Vegan diets, once considered extreme, are becoming more mainstream, but the jury is out on health benefits, says Sharon Ní Chonchuir.
BILL Clinton claimed a vegan diet helped him treat his heart disease.
Beyoncé and Jay-Z were so taken with their vegan diet that they set up a vegan meal delivery service.
Natalie Portman and Woody Harrelson have also committed to a diet free from animal products as have model Rosanna Davison and former actress Áine Carlin here in Ireland.
With so many celebrities turning vegan, what was once seen as an extreme diet now appears to be becoming mainstream.
But is a vegan diet actually good for you? Can you get all the nutrition you need if you cut out meat, fish, eggs and dairy?
Virginia Messina, a dietician and spokesperson for the Vegan Society of Ireland, says it’s possible for vegans to be very healthy, provided they take a sensible approach to what they eat.
“Vegan diets can meet the needs of people at all stages of life, from infancy to old age,” she says.
“The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which is the national association of American dieticians, has noted that these diets are safe.”
Sarah Keogh, a dietician and spokesperson for the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute, is not convinced.
“A lot of people have the idea that a vegan diet is a healthy diet but it isn’t,” she says.
“There are huge benefits in terms of increasing intake of fruit, vegetables and fibre, which is great in any diet.
"But because it completely cuts out animal proteins, it’s easy to become deficient in omega 3, vitamins D and B12, calcium and iron.”
It requires effort to get these nutrients from a vegan diet.
“The idea that you can get all of your nutrients from green vegetables is possible but very hard to do,” says Keogh.
“You’d need to eat 16 servings of broccoli a day to get enough calcium and most people would agree that’s unrealistic.
“And B12 is only available from animal sources.”
Messina acknowledges that it’s not easy to get these nutrients from a vegan diet but maintains it is possible, especially with the aid of supplements and fortified foods.
“When it comes to B12, vegans must take supplements or eat foods that have been fortified with the vitamin,” she says.
She recommends eating lots of leafy greens to keep calcium levels healthy.
“Calcium is abundant in vegetables such as kale and it’s absorbed at very high rates from these foods,” she says.
“Many vegans also consume tofu and fortified plant milks which are high in calcium as are almond butter and tahini.”
Omega3 deficiency can also be easily addressed.
“Omega3 is present in a number of plant foods such as walnuts and flaxseeds,” she says.
“Vegans can also take algae-derived supplements if they wish. There are options available.”
Former film and TV actress and now food vlogger, Áine Carlin knows all about these options.
The 34-year-old published Keep It Vegan, a recipe book based on her vegan diet, last year and now has a YouTube channel (called Áine Carlin) where she demonstrates how to cook those recipes.
She and her husband embraced veganism while living in Chicago. After a year of eating lots of meat and dairy products, they both started to feel lethargic and had gained weight.
They modified their diets, giving up processed foods at first and gradually becoming entirely vegan.
“Veganism has gained popularity in the States because it’s the antithesis of the standard American diet, which has been directly linked to things like heart disease and diabetes,” explains Carlin.
“Now more than ever, people are taking their health into their own hands by making better lifestyle choices to improve their wellbeing. A vegan diet is part of that.”
She also believes that eating a plant-based diet helps in maintaining a healthy weight. “Really it’s a win-win situation,” she says.
“The typical Irish diet is high in fat and sugar and can be carb heavy so switching over to a more plant-based way of eating will undoubtedly have a positive impact on health.”
She knows she needs to pay attention to the nutritional value of what she eats. “For protein, I eat everything from beans and nuts to quinoa and peas,” she says.
“I try to get my calcium from sesame seeds, broccoli and my all-time favourite wonder-grain amaranth, which has a whopping 276mg per cup.”
(The Food Safety Authority of Ireland recommends a daily calcium intake of between 800mg and 1300mg per day depending on your age.) She also takes a B12 supplement regularly.
“I don’t take it daily as I also eat fortified foods such as marmite, nutritional yeast and soya milk,” says Carlin.
She finds that vegans tend to be interested in the nutritional properties of what they eat.
“This means the likelihood of becoming deficient in something is pretty rare,” she says.
“The only way to be sure you’re lacking in anything is to get your bloods taken and I’m pleased to say my bloods show I have no deficiencies.”
Sarah Keogh remains unconvinced.
“The idea that you can get everything you need from a vegan diet may be possible but it’s hard to do,” she says.
“I specialise in fertility and I see a lot of women who follow vegan diets struggling to get pregnant because they have low levels of protein or are suffering from anaemia.
"You really have to focus on what you’re eating and think about nutrition a lot if you’re following a restrictive diet.”
She is also worried by recent results of studies into the health effects of such diets.
“Repeated studies have shown markers for high levels of homocysteine (an amino acid caused by low levels of vitamin B12 in the diet) in the blood of vegans, putting them at risk of stroke,” she says.
“And the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition study of 63,550 men and women in Britain found that the incidence of colorectal cancer was higher in non-meat eaters.
"While it’s certain that the low levels of saturated fat in a vegan diet are good for heart disease and other conditions, this restrictive diet may have a negative impact on health in other ways. Vegans are such a small population. We haven’t got enough research on their diets.”
Virginia Messina and Áine Carlin believe such risks can be minimised if vegans make sure they get the nutrients they need.
“A vegan diet is a safe diet and it’s known that people who eat more plant foods and fewer animal products have less chronic disease in general,” says Messina.
“Vegans have lower cholesterol levels and lower rates of obesity and diabetes too.”
Carlin can only testify to the improvements she has seen in her own health since she became vegan.
“I’ve noticed everything from my sleep patterns to my hair, skin and nails improve,” she says.
“I’ve noticed an increase in energy levels too. I have fewer slumps during the day and that was something I was plagued with when I ate meat and dairy.”
While Keogh doesn’t recommend a vegan diet, she does recognise the value of cutting back on meat consumption.
“Veganism is not a diet I’d ever recommend,” she says.
“My professional opinion is that it’s a good idea to include some animal products but not to have them as the be-all-and-end-all of your diet.
"A vegetarian diet that includes fish could just be the healthiest option of all. Or a Mediterranean diet that includes some lean red meat but focuses on vegetables, beans and lentils is extremely healthy too.”
More than anything, she would like everyone to stop being influenced by what celebrities eat.
“I don’t understand it,” she says.
“They may be extremely good at acting or singing but they’re not an expert on nutrition. You wouldn’t call Beyoncé in to fix a leaky tap in your house because she’s not a plumber. Why are you letting her tell you what to do with your body?”
Healthy food for vegans
Celebrities have been quick to follow vegan diets, free from all animal products and high in fruit and vegetables.
For your next meat-free meal you could try Paul McCartney loves vegan enchiladas, made with a hot and herby tomato sauce, corn tortillas and a filling of spinach, tofu, onions and spices.
Alicia Silverstone sticks with the Mexican theme with her recipe for tostadas. These include brown rice, cooked beans and lots of vegetables, alfalfa sprouts, cucumber and avocado.
Ellen DeGeneres goes mad for a quinoa salad with ginger, coriander, spring onions, mint and roast squash served with a sweet chilli and lime sauce.
Derry-born food vlogger Áine Carlin shares her recipe for a super green smoothie:
100g kale, stalks removed and chopped
1 celery stick, chopped
7.5cm piece of cucumber, peeled and deseeded
2 apples, peeled, cored and chopped
3 medjool dates, stoned
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Juice of one lime
Juice of half a lemon
3-4 ice cubes, plus extra to serve.
Place all the ingredients in a blender. Add 180ml cold water and blend until completely smooth. You may need to add more water.
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