Veganism, what is it and what is the diet like?
Published: 4 February, 2023 - Updated: 19 September, 2023 | 10'
Veganism is a way of life based on different reasons: for health and the benefits that this type of diet provides, concern for animal welfare and the environment, or simply personal preference. Veganism involves a plant-based diet with few or no ingredients that come from animals.
A few years ago, it was considered a “trend”, but it is not the case. It is a lifestyle or philosophy that, according to global statistics, reaches 10% of the world’s population (with variations by country), with India being particularly relevant, where 20% or more of adults are vegetarians.
In Spain, a recent report entitled The Green Revolution-2021, conducted by the consultancy firm Lantern, identifies 13% of the adult population as “veggie” (1.4% vegetarians, 0.8% vegans, and 10.8% flexitarians), growing 1.6 percentage points since 2017, as shown in the survey’s graph.
What is veganism
The vegan diet does not include ingredients and/or products that come from animal sources. Some of the foods excluded by veganism are: meat, fish, seafood, eggs, dairy, butter, or yogurt.
Therefore, a vegan diet includes plant-based products such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, vegetables, tubers, cereals, seeds, nuts, mushrooms, stems, or sprouts.
The British Dietetic Association, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics-USA, and the American Dietetic Association all agree that “plant-based diets can help lead a healthy life at any age and at any stage of life. They must be properly planned, healthy, and nutritionally balanced.”
World Vegan Day
World Vegan Day is celebrated every year on November 1st to raise awareness about this way of life. It is also a time to advocate and raise awareness about other issues such as animal cruelty and unethical practices in food, fashion, or entertainment involving animals.
Difference between vegan and vegetarian
According to dietetic associations, the two most common ways to define vegetarian diets are: “vegan diets,” which exclude all animal foods, and “vegetarian diets,” which exclude animal foods but include eggs (ovo) and/or dairy products (lacto).
According to this definition, we have the following categories within veganism, according to the report by Lantern, from which we took the explanatory chart.
- Flexitarian: as indicated in the chart, they may include occasional animal sources, and according to the Smart Protein initiative that evaluated vegetarian trends in 10 European countries, 30% of respondents in Spain stated they were flexitarian.
- Vegetarian: animal sources exclusively come from dairy, eggs, and beekeeping products, which in Spain represent 6% of respondents according to Smart Protein, who declare themselves as vegetarians or vegans.
- Vegan: they exclude all sources of animal origin, representing 1.5% of respondents in Spain according to the Global Consumer Survey by Statista.
Regarding the trends of being vegan/vegetarian/flexitarian, there is data from the same survey conducted by Lantern that reveals the following:
–One in every eight women in Spain is “veggie” (13.1%), while men have increased from 6.8% in 2019 to 12.9% in 2021.
-The most predominant ages, with a clear growing “veggie” trend, are 25-34 years old (16.4%) and 55-64 years old (12.3%).
Vegan or vegetarian diets have been shown to promote well-being and health. In fact, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (USA) in 2015 analyzed the relationship between dietary patterns and environmental impact, stating: “Consistent evidence indicates that overall, a diet higher in plant-based ingredients such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in animal-based foods promotes physical and mental well-being (including both the Mediterranean diet and a “veggie” diet), and is associated with less environmental impact than the average current U.S. diet.”
It is important to note that although the advantages of veganism have been validated, this diet must provide the correct intake of nutrients. In fact, one potential drawback of the vegan diet can be nutritional deficiencies due to the restriction of animal-derived foods. For this reason, a vegan diet should be well planned and supervised by a nutritionist, in addition to being combined with physical activity and maintaining a healthy weight.
Risks of veganism
The main common concern about vegan diets is related to the intake of vitamins, minerals, and protein content. While it is true that well-planned vegan diets can meet nutritional needs, there are some nutrients that can be difficult to achieve through diet alone, which is where fortified foods or dietary supplements play an important role.
Vegan diets tend to be rich in carbohydrates, Omega-6 fatty acids, dietary fiber, carotenoids, folic acid, vitamin C, vitamin E, and magnesium, and relatively low in protein, Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B12, vitamin D and calcium, iron, zinc, and iodine.
Key nutrients in a vegan/vegetarian (“veggie”) diet
Dietary choices, regardless of the type of diet, need to be well-planned to be nutritionally adequate. Different publications and nutrition and dietetic societies provide recommendations on the intake of certain food components in “veggie” diets. Let’s look at some of them.
Usually, the average dietary intake of vitamin B12 in vegans is significantly below the recommended daily allowance, while for lacto-ovo vegetarians, it can be marginal depending on the use of dairy products. Vegans should obtain their vitamin B12 either through regular consumption of foods fortified with vitamin B12, such as plant-based milks, cereals, vegetarian meat substitutes, or regular vitamin B12 supplements. The recommended daily intake of this vitamin is 4 micrograms.
Non-fortified plant foods, such as fermented soy foods, leafy green vegetables, seaweed, mushrooms, and algae (including spirulina), do not contain significant amounts of active vitamin B12 to meet daily needs.
Several studies on plasma levels of Omega-3 fatty acids have shown that the vegan diet has lower levels of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). In particular, vegans have reduced levels of these fatty acids compared to lacto-ovo vegetarians.
Therefore, in a vegan diet it is recommended to consume sources rich in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) such as flaxseed, hemp seeds, walnuts, chia seeds and their oils, with smaller amounts found in canola and soybean oils, and leafy greens. The daily intake should be between 1.1-1.6 grams of ALA, in addition, foods fortified with Omega-3 and oral dietary supplements are other strategies that can ensure an adequate intake of these fatty acids.
It is a fact that “veggie” diets have a lower amount of protein than those that include animal sources, and it is possible that they may not meet the protein requirements due to the lower quality of some vegetable proteins. However, daily practice has shown that protein intake in “veggies” seems to be sufficient for health.
Current food technologies have made it possible to develop plant-based foods that resemble animal-based foods, such as the use of soy and its derivatives, as well as other types of dietary supplements that can facilitate adequate intake. Protein intake in the vegan diet is guaranteed by a combination of beans and cereals, and in vegetarian diets (ovo-lacto) by consuming eggs and cheese. The recommended daily protein intake in vegetarian/vegan diets should be around 13-14% of daily calorie intake, which would represent between 45 to 55 grams of protein.
As stated by the American Dietetic Association, the rates of iron deficiency anemia in vegetarians are similar to those in the rest of the population. However, iron deficiency can pose a challenge in the vegan diet, due to the difference between heme/non-heme iron. The (non-heme) iron form in plant-based foods is absorbed less efficiently than iron from animal sources such as meat and eggs (heme iron).
The main sources of iron for vegans are legumes (beans, lentils, peas, peanuts), leafy greens, soy and its derivatives, quinoa, potatoes, nuts, etc. Daily iron intake can also be balanced with fortified foods such as salt, wheat flour, rice, and dietary supplements. It is recommended to consume vitamin C through fruits and vegetables, as this vitamin increases the available iron in the body. The recommended daily intake of iron ranges from 8 to 16 mg/day in adults.
Like iron, the absorption of zinc from plant-based foods is lower than that of animal-based foods such as eggs and milk. Some good plant-based options include wheat germ, beans, nuts, seeds, mushrooms, and some fortified cereals.
To increase zinc absorption, it is recommended to consume fermented soy such as tempeh and miso, soak beans before cooking, and consume sprouted grains and seeds. Amino acids containing sulfur and organic acids from various plant-based foods also improve zinc absorption.
As a precaution, some guidelines recommend a zinc intake that is 50% higher for “veggies” compared to omnivores, whose average intake is 10 mg/day.
The calcium intake of lacto-ovo-vegetarians is comparable or higher than that of non-vegetarians. However, the calcium intake of vegans is generally lower than that of lacto-ovo-vegetarians and non-vegetarians10.
The recommendations from leading experts in vegetarian nutrition are that vegans should strive to achieve a daily intake of 850 mg of calcium from food or supplements. Foods that can meet this need include nuts, figs, almonds, leafy greens such as kale, red beans, sesame seeds, tempeh, and tofu fortified with calcium.
The main sources of iodine for vegans are salt and seaweed. It has been found that the iodine levels in vegans are below the limits set by the World Health Organization, so strict recommendations for oral dietary supplements are given to vegans instead of fortified foods such as salt, potatoes, carrots, etc.
The recommended daily intake of iodine is 150 micrograms in adults.
The main sources of vitamin D come from animals such as fish, beef, eggs, among others; likewise, vitamin D is produced in the human skin upon exposure to ultraviolet rays. The only non-animal foods that contain significant amounts of vitamin D are mushrooms exposed to sunlight or ultraviolet rays, however, storage or cooking of mushrooms considerably reduces the content of this vitamin. If consumed immediately after harvest, the level of vitamin D remains above 10 mg/100 g on a dry weight basis.
Different studies have shown that the average blood vitamin D levels in vegans are lower than those in omnivorous or vegetarian diets. Although vegans have several sources of calcium, their absorption is limited due to low serum levels of vitamin D, which impairs the intestinal absorption of calcium. Therefore, in the presence of inadequate serum levels of vitamin D and calcium, vegans should consume foods fortified with vitamin D, such as soy milk, rice milk, and juices. The recommended daily intake of vitamin D is 15 micrograms in adults.
Special Population Groups in Veganism
“Veggie” Children. Vegetarian diets, including vegan diets, that are nutritionally adequate, are appropriate for use in infancy, childhood, and adolescence and support normal growth. In a recent study published in the Pediatric journal, 9,000 children (6 months-8 years old) who followed a “veggie” or omnivorous diet for 11 years were evaluated, and it demonstrated that growth and nutrition were similar to those of children who consume meat.
There are three fundamental recommendations for children following a “veggie” diet3: a) exclusive breastfeeding for babies during the first 6 months after birth, and continue breastfeeding for at least 12 months, and if breastfeeding is not possible, commercial plant-based preparations such as soy should be used as the main drink during the first year; b) when introducing complementary foods, plant proteins such as bean purees or tofu should be used instead of meat purees, and after the first year, if young children grow normally and eat a variety of foods, they can start consuming milk fortified with soy or pea protein, or cow’s milk; and c) several nutrients require special attention in the planning of nutritionally adequate diets for young vegetarians, such as proteins, whose requirements may be slightly higher, iron, zinc, iodine, vitamin B12, calcium, and vitamin D.
Pregnancy and lactation3,7. Vegetarian diets can effectively meet the energy and nutrient needs during pregnancy and lactation, which has been demonstrated in several scientific reviews. When food access is satisfactory, birth weight and gestational duration are similar in vegetarian and non-vegetarian pregnancies. Well-nourished vegetarians produce nutritionally adequate breast milk that supports the growth and development of the baby.
The nutrient needs in vegetarian pregnancy and lactation usually do not differ from those of non-vegetarians. Vegan pregnancies can benefit especially from obtaining adequate levels of iron, zinc, vitamin B12, iodine, and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) from plant sources, fortified foods, and dietary supplements, always under the guidance of a healthcare professional.
Athletes. It is well-known that high-performance athletes such as Novak Djokovic, Venus Williams, and Eneko Llanos have been following a “veggie” diet for many years, proving that this lifestyle is efficient in achieving their goals in sports. In a recent 2017 review on vegan diets and sports, the following conclusions were made: vegan diets tend to be lower in calories, protein, fats, vitamin B12, Omega-3 fats, calcium, and iodine compared to omnivorous diets, while at the same time they are richer in carbohydrates, fiber, micronutrients, phytochemicals, and antioxidants. In some cases, it is challenging to achieve high energy intake, as plant-based foods promote satiety. Digestibility and absorption problems of nutrients such as protein, calcium, iron, and zinc can also be a challenge, which means that athletes may need to consume larger amounts of these foods compared to omnivores and other vegetarians. However, by strategically selecting and managing foods, and paying special attention to meeting energy, macro and micronutrient recommendations, along with adequate supplementation, a vegan diet can meet the needs of most athletes satisfactorily. Supplementation with creatine and β-alanine could enhance performance-enhancing effects in vegans, who have low levels of these substances.
How to know if a product is vegan?
The identification of whether a product is vegan or vegetarian is provided by its labeling, where you should find the following information:
- If it is a food product, it should provide a list of ingredients and additives to verify that they do not come from animal sources. It should also include a logo that is harmonized within the European Union that identifies and certifies its vegan character; it is generally a green V with a leaf symbol.
- If it is a cosmetic product, it should also identify the ingredients on the label, and it should state that there has been no animal testing, labeled as “cruelty-free.”
- Andreu Ivorra, M. J. Nutrición y salud en la dieta vegana. Máster universitario de Nutrición y Salud, Trabajo Final de Grado. Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, 2016.
- Burns-Whitmore, B. et al. Alpha-Linolenic and Linoleic Fatty Acids in the Vegan Diet: Do They Require Dietary Reference Intake/Adequate Intake Special Consideration? Nutrients. 2019 Oct; 11(10): 2365.
- Craig, W. J. et al. The Safe and Effective Use of Plant-Based Diets with Guidelines for Health Professionals. Nutrients 2021, 13, 4144.
- Green, R. et al. Vitamin B12 deficiency. Nat Rev Dis Primers. 2017 Jun 29;3:17040.
- Marrone, G. et al. Vegan Diet Health Benefits in Metabolic Syndrome. Nutrients 2021, 13, 817.
- Rogerson, D. Vegan diets: practical advice for athletes and exercisers. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017 Sep 13;14:36.
- Sebastiani, G. et al. The Effects of Vegetarian and Vegan Diet during Pregnancy on the Health of Mothers and Offspring. Nutrients. 2019 Mar; 11(3): 557.
- The Vegetarian Society-UK
- The British Dietetic Association (BDA)
- Unión Vegetariana-Española