Since 2014 Britons have taken part in Veganuary (Vegan January) promoting a plant-based diet with the aim of improving health, driving corporate change and championing compassionate food choices.

Programme Lead for Nutrition and Health and registered Nutritionist in Nutrition & Health Hazel Flight from Edge Hill University discusses the benefits and newly discovered risks of going vegetarian with some essential advice for anyone taking part in Veganuary.

Taking part in Veganuary is seen as a great way to kick start a new year’s resolution to get healthy and improve diets in line with the generally accepted view that giving up meat is always good for you.

A meatless diet certainly can be healthy if done correctly. Research has shown how plant-based diets have some amazing benefits in lowering rates of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers.

However, a new study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) raises the possibility that despite some recognised health benefits – plant-based diets also can cause previously unrecognised health risks.

In their study, the BMJ found that although the risk of heart disease was lower, those who followed a vegetarian diet had up to a 20% increased risk of stroke – linked to a deficiency of vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 is a key nutrient which maintains the health of the body’s nervous system and red blood cells. It also provides the body with energy and most synthesises a person’s DNA. 

This important vitamin is only found within animal products. The risk of developing a Vitamin-B12 deficiency, if left untreated, can potentially cause irreversible neurological effects. For vegans and vegetarians, the only way to get the recommended daily amount is from fortified foods or supplements. 

Vegans and vegetarians also commonly have lower levels or a deficiency of Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and Heme Iron. Both are commonly found in animal products meaning a vegan diet can lack these much-needed nutrients.

DHA is an essential omega-3 fatty acid that is important for brain development and function. A deficiency can affect mental health and brain function, especially within children. DHA is most easily found within fish but luckily vegans can get DHA from the omega-3 fatty acid ALA which is found in high amounts in flax seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds and walnuts.

Heme iron is a form of iron only found in meat, especially red meat. It is more readily absorbed than the non-heme iron commonly found in plant foods. Non-heme iron can be found in leafy green vegetables, whole grains, lentils, peas and dried fruits but to make sure it gets absorbed into the body is also important to include foods rich in Vitamin C.

On top of the vitamins and nutrients already discussed all vegans also need healthy amounts of zinc and calcium which can be found in whole grains, tofu, tempeh, legumes, nuts, seeds, dried fruit, red kidney beans, tahini, tofu, leafy green vegetables and plant-based milk alternatives. These days vegans can maintain healthy iron levels and get almost all vitamins and nutrients from eating a healthy, varied diet.

For some it will be unsustainable to follow a vegan diet and so it should be noted it is not for everyone. On the other hand, it is always good to encourage the eating of more fruits and vegetables and reducing intakes of red meat in particular.

The overall message should be that people eat a well-balanced diet to include a wide variety of fresh foods. But, if you are still tempted to go vegan this January please make sure that you take vitamin B12 supplements, drink plant milks fortified with calcium and iodine, include sources of iron (beans, pulses, nuts) daily, and include omega -3 (rapeseed oil, walnuts) daily.

With this advice, a few dietary additions and a bit of forethought Veganuary can easily go beyond just one month and become a lasting, healthy lifestyle change.

Edge Hill offers a wide variety of applied health and social care courses which look at aspects of nutrition, psychology, public health, and wellbeing. to find out more visit the course page – www.edgehill.ac.uk/health/ahsc/.