How to go vegan: Vital nutrients and environmental sustainability

How to get veganism right by not missing out on any vital nutrients and (actually) helping to save the planet

When most people consider going vegan, their first instinct is to consider all the things it means not eating – bacon, cheese, those little fizzy coke bottle sweets that are sometimes made from boiled pig ligaments. Fewer people consider all the things they should eat, and that’s a mistake – both from an ethical and health perspective.

Firstly, as a vegan, it can be tricky to cover all the nutritional bases that omnivores hit quite handily, even if a well-balanced vegan diet gives you the kind of smorgasborg of phytonutrients a carnivore could only dream of. And, less obviously, if you’re going vegan for environmental or ethical reasons, there are key factors to consider.

Here’s what you need to know. 

Protein is key

Recommendations on how much protein you should be eating as an adult vary wildly. In the UK, the NHS says around 50g a day, but some nutritional coaches will suggest upwards of 1.5g per kilo of bodyweight. Without steak (25g of protein per 100g) or chicken (27g) to fall back on, it can be tricky to hit even the baseline. Beans and lentils are your friend – they tend to include 10–20g protein per 100g, so cook them straight, use them in stews, or mash them up for burgers and faux-meatballs. 

Soy products are a bit trickier – they can be high in protein, but processed products can be heavy on the phytoeostrogens, a defence mechanism for the plant that may have negative hormonal effects on humans. The problem starts when you eat processed foods that strip out the plant’s natural fibre, carbohydrate and other chemicals – so go for edamame or tofu over more heavily tinkered-with options.

A final thing to consider is that, while all meats contain the ‘complete’ range of essential amino acids, this isn’t true of most veggies – but keep your diet balanced and you’ll be fine. 

Check your vitamins and minerals

It’s tricky to get some of these from a vegan diet. For instance, Vitamin B12 plays a role in amino acid metabolism, but it’s only found naturally in animal products, so fortified products might be a good idea – look for ones that also contain calcium, which is similarly tricky to find in vegan foods. 

In overcast months – most of the ones from October to March in the UK – it’s also impossible to get enough Vitamin D from the sun, so the government now recommends that adults should consider taking a daily supplement of 10mcg of vitamin D – vegans might want to consider more. You’ll also want to top up on zinc, which plays a key role in fertility and maintaining normal testosterone levels in the body – get it from wholegrains and Brazil nuts.

Finally, it’s neither technically vitamin or mineral, but iron’s vital for proper functioning – it contributes to regulating your metabolism, reducing fatigue of fatigue, and it’s used for the transport of oxygen around the body. Good plant-based sources to top up with are dark green veg like spinach and broccoli, pulses, dried fruit and pumpkin seeds – but also bear in mind that you’ll absorb it better if you pair them up with vitamin C-rich foods to support absorption. 

Get some good fats in

Foods containing Omega-3 , especially those high in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), can help the body produce longer-chain omega-3s such as EPA andDHA, which have crucial benefits to brain development and heart health. Flaxseed, rapeseed oil, walnuts, hazelnuts, pecans and green leafy vegetables all have you covered.

Consider your creatine levels

This one’s more important if you’re trying to build muscle. Creatine is vital for short, power efforts – it helps your body produce ATP, which is your main energy source during sprints and heavy lifts – but it’s also beneficial for recovery.

It’s also important to the brain – studies suggest that increasing your intake can provide a range of benefits, including improved memory and reduced mental fatigue. Your body naturally synthesises it, but it’s also present in meat – and hard to find elsewhere. Supplements are available, and in studies, they’ve led to increases in lean muscle mass for vegetarian and vegan athletes. 

…And assess your environmental impact

Yes, a vegan diet tends to be better for the environment than an all-beef menu – in a 2018 study, Oxford researchers reported that a plant-based diet can reduce food-related carbon emissions by up to 73% – but that’s extremely dependent on what you’re eating.

Another Oxford study revealed that although producing a glass of dairy milk gives out almost three times the greenhouse gas emissions of any non-dairy milks, varieties such as almond milk require a staggering 74 litres of water per litre of 'milk'.

Similarly, it’s tough to grow crops such as soya, or even many varieties of fruits and berries in the UK – contributing to the carbon footprint of a diet that’s reliant on them. Better asses the enrimntal impact fo what you're eating by using the Giki app, which can you steer you on the right path to not only smashing veganism for your health, but for the health of the planet too!