of foods in all diets necessary to acquire all the essential vitamins and minerals, it helps to regulate gut health.
What I found when I started relying too much on certain foods was that I stopped tolerating them. Overexposure can cause an immune response in the body that can lead to food intolerances. For me, that bloating turned to very intense stomach and intestine pain whenever I consumed hummus and cashews, after weeks/months of binging on them. This is important to note, not just because of the pain response, but also because when the body starts to respond to foods as a threat, it stops properly absorbing the nutrients from them.
The body has a way of communicating its needs very clearly, and clearly what it needs is variety/diversity.
For a while, I was eating so many cashews in my homemade nut cheese, that my body was completely inundated with them.
Why hummus and cashews? They are food choices often integral to a vegan diet. Hummus and pita create a complete protein, but are also a delicious food combination that can satisfy the cravings for tangy non-vegan food choices (namely, anything dairy). Cashews are found in so many vegan foods because they provide protein, fat, and that creamy taste of milk, without the milk.
When I finally determined (through food journalling) that it was cashews that were causing me such gastrointestinal pain, I felt broken hearted. What is a vegan world without cashews?! Well, I’m happy to report that I am comfortably eating cashews again, after months of abstaining, and in moderation.
Iron & Hair Loss
One of the other notable concerns about a vegan diet is iron. It is not as touted as protein is in anti-vegan rhetoric, but that I’m sure that is because it is more an issue for menstruating women. Most women I know, vegan or not, have some issues with iron deficiency. I have had these issues my whole life, while eating meat, and while vegan. For most of us, iron supplements are a regular part of life. While it is so that blood-sourced, “heme,” iron is easier for the body to absorb, plant-based sources for iron are far more abundant than animal sources. Choose dark, leafy greens, seeds, nuts, etc., and you’ll have a high-iron diet.
What happens if you neglect your iron intake? Many unpleasant and scary things may happen: anemia, fatigue, dizziness/faintness, heart palpitations, dry skin and hair loss, etc. Though there are many unpleasant symptoms of iron deficiency, and iron deficiency is common among menstruating women on any diet, there has been a wave of ex-vegans citing skin and hair issues as their reason for quitting veganism.
While there are many reasons for hair loss, including stress and drastic dietary changes, one of the most likely causes is nutrient deficiency. Iron, specifically, can have a big impact on hair growth, and iron is stored. For deficiency symptoms to show up in the body, the iron must have been used from the blood AND iron stores have to have been depleted. This means, the deficiency will have been a problem for the body long before you know — which means, to get the body back on track it is going to take time and concerted effort.
Is Veganism Actually Healthy?
Since shifting my diet, I have had multiple blood tests, and each has found healthy levels of vitamin stores. My iron levels are lower than I would like them to be, but are actually higher then before eating vegan. As I said, my iron levels have always been an issue for me, but never enough for doctor panicked intervention. Having done more research on iron deficiency and vegan sources of iron, I have started to be more consistent with my iron supplementation and can feel a positive difference in energy levels and strength. Personally, I have not found it difficult to get proper nutrition on a vegan diet, once I understood what that meant. I felt more nutrient deficient as an omnivore.
It is NOT that vegan diets will leave you depleted in essential nutrients, but rather that shifting to a vegan diet requires thought and education. If you simply swap out this for that, without considering the nutritional composition of each food choice, it is very possible you will not be getting enough of your essential nutrients — and, it will show in your body. Deficiencies can be rectified, though.
Think of the National Food Guide; it includes animals and animal by-products. Simply leaving them out, leaves out the nutritional value they represent. Those nutrients can be found in a diverse pairing of plant-based foods, and, in some cases, through manufactured supplements.
So is veganism actually healthy? Of course! A vegan diet is generally more nutrient and vitamin dense, specifically vitamin C and fibre, with much lower levels of unhealthy fats and cholesterol. The increased diversity of food choice and generally higher levels of fibre contribute to a healthy gut, and better absorption of nutrients. Eating vegan also means avoiding the detrimental effects of consuming animals and their by-products, such as high cholesterol and blood pressure, higher risk of chronic diseases like diabetes, and cancer.
Eating healthy, no matter your diet, will require proper care and balance, and this is the same for eating healthy on a vegan diet. A proper vegan diet may require some artificial supplementation, but this is easy for most people, and most societies can easily support this lifestyle.