There are a lot of myths about vegan diets. It’s time to get the truth!
By Heather Russell
Nutrition can seem a bit daunting at times, particularly if you’re interested in eating a vegan diet. Some say that it’s impossible to be healthy, whereas others tell you that that this type of diet is the number one option. Undeniably, it’s the best choice if you want to be kind to animals.
So, how can you debunk the myths, know the truth, and thrive as a vegan? The Vegan Society is here to help. We work with the British Dietetic Association to share the message that well-planned vegan diets can support healthy living in people of all ages. Let’s get myth busting!
5 Myths About Vegan Diets – Busted!
Myth one: plants produce vitamin B12
It’s a good idea to be suspicious of any claims suggesting that B12 is produced by plants (or animals). This vitamin is manufactured by microorganisms.
A safe source is one that has been proven to maintain B12 status in humans by reliably providing adequate amounts of active B12. For vegans, this means that it’s essential to obtain B12 from fortified foods or a supplement. If you’re relying on fortified foods, Vegan Society guidelines suggest that you eat them at least twice a day and aim for a total B12 intake of at least 3 micrograms.
Absorption of this vitamin is most efficient when it’s consumed in frequent small amounts, so if you’re using a supplement, much higher quantities are required; take at least 10 micrograms daily or at least 2000 micrograms weekly.
Myth two: it’s difficult to get protein from plants
Our diets need to contain certain amino acids, which are protein building blocks. An adequate intake of essential amino acids can easily be obtained from plants if you tick these three boxes:
- Eat enough calories, e.g. eat enough food to maintain a healthy weight
- Eat a varied diet containing plenty of minimally processed plant-based foods
- Include sources of good quality protein in your meals, such as beans, lentils, peas, soya products, peanuts, quinoa, wild rice and buckwheat
Make sure that you’re familiar with how a decent portion looks. Here are a few examples:
- 150g cooked beans, peas or lentils: four tablespoons or two thirds of a can
- 100g tofu: four tablespoons
- 30g peanuts, nuts, seeds or their butters: a tablespoon or a handful
Eating nuts and seeds daily is a healthful habit but they don’t all provide good quality protein. In relation to this nutrient, cashews, pistachios, pumpkin seeds, ground linseed (flaxseed), chia seeds and hemp seeds are some of the best choices.
Myth three: vegan diets are low in iron
Well-planned vegan diets can support good iron status. Protein-rich plant foods tend to contain useful amounts of iron. It’s also found in dried apricots and figs, whole grains and fortified breakfast cereal.
Did you know that the main factor that affects absorption is your body’s need for iron? For example, your body will absorb more of this mineral from your diet if stores are low. However, there are steps that you can take to optimise the amount of iron absorbed from your meals, such as including a rich source of vitamin C. Here are some examples of good combinations:
- Porridge with ground linseed and raisins served with orange juice
- A hummus wrap with bell peppers
- Lentil curry and pineapple
It’s also helpful to avoid drinking tea or coffee with meals because this can impair iron absorption; try to leave at least an hour before or after.
Myth four: vegan diets don’t contain omega-3 fats
Vegans can balance their daily diets by including a really rich source of essential omega-3 fat, also known as ALA. Here are some ideas:
- Snack on a handful of walnuts
- Add a tablespoon of chia seeds or ground linseed to breakfast cereal or a plant-based alternative to yoghurt
It’s also a good idea to take steps to avoid consuming a lot of omega-6 fat, which tends to be plentiful in our diets and competes with omega-3 fat. Limit servings of pumpkin seeds or sunflower seeds to a handful and use vegetable (rapeseed) oil as your main cooking oil instead of sunflower, corn or sesame oils.
Your body can make ALA into long-chain omega-3 fats (EPA and DHA) like the ones found in oily fish. Supplementation isn’t thought to be essential but EPA and DHA can be added to a vegan diet by taking a microalgae supplement.
Myth five: greens contain lots of calcium
There is no doubt that eating greens daily is a healthy habit. For instance, they are a valuable source of vitamin K. It is also true to say that certain greens contain some well-absorbed calcium, such as watercress, kale, pak choi, broccoli and Brussels sprouts. However, you’d have to eat a huge amount of them to get enough calcium, so it’s best to rely on foods that provide higher amounts.
If you consume two portions of calcium-rich foods from the list below, you’ll be well on your way to hitting your daily target for this mineral:
- 200ml fortified plant milk
- 200g fortified yoghurt alternative
- 100g calcium-set tofu n.b. look for evidence of calcium in the ingredients list
- Two slices of soya and linseed bread fortified with extra calcium
As part of our Vegan and Thriving campaign, The Vegan Society has published some balanced and tasty recipes. Some of them have been tagged with ‘Contains rich calcium source’ because they provide at least a third of a UK adult’s daily requirement.
Vitamin D is needed for calcium absorption, so make sure that you’re following public health guidelines. In the UK, supplementation is recommended from October to March as a minimum. Vegan products contain vitamin D3 made from lichen, or vitamin D2.
So there it is! 5 Myths About Vegan Diets – Busted! For further information about vegan diets, check out the resources available at www.vegansociety.com/nutrition, including the free VNutrition app. Heather Russell is a Dietitian at The Vegan Society
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