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7 things you didn't know about: veganism

Image: Marilyn Barbone/123RF

You either love it or hate it. Some have tried it and others are considering it. Whichever side of the fence you’re sitting on, veganism is one trend that just doesn’t seem like it will fade anytime soon – not when people are becoming increasingly interested in the food they eat and how their actions have an effect on the environment around us.

But despite its popularity, there are a few common misunderstandings when it comes to following a vegan diet. We spoke to Terry Harris, the head dietitian at Discovery Vitality, to clarify a few things for us.

1. Vegan foods are not necessarily healthy 

If you’re going vegan for health reasons, it’s best to avoid plant-based milks with added sugar and it is important to remember that vegan junk foods like deep fried foods, chips, sweets, chocolate and sugary drinks are still junk foods. Plant-based doesn’t always equate to healthy.

2. Plant-based foods can also be processed

Meat substitutes like vegan patties or sausages made with highly processed plant protein like pea or soya protein are often high in salt and additives. Vegan or not, it is best to opt for a diet consisting of whole, minimally processed foods, or foods as close to their natural state as possible.

3. There are certain nutritional deficiencies you may need to correct 

Because a vegan diet is more restrictive, vegans are at risk of developing certain nutritional deficiencies and should pay special attention to their diet. Some nutrients that vegans are often most often deficient in is Vitamin B12 (which isn’t found in plant foods), long chain omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, Vitamin D, Iron and Zinc.

It is important to consider plan-based alternatives to these sources (such as calcium-fortified dairy alternatives) and where plant-based alternatives aren’t available you might need to consult with a dietitian to plan a balanced diet and recommend supplements.

4. Protein isn’t only found in meat 

You can ensure your vegan diet is balanced by including enough sources of plant protein such as lentils, beans, chickpeas, seeds, nuts, tofu and nut butters such as peanut butter.

5. Not all fats are bad

Vegan foods or recipes that contain coconut oil, milk or cream are high in saturated fats and should be limited for heart health. However, unsaturated fats such as olive or canola oil, avocado, nuts and seeds are healthy fats and can be incorporated into a balanced vegan diet.

6. Variety is the spice of life – even on a vegan diet

In order to eat a healthy, balanced diet it is important to avoid sticking to a few familiar foods – even if they are all plant-based. You can do this by eating at least 5 portions of a variety of colourful fruit and vegetables every day and opting for wholegrains such as whole-wheat bread, brown or wild rice and whole-wheat pasta over refined grains.

7. A vegan diet may reduce the risk of non-communicable diseases

On the plus side, research has shown that people who follow a whole foods, plant-based diet appear to have a reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes and heart disease and may have a lower risk of developing cancer when compared to meat eaters.