A dietitian weighs up the pros and cons of the vegan diet
With many going meat-free this year as part of 'Veganuary', should you make the change?
We asked a dietitian to weigh up the pros and cons of a vegan diet. Kiri Elliott is Lecturer in Dietetics at Birmingham City University.
JOE: How healthy is a vegan diet?
Elliott: "It depends on your individual approach - a vegan diet can be well-balanced and provide health benefits related to energy intake, food variety, fruit and veg intake, fibre and improved ratio of healthy to unhealthy fats.
"However, supplementation of some essential vitamins and minerals is required for optimal health."
Meat is high in energy-producing B vitamins, which vegans may need to supplement with.
What are the main challenges of the vegan diet?
"One of the main challenges is consuming all the essential micronutrients in adequate amounts.
"Without meat and dairy in the diet, it can be difficult to consume enough protein, calcium, vitamin B12, iron, selenium, zinc and iodine - even when the diet is carefully is planned.
"Vegans should consider taking a vegan friendly multivitamin and mineral supplement every day to prevent deficiencies."
Are vegan alternatives healthier?
In addition to the risk of missing out on vital vitamins and minerals, a vegan diet can still be as unhealthy as one containing animal produce.
"Due to the explosion of vegan alternatives in the last couple of years, a vegan diet can be just as high in sugar, fat and salt as a non-vegan.
"Some vegan burgers for example contain more salt than their meat counterparts. There are also many high fat, high sugar vegan confectionary products and desserts on the market."
What about athletes and bodybuilders?
"With careful planning, the energy, protein, fat and micronutrient profile of a vegan diet can be optimised to achieve body composition (muscle gain and fat loss) goals.
"However, this is more challenging compared to vegetarian or omnivorous (meat-containing) diets -especially for those with high protein requirements."
What are the benefits of a vegan diet?
Alongside upping your fruit, veg and fibre intake, there are now lots of options available for people on a vegan diet.
"One of the positives is that it has become so popular and is more socially accepted by society. It is easier to find vegan options on menus and on supermarket shelves.
"In the past vegetarian and vegan options tended to be limited. Now vegan options tend to be incorporated into the main menu, with many restaurants happy to tweak specifications to make certain dishes vegan for customers who ask, so the UK is a much more inclusive place for vegans."
Is a vegan diet the best environmental choice?
"Agriculture and livestock farming are by far the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, biodiversity loss, and soil pollution, as well as land and water use.
"Compared to the typical UK diet, a vegan diet has a significantly lower carbon foot print and is associated with lower greenhouse gas emissions.
"However, you don't have to go vegan to have a positive impact on the environment. For example, the average intake of meat by adults in the UK is 108 grams (think a 4 oz steak). If this was reduced to 50g per day (a 2 oz steak), the carbon foot print is reduced by 39%. Also evidence suggests that 25% of all food purchased in the UK is wasted, addressing this would also have a huge impact on our greenhouse gas emissions and carbon footprint."
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