Finished Veganuary? Let’s talk about the physical effects of a vegan diet

Veganism – it’s not only been on the rise in the public but it’s something which has now been embraced by brands, restaurants and pubs alike. From Gregg’s vegan sausage rolls to Alpro’s nut milks’ and Whetherspoon’s vegan breakfast, it’s fair to say a vegan diet is now ‘mainstream’.

This year saw the highest numbers of the public signing up for Veganuary – over 250,000 people, and that’s just the number of those who physically signed up with the official campaign. Since the launch of the campaign in 2014, we’ve seen an insurmountable amount of growth in the vegan foods and product sector, becoming widely available and a very profitable market to start a business within.

Social media, arguably, has been a huge part of this growth, with many influencers not only documenting their vegan journey but also becoming fierce advocates for the movement. It’s been a place to share the positive sides of veganism – the recipes, ways to make small changes and benefits to your body and the world. However, it’s also been a platform where ‘non-vegans’ are potentially shamed for their choices. This has been seen, ironically, in the reaction to several self-branded vegan influencers having to step away from the lifestyle for health reasons. Their decisions have been met with hate and isolation from a movement they helped to grow – a real shame.

And so this brings us to the most contentious of issues; health and veganism. Aside from the anecdotal evidence from those who have turned vegan, the BDA has affirmed that a well-planned vegan diet can “support healthy living in people of all ages” in an official document signed by its CEO. This has been echoed across the professional community, with most agreeing more fruit and vegetables on our plates is never a bad thing – but it is not a lifestyle which should be entered into without any consideration.

Of course, the voice of Dietitians is vital in this conversation, but we rarely consider other individuals which also encounter those following a vegan lifestyle. We spoke to Stephen Parkus, a Registered Physiotherapist about his views on veganism.

“There are a very large number of potential issues. Ultimately, it is important to have a balanced diet, with all necessary nutrients in balance. This requires some education and planning. A vegan needs to put more effort into this, as they have far fewer choices available in their diet.”

He went on to discuss some of the key nutrients which he finds those following a vegan lifestyle might need to consider in terms of supplementation or in their food sources. So what do you need to look out for to keep your body, mobility and movement in check?

  • Watch out for a lack of protein as this may lead to increased likelihood of injuries like pulled muscles or ligaments, or delayed healing from these injuries, as well as a loss of muscle in general.
  • Long-term low levels of calcium, which so many of us just see as being sourced from dairy, may lead to early osteoporosis. This can increase the risk of broken bones. However it is not something that is just from dairy; soy products, cruciferous vegetables (cabbage, brussel sprouts and kale), almonds and even mustard are great sources.
  • A lack of vitamin C may lead to an increased risk of coughs & colds, and therefore reduced activity due to illness as well as reducing the absorption of iron. To combat this broccoli, red peppers and of course the classic oranges are great sources.
  • For women,  menstruation naturally decreases your iron levels and can lead to fatigue. Eating more iron-rich foods around this time, such as green leafy vegetables, beans or lentils, along with a source of vitamin C for absorption will help combat this. Also, it may be useful to minimise calcium-rich foods at this time, which reduce iron absorption.

From a Physiotherapists perspective, it is about having an optimal body that can keep moving and support a healthy active lifestyle. The scaremongering of nutrient deficiencies often stems from people not really looking at what they need. Something that Stephen has also seen “Some people may be supplementing because they think they need to, but if they already have a balanced diet, they may be wasting money. This means they may be overconsuming certain nutrients, leading to weight gain and other problems which ultimately make it harder to get moving. For example, excess protein can lead to dehydration and calcium loss associated with osteoporosis.”

And so, the verdict from both Physiotherapists and Dietitians is to find a diet that really works for you. Regardless of whether you’re vegan or not, we all need a healthy and balanced diet to keep our bodies ready to move and well enough to exercise. Finding what truly works for YOU and that benefits YOUR health is the only thing that truly matters from a professional perspective.

Interested in speaking to a professional to start your journey on what works for you? Have a different conversation about your health with a free session with a Registered Dietitian, Physiotherapist or Dietitian



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