“But where do you get your protein?”

Thinking of going vegan? Aaron Downey explains the things you need to prepare yourself for before you make your decision.

SCITECHThere is no one reason that a person may move towards a vegan diet. Many factors influence an individual’s decision; be it animal rights issues, environmental concerns or even health benefits. But one thing I’m sure everyone who has taken such a decision in their life has heard is the inevitable “but where do you get your protein?” It’s an understandable question given the prevalence that animal protein has in our nutritional education from food pyramid diagrams in primary school to the masculine gym culture which fetishizes meat. However, this is all based on a fundamental misconception of what constitutes a healthy diet and particularly what constitutes a vegan diet.

What does science know about veganism?

It’s impossible to pin down an average vegan diet given the wide range of people who follow one, however, it will often consist of a mixture of grains, legumes, vegetables, fruits, milk substitutes, and so on. One of the things people tend to find most surprising about the diet when investigating it for the first time is just how much academic research supports the healthiness of such a diet.

The China-Cornell-Oxford Project, which was the largest study of nutrition conducted at the time, as summarised in The China Study by T. Colin Campbell, PhD and his son Thomas M. Campbell II, M.D., in fact explicitly promotes a plant based diet. As an observational study of nutrition in rural China in the 1980s, it examined the correlation between the consumption of animal products and illnesses such as coronary heart disease and various types of cancer. Upon evaluation of the evidence the authors conclude that those areas with a higher consumption of animal products were more likely to suffer from the sort of diseases listed above whereas the opposite was true as the consumption of animal products decreased. The authors recommended a diet that avoids all meat, dairy and eggs as well as processed foods and refined carbohydrates in order to reduce the consumption of cholesterol.

Plant sources of protein

And so in terms of protein there are misconceptions to be corrected here too. For instance, an amount of broccoli as measured in calories has more protein than an equivalent amount of steak, whilst also avoiding the problems of cholesterol mentioned above. Beans and nuts are full of protein as are various meat substitutes like tofu, seitan and tempeh. It is also worth mentioning the soya protein found in tofu can also lower levels of cholesterol and can imitate the action of oestrogen released by the body to potentially reduce the risk of breast cancer. On the whole, most adults in the developed world in fact also obtain too much protein in their diet and so the seemingly innocent inquiry into vegan protein intake betrays more subtle biases about nutrition as a whole.

What is missing in a vegan diet?

Of course that is not to say that switching to a vegan diet in and of itself is some sort of panacea to any and all ills. Rather, that a well-planned vegan diet can make a positive impact on your health. There are a number of vitamins that are harder to obtain on a vegan diet. These include vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium and Omega-3.

Vitamin B12 is found in bacteria in soil which is obtained by animals from ingestion of foods, primarily unwashed vegetables, which have soil containing the bacteria on them. Because of this, ingesting animal products is by far the most likely way humans are going to obtain such a vitamin. Thankfully for vegans a number of alternatives exist. B12 supplements which usually extract the vitamin from seaweed and other sources exist and are relatively inexpensive. Many plant based milks such as soya or almond ones are fortified with the vitamin as well as most breakfast cereals.

A vitamin D deficiency can be a leading contributor to various problems such as rickets and osteoporosis. One of the best sources for vitamin D is sunlight. In response to a growing number of cases of vitamin D deficiencies in recent decades, vitamin D has been voluntarily added to milk by milk producers. So if one is a vegan in sunless, cloudy Ireland it can be hard to obtain your daily dose of vitamin D. Again, plant based alternatives and breakfast cereals often come fortified with it but even here vegans may need to be careful. Vitamin D3, also called cholecalciferol, is derived using materials which come from sheep’s wool, while vitamin D2 is vegan.

Calcium can be found in as varied places as kale, fortified non-dairy milk and broccoli. Omega-3 fatty acids are mostly found in certain fish and thus are a cause for concern for vegans. A number of sources exist such as flax seeds, linseeds, hemp seeds and milk and walnuts.

So there are pitfalls that one can fall into if they plan a vegan diet poorly and are afraid to scurry into the darkest depths of their local health food store but rest assured, non-animal products exist as an alternative for any scenario. Those who menstruate should also pay special attention to iron given that it is required to recuperate blood loss. Vegetarians and vegans do not in fact have a higher rate of iron deficiency than meat eaters. However ,whilst planning a vegan diet care should be taken to obtain the necessary amount of iron from dark green leafy vegetables as well as the vitamin C which can aid iron absorption if taken at the same time. Tea and tannin containing drinks should be avoided as they can hinder absorption if taken concurrently.

Veganism and ethics

Given all that which is said above it is important to realise that for many the vegan diet is an aspect of a decision based on ethical considerations, which shuns animal usage not only for food, but also for entertainment and clothing.

One question that is often asked is if it is ethical to “force” veganism on children of vegan parents. Again this betrays a fundamental assumption that eating meat is the default status in society and ignores that regardless of whether their diet is vegan or not, a child cannot consent to what they are fed in the first few years of their life. One can only be said to be forcing veganism on their children inasmuch as most children have meat eating thrust upon them. That is not to brush over the very real careful planning and consideration that must be taken to raise vegan kids. Those possible pitfalls mentioned above are obviously much more critical to avoid in the formative years of a child’s life. Protein, calcium, and vitamin D are crucial nutrients that are essential to growth. The American Dietetic Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics both state that a well-planned vegan diet can provide adequate nutrition in a growing child.

In summary, it cannot be denied that a vegan diet can be hard to follow for some however, all things considered, if planned properly to account for some key nutrients which it may be more likely to be lacking it can accommodate for most lifestyles for those wishing to follow a diet free from animal products for whatever reason – health, environmental, ethical or otherwise.       

Illustration by Emer O’Cearbhaill