Thinking of going vegan?
According to Vegan Life Magazine, the number of vegans in the UK has risen by a whopping 350% over the past decade, with veganism becoming one of the fastest-growing lifestyle choices.
But is following a vegan diet healthy, and can it provide all the nutrients your body needs – especially if you're living with diabetes? Could it actually bring about health benefits?
We share the nuts and bolts of eating vegan, and explore how those living with diabetes can practise this safely and with confidence.
What is veganism?
According to the Vegan Society, 'veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose. Vegans follow a plant-based diet avoiding all animal foods such as meat (including fish, shellfish and insects), dairy, eggs and honey – as well as products like leather and any tested on animals'.
Vegan Life Magazine report that the vegan movement is growing fastest in the younger population: almost half (42%) of the 542,000 vegans in the UK are aged between 15–34, compared with just 15% who are over 65.
People choose to follow a vegan lifestyle for different reasons such as concern about animal welfare and the planet. However, another contributing factor which may encourage people to follow a vegan diet is that it can provide some health benefits.
It has also become considerably easier to ‘go vegan’ these days. Not so long ago, you’d have to make a special trip to a health food store for ingredients such as tofu or tempeh, but now you can find most of the produce needed for a healthy vegan diet in your regular supermarket. Additionally, more restaurants are now offering vegan options on their menus to cater for the growing numbers.
Health benefits of a vegan diet
Plant-based foods – which are a large part of a vegan diet – particularly fruit, vegetables, nuts, pulses and seeds, have been shown to help in the treatment of many chronic diseases and are often associated with lower levels of type 2 diabetes, less hypertension, lower cholesterol levels and reduced cancer rates.
Some studies also show that vegans are less likely to be overweight and tend to have a lower percentage of body fat, which in turn will reduce the risk of many other diseases.
How healthy vegan diets are
Even though most of the foods in a vegan diet are naturally good for you, it doesn’t necessarily mean that all vegan diets are healthy. Ingredients such as salt, sugar and fat can still be added, making them less healthy.
With the increased risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) in people with diabetes, keeping your weight under control and reducing blood pressure and blood cholesterol are all essential and plant-based foods can help with this.
General healthy eating advice – to choose wholegrain, low-GI carbs over refined options, to eat less salt, saturated fat and sugar and to watch your weight – still apply to people eating a vegan diet.
A little more care and attention is needed when planning a vegan diet, particularly for children. When you first embark on a vegan diet, you must ensure that it will provide all the key nutrients that are necessary for good health. Speaking to a dietitian can be helpful to make sure your diet is balanced.
Vegan diets and diabetes
Vegan diets tend to be lower in saturated fat, higher in fibre, fruit and vegetables and other protective substances like phytochemicals and antioxidants – as a result, they fit well with the current dietary guidelines for people with diabetes.
There is no reason why you shouldn’t choose to follow a vegan diet if you wish, but it’s important to discuss the matter with your diabetes team if you have any queries or concerns.
Making a vegan diet work for you
Before embarking on a vegan diet, it’s helpful to do your research. The Vegan Society is an excellent source of information with lots of useful tips and advice.
Whether you are ready to go completely vegan, or would like to start by increasing plant-based meals in your diet, or removing meat or dairy products gradually, there are a few important aspects to consider.
Below, we have listed some particular considerations regarding how to maintain a healthy, balanced diet.
Maintaining good nutrition
Consuming enough protein is a concern for many new vegans. However, it may not be as big a problem as we anticipate. Most of us eat far more protein than our body requires, and there are plenty of vegan foods which are good sources of protein:
- nuts, seeds and most of their butters (e.g. cashew, tahini, peanut, almond and Brazil)
- beans and pulses (eg butterbeans, chickpeas and lentils)
- vegetable milks (eg soya, almond and hempseed)
- soya products (eg tofu, soya cheese and soya milk)
- vegan Quorn.
There is generally more carbohydrate in plant-based protein sources, so it's possible that your carbohydrate intake may increase when you switch to a vegan diet. However, you can still watch your portions and always look for low glycaemic index (GI) options and pick foods that are high in fibre. The GI is a measure of how quickly carbohydrate is absorbed – the quicker it is, the higher the GI.
The body needs vitamin B12 to maintain healthy blood and a healthy nervous system. We get vitamin B12 from food but it is only found naturally in animal products. However, many vegan foods are fortified with B12 to compensate for this. The Vegan Society recommend that you should eat a food fortified with B12 at each meal, or take a supplement that contains at least 10 micrograms of B12 each day in order to stay healthy. Fortified foods and/or supplements are the only reliable sources of B12 in a plant-based diet.
Vegan foods fortified with B12 include:
- some plant milks and yogurts
- some breakfast cereals
- some spreads
- yeast extract.
It’s also important to ensure that a vegan diet contains enough calcium, which is important for strong bones. Calcium is needed throughout life, but particularly while bones are still growing until around the age of 25. you should choose dairy alternatives, such as plant-based milks and yogurts which are fortified with calcium.
Vegan foods that are sources of calcium include:
- red kidney beans
- some fortified foods (e.g. wholegrain breads).
You may have heard that spinach is a good source of calcium. Unfortunately, although it does contain calcium, it also contains chemicals which bind to the calcium and therefore make it difficult for the body to absorb. Don't let that stop you eating spinach though, as it still contains lots of other good stuff.
Omega-3 fatty acids are useful in the treatment and prevention of heart disease. As people with diabetes have an increased risk of heart disease they may benefit from including Omega-3 in their diet. It can, however, be more difficult when following a vegan diet.
Vegan sources of Omega-3 include:
- flaxseed and rapeseed oil
- soya-based foods (eg soya milk, tofu and walnuts).
These sources are not as good as oily fish, so it's important to include them on a regular basis in order to get adequate amounts of Omega-3 fatty acids. You may want to consider taking a supplement, but make sure you choose one which is suitable for vegans.
As meat is rich in iron, some people following a vegan diet may be concerned that they won't be able to get enough from their food.
There are good vegan sources of iron, including:
- breakfast cereals
- dark green vegetables
- dried fruit
- beans and pulses.
Consuming more fruit and vegetables can also help as they are high in vitamin C which increases the amount of iron your body absorbs.
Selenium is another essential nutrient, and is an important part of many enzymes (substances that speed up reactions in our bodies). Selenium tends to be high in Brazil nuts, so these can be a good source.
Although it’s important not to eat too much selenium, you may want to consider a supplement as vegan sources can be hard to find. Speak to your healthcare team, a dietitian or pharmacist about suitable supplements.
Thyroid hormones (which control how quickly your body cells work) are made with iodine. Plant based sources are not a reliable option and many plant-based milks currently are not fortified, so you may need to consider a supplement. Speak to your health care team.
Zinc helps us to fight infection, along with other functions. You can get enough zinc by eating a varied vegan diet which includes beans and pulses, nuts and seeds tofu, grains and wholemeal bread.
Your diabetes and your food choices
If you’re considering a vegan diet – for health, lifestyle or other purposes – it's possible to ensure it’s both healthy and balanced. As well as offering a number of potential health benefits, particularly for people with diabetes, the good news is that it’s never been easier to begin.
Wherever you might be in your journey, from complete veganism to simply reducing animal products and increasing plant-based meals, here are a selection of some delicious recipes to try:
You can also type 'vegan' into our recipe search bar and check out any delicious recipes which feature this logo.