Changing to a vegan diet is possible with planning

Getting enough nutrients is a concern for many

  • Ingid Beardsley
Ingid Beardsley (Courtesy of MedStar Good…)
January 23, 2013|By Andrea K. Walker, The Baltimore Sun

As people look to live more healthful lifestyles, many are contemplating meat-free diets. But becoming vegan or vegetarian can seem daunting as people try to figure out what to eat to get all the proper nutrients. Ingrid Beardsley, registered dietitian at MedStar Good Samaritan Hospital, said the transition can be done with proper planning.

What is vegan and how is it different from being a vegetarian?

Vegans exclude all meat, fish, dairy, and eggs, meaning no animal products at all. Some vegans choose to avoid consuming animal products, while others avoid using animal products completely. For example, they may also avoid the use of fur, leather, wool, down, and cosmetics or chemical products tested on animals.

Does age matter when considering the transition to vegan? For instance, is it safe for children to become vegans?

Age should be considered, to ensure that specific nutrients are increased in the diet at specific stages of the life cycle. Protein and essential amino acids should be increased sufficiently in the infant or child's diet. Proteins are built from "building blocks" called amino acids. Essential amino acids must be consumed, because the body can't produce them on their own, like other amino acids. Research indicates that a variety of plant foods can provide all of the essential amino acids required for healthy adults. The major plant food sources of protein are legumes (beans and lentils), cereals, nuts and seeds, and their butters. A combination of these promotes good nutrition at any age.

Studies show that vegetarian and vegan diets can be nutritionally adequate in pregnancy and can lead to positive birth outcome. Strictly vegan pregnant women should ensure adequate intake and supplementation of vitamin B12, D, iron, folic acid, linolenic acid, and calcium. Lactating mothers planning to breast-feed also need adequate calcium, zinc, and DHA, which can be supplemented or received through fortified foods. Infants transitioning to solid foods can meet their needs by replacing strained meat with things like mashed tofu and legumes. At 7 to 10 months, they can try foods such as cubed tofu, soy cheese and pieces of veggie burgers. There is little information about the growth of vegan children, but some studies suggest that vegan children tend to be slightly smaller, but still within the normal ranges of size for age. Frequent meals and snacks, fortified foods (cereals, bread, pasta), and foods higher in unsaturated fats can help vegan children meet their energy and nutrient needs.

Vegan children may have slightly higher protein needs because of differences in protein digestibility (absorption of nutrients into the body), but these protein needs are generally met when diets contain adequate energy and a variety of plant foods. A vegan diet may require intake of calorie-dense foods to provide for adequate growth, and growth should be monitored closely. Calorie-dense foods are foods with more calories in a smaller amount. Including soy products, nuts and nut butters could help to support appropriate growth.

Key nutrients of concern for adolescents include calcium, vitamin D, iron, zinc, and vitamin B12.

Are there health conditions people should be extra careful about when switching to become a vegan, such as protein deficiencies?

Most health conditions are preventable, with proper planning and monitoring of specific nutrients. Plant protein can meet protein requirements when a variety of plant foods are consumed and energy needs are met. Research indicates that an assortment of plant foods eaten over the course of a day can provide all essential amino acids. Typical protein intake of vegans appears to meet and exceed requirements.

Vitamin B12 deficiency is a potential problem for vegans, so that the use of vitamin B12-fortified foods or supplements are essential. Their diet does not regularly consume reliable sources of vitamin B12, like lacto-ovo-vegetarians who get it from dairy and eggs. Vitamin B12 deficiencies can cause neurological problems. Vitamin B12 deficiencies are stated to be more linked to improper absorption rather than low consumption of vitamin B12.

Vegans tend to have lower blood levels of EPA and DHA (omega 3 fatty acids), which are important for heart, brain and eye health. These can be supplemented or fortified in foods and should be regularly consumed.

Vegans generally have an adequate iron intake and do not experience anemia more frequently than others. However, vegetarians and vegans are recommended to intake 1.8 times more iron daily. This has to do with the "bioavailability" of the iron in meats being a more absorbable form in our bodies.

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