This week we’ve got doctor, GP and nutritionist Josh Cullimore to bust some myths about vegan nutrition and eating plant-based.

Is eating animal products bad for you?

As a GP, I see a lot of chronic disease that is largely caused by poor diets that are high in animal products (meat, dairy and eggs), salt, sugar and processed foods. I have been vegetarian for the last 16 years and vegan for 10 years, and I have seen significant improvements in the health of my patients who adopt my advice to follow a plant-based, mostly whole foods diet. This is backed up by a multitude of evidence that vegan diets are associated with lower rates of multiple chronic conditions such as heart disease, strokes, certain cancers, type 2 diabetes, obesity and hypertension.

Should you take any supplements if you are plant-based?

Some nutrients do need more consideration with vegan diets, the most important being Vitamin B12. It is extremely easy to obtain sufficient vitamin B12 from vegan sources, either through fortified foods such as breakfast cereals, plant milks, nutritional yeast or Marmite, or through a vitamin supplement. At least 3 micrograms a day between at least 2 meals is necessary if you get B12 from food but the easiest way to ensure you are getting enough is to take a supplement, of either 10 micrograms a day or 2000 micrograms a week. Crushing or chewing tablets, or use a sublingual tablet will aid absorption.

I would also recommend supplementing iodine and Vitamin D. Sufficient iodine is important for a healthy thyroid gland, and Vitamin D is important for strong bones and a healthy immune system. It is mostly obtained through sunlight so many people in the UK are deficient! The recommended daily amount of iodine is 150 micrograms a day (200micrograms a day in pregnancy), and at least 400 units a day of vitamin D. There are many multivitamin brands out there. Just ensure whichever you choose has adequate doses of these 3 nutrients.

What about calcium, iron and protein, are vegans deficient in those?

The recommended daily amount of calcium is 700mg, although studies show 500mg a day is usually enough to prevent bone fractures.  Calcium can be obtained from a variety of plant sources, particularly green leafy vegetables such as kale, almonds, dried fruits, pulses, calcium-set tofu and fortified plant milks. In the UK, organic milks are not fortified, so it is best to go for the non-organic versions if you are relying on these to meet you daily calcium requirements.

People are often concerned about getting enough iron, and think they should eat meat to prevent anaemia. This is simply not true! Plant based iron (non-haem iron) can be obtained from pulses, whole grains, dried fruits, tofu, nuts and green leafy vegetables, and is much healthier than animal iron which has been linked to heart disease, cancers and type 2 diabetes. The absorption of iron is increased by consumption with vitamin C-rich foods, and avoiding tea and coffee with meals- which hinder absorption!

Vegans are constantly asked about their protein, but in fact, in the UK, on average people eat 55% more protein than they need, and there is evidence showing that increased animal protein consumption is associated with decreased life expectancy, in contrast to plant protein which does not have this effect. The recommended daily intake of protein for adults is 0.8g of protein per kg of bodyweight (higher amounts of up to 1.8g per kg for the elderly and athletes who want to build significant muscle) and this is easily obtained through plant based sources, especially from legumes, nuts, seeds and wholegrains. Remember that all protein originally comes from plant sources and that some of the biggest and strongest animals on earth – such as gorillas, elephants and rhinos – are vegan. No one questions where they get their protein from! There are many professional athletes who have gone vegan, who attest that this change in their diet has improved their performance. 

Is it safe to eat plant-based during pregnancy and raise a vegan child?

The British Dietetics Association state: “Vegetarian and vegan diets are appropriate for every stage of life as long as they are well planned”. The NHS recommends that “breastfed babies should take Vitamin D supplements from birth, and all children aged 6 months to 5 years should take vitamin supplements containing vitamins A, C and D every day”. This is true regardless of diet. Vegan children should also have vitamin B12 and iodine in their multivitamin. I recommend the First Steps Nutrition Trust guide to vegan children under 5, and as long as you follow this guidance your child will not experience any malnutrition. Vegan breastfeeding women should take vitamin D, vitamin B12 and iodine, and pregnant women should have the same plus folic acid. All these groups should also ensure they are eating an adequate source of omega 3, such as walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseeds, rapeseed oil or a DHA/EPA algae supplement. 

Is eating too much soya bad for you?

The common myth is that soya causes dangerous disruption of sex hormones. This fear stems from the fact that soya contains phytoestrogens, which are plant oestrogens, similar in structure but not the same as mammalian oestrogens. Ironically cow’s milk does contain mammalian oestrogen, and levels are rising as farming methods become more intensive. The evidence is very clear – soya categorically does not cause changes in blood levels of oestrogen or testosterone, and has absolutely no feminising effects in men. In fact, soya has multiple health benefits, which are summarised in the British Dietetics Association factsheet ‘Soya Foods and Health’. The only possible concern is for patients with underactive thyroids, as soya can affect the absorption of thyroxine hormone medication, and this should be discussed with their doctors who may need to adjust the dosage. 

A vegan diet, especially one that emphasises whole, unprocessed foods including fruits, vegetables, legumes, wholegrains and nuts, is a healthy choice, in addition to being both the best diet for the planet and the animals.

Thank you Josh! If you are interested in learning more, you can follow Josh on Instagram, @vegandoctorjosh.