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Kickstarting the year with Veganuary

Curious about the nutritional aspects of going vegan? Join us as we speak with Jodie Abrahams, a nutritionist and experienced practitioner specialising in mood and mental health at All Points North Clinic.

As we step into a new year, Veganuary gives us perfect opportunity to embrace a plant-based lifestyle. Jodie tackles some key points about the vegan diet to help you to kickstart your year with informed choices.

Whether you're already vegan or a newcomer, let's navigate the habit of plant-based living together. Fuel your body with wholesome plant goodness, and embark on a health journey to set the tone for a healthy, intentional year ahead.

  • What are the health benefits of starting a Vegan diet?
  • What are the key nutrients that people should pay special attention to when transitioning to a vegan diet?
  • How can people ensure they are getting the right amount of protein?
  • Any practical tips for meal planning to help individuals maintain a nutritious, varied vegan diet?
  • How might energy levels and overall well-being be impacted, especially for those new to Veganuary?
  • What are some common challenges that people face when adopting a vegan lifestyle?

What are the health benefits of starting a Vegan diet?

A wholefoods, well-balanced vegan diet, has a number of health benefits. 

Eating a diversity of plant foods provides fibre that supports a healthy microbiome and digestive tract, antioxidants that protect cells, and a wide range of essential micronutrients that support everything from cardiovascular to metabolic and immune system health.

It can be associated with improved heart health, as it can support healthy cholesterol and blood pressure. It also may contribute to weight management and lower the risk of type 2 diabetes.

What are the key nutrients that people should pay special attention to when transitioning to a vegan diet?

Do you recommend any supplements that can help during this transition?

There are some nutrients that need particular attention in order to meet the body’s demands when following a vegan diet.

Vitamin B12 is only naturally present in animal-based foods: meat, fish, eggs and dairy. Certain plant-based foods are fortified with B12, but you may need to take a supplement to meet your individual needs.

As B12 is stored in the liver, it is unlikely you will develop a deficiency by following a vegan diet for a month. However, if your stores are already low, your levels may drop further without dietary intake. Test your B12 levels and supplement accordingly to make sure you are maintaining optimal levels if you decide to go vegan long term.

Omega 3 is available in small amounts in certain plant-based foods, but only in the alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) form that the body then needs to convert into eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

So while it’s worth including foods such as walnuts, hempseeds, flaxseeds and chia seeds for their omega 3 content as well as their many other benefits, if you decide to continue a fully plant-based diet, you may also want to consider an algae-oil based omega 3 supplement. Always check for contraindications with any medications you’re taking, and look for one containing both EPA and DHA. 

Iron (especially for menstruating women) is a nutrient that needs particular focus in a vegan diet. There are a number of plant-based iron sources, so prioritise including these daily in your diet: lentils, chickpeas, beans, tofu, pumpkin seeds, spinach, chard, kale, dried apricots, dried figs and raisins. Anaemia is a common nutrient deficiency, so checking your iron, including ferritin levels, will indicate if additional supplementation is needed, whether or not you follow a vegan diet.

Calcium is often associated with dairy but there are plenty of plant-based sources. Tofu, sesame seeds, almonds, buckwheat, blackstrap molasses, dried figs, broccoli, kale, bok choy, seaweed and white beans are all calcium-rich foods to include in a vegan diet.

How can people ensure they are getting the right amount of protein?

What plant-based sources do you recommend?

Protein is often a concern for those new to veganism. Proteins are made up of amino acids, and animal-based foods provide what are known as ‘complete proteins’ – those that include the full spectrum of essential amino acids (those that we must get from our diets). There are some plant-based sources of complete proteins: soy beans (including tofu, edamame and tempeh), quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth, chia seeds and nutritional yeast.

However, we get the majority of ‘complete proteins’ from plant-based foods when we combine beans/legumes with nuts, seeds and cereals (eating these combinations on the same day is fine, not necessarily in the same meal). For example, lentils with brown rice, hummus with wholemeal pitta or porridge topped with almonds.

Any practical tips for meal planning to help individuals maintain a nutritious, varied vegan diet?

Remember that just because something is labelled as vegan, it does not mean it is necessarily healthy. Plenty of ultra-processed foods contain no animal-derived products, but are high in sugars, sweeteners, preservatives and hydrogenated fats.

Benefits of a whole-foods based vegan diet, are high levels of fibre, antioxidants and a range of vitamins and trace minerals. Base your meals around vegetables, wholegrains, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds. Prioritise a palm sized amount of protein with each meal and be sure to include satiating and nourishing fats from extra virgin olive oil, avocado and nuts and seeds.

Be aware that you may need to increase your food volume when going vegan to keep yourself feeling energised and satisfied.

How might energy levels and overall well-being be impacted, especially for those new to Veganuary?

Many people notice an improvement to their digestion, sleep and energy when moving to a fully plant-based diet. By including more fibre-rich foods, complex carbohydrates, plant-based proteins and fruit and vegetables in your diet, you may notice these benefits too.  

However, being mindful of meeting your nutrient needs is essential to feeling your best on a vegan diet. You may notice that you have to be more conscious of planning your meals – but this is often a positive outcome as it cultivates a greater awareness of how you fuel your body, and more connection to, and appreciation of, the food you eat.

What are some common challenges that people face when adopting a vegan lifestyle?

How can they overcome these hurdles to ensure long-term success and health?

Veganuary can be a great way of trying a different way of eating – whether for ethical, environmental or health reasons. Understanding the nutritional profiles of plant-based foods and educating yourself about how to prevent potential nutrient gaps is the best way to ensure long term health, beyond a month.

Interrogating food labels and recognising that relying on vegan ultra-processed foods will not make you healthier is key to this. As with an omnivore diet, a healthy vegan diet is centered around whole-foods, diversity and connection and pleasure.