Veganism is the fastest growing food trend this year, according to Tesco, with more than 3.5 million people in the UK following the diet, as well as many – such as my family – who are at the ‘flexitarian’ stage and dabbling in it. But with 60 per cent of vegans aged under 35, I have been contacted by parents who are concerned that their teenagers or older children might not be getting all the nutrients they need.
Cutting out all meat, dairy, fish and eggs in favour of a plant-based diet can be beneficial for health if done correctly – and with great care in teenagers. A recent review by academics found that plant-based diets were associated with a significant improvement in emotional and physical wellbeing, quality of life and general health.
However, no matter how animal-free your diet is, living on starchy carbohydrates and sweetened almond milk is not good for your health, so I asked nutritional therapist Joy Skipper what vegans should be mindful of. Here are her top five points to consider:
1. Vitamin B12 A deficiency can lead to anaemia, muscle weakness, fatigue, nerve damage and mood disorders. As the richest sources of this (meat, dairy, eggs and shellfish) are no longer on the menu, vegans should make sure they eat B12-fortified foods such as enriched cereals, wholegrain breads, yeast extracts and nori seaweed.
2. Iron It is less available in plant-based diets, meaning iron-deficiency anaemia is especially common in menstruating vegan women, causing tiredness, shortness of breath, lightheadedness or hair loss. There is a moderate amount of iron in fortified cereals, leafy greens, pumpkin, peas, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds. Making sure you also get enough vitamin C (eg, from citrus fruits) improves the absorption of iron.
3. Calcium A lack of this mineral can cause tiredness, muscle cramps, weak nails, tingling and low mood. It is especially important for teenagers to help prevent their bones thinning when they are older. Good sources include sesame seeds, broccoli, chickpeas, kale and fortified plant milks.
4. Omega-3 fats These are needed to reduce inflammation, for cardiovascular benefits and to protect the brain. The best source is oily fish as vegan sources such as chia seeds, olive oil, avocados and walnuts are not so readily converted into the essential fatty acids we need. Try omega-3 supplements from sustainably sourced algae, such as Together Omega 3 DHA Rich Algae Oil Softgels (£13.99, amazon.co.uk).
5. Protein We need 50g-60g a day. Good vegan sources include tofu, lentils, nuts, wholegrains, seeds, meat substitutes and nutritional yeast – while combining proteins such as rice with beans ensures you get all the essential amino acids. Consider protein shakes such as The Protein Works Protein Blend for Vegans (£12.82, amazon.co.uk)
The Vegan Society has lots of useful information and recipes, as well as an app, and Joy recommends a daily multivitamin supplement such as Solgar Vegetarian Multiple 90 (also vegan-friendly, £19.99, revital.co.uk), but see your doctor if you have any concerns.
Why exercise is the best medicine
I love going to my weekly exercise group in the park; it’s not just great for health, it’s also pleasingly social and something I, as a GP, would love to be able to prescribe.
Thanks to a health promotion trust charity, we run exercise groups in our surgery for patients, and the walking football, walking groups and chair-based exercises are popular.
Until exercise is available on prescription, there are lots of ideas on how to get started for free at nhs.uk – including complimentary gym passes, green gyms (where you take part in gardening and conservation activities) and the Couch to 5k scheme to get beginners running. Remember, moving more makes a remarkable difference to health and wellbeing.