As an effective part of guilt-tripping ourselves after all the festive enjoyments such as indulging in overeating, binge drinking and lack of movement, someone came up with this great promise of New Year's resolutions. Resolutions such as "lose weight", "eat healthy" and "actually start using my gym membership" are shining in the distance throughout the end of December as a light at the tunnel. And even if you managed to cut down on the amounts of chocolate and fizz, what could be the better occasion to improve yourself than the new decade? That's right, we all do it.
I personally find this particular goal setting slightly pressurised, which is something that doesn’t necessarily work for everyone, including myself. That is a reason why I find it more effective to set myself smaller goals, which are easier to achieve yet still related to my main goal. But for some of us, the easiest way how to kick off the beginning of the year is joining challenges such as Dry January or Veganuary.
I first heard about Veganuary a few years ago, when people who were already keen to become vegans used it as a trial, finding out if Veganism is the right choice for them. They were able to identify what was the most challenging part, which foods were easy to avoid or include in their lifestyle and the end, deciding if becoming Vegan is the right way for them. However, the popularity of Veganuary started rising with every year, so if you haven't heard about it before, you definitely did now.
There has been a great boom in introducing vegan labelled products on the UK market this January in most supermarkets and restaurants, even the fast-food ones, which makes it hard to miss. Why did I use the vegan labelled term rather than just vegan products? The reason is, that a very large proportion of food products are naturally plant-based, as many of them are actually plants hence, no need to put a vegan sticker on a banana. With fish fingers or chicken nuggets, on the other hand, the labelling makes sure that you won't confuse such products with the ones containing ingredients of animal origin.
A recent study review states that vegetarian and vegan diets significantly lowered the risk factors of chronic diseases, such as lower BMI and lipid and glucose metabolism. But this review also stated that vegetarians, which were also the majority of the population of those studies reviewed, were less likely to suffer from cardiovascular disease and cancer in general (Abbate et al., 2017). This suggests that even switching to a vegetarian diet, therefore still including animal products such as eggs and dairy, can be beneficial.
What is so good about it? Switching to a plant-based diet for the month (or in general) can bring you the benefit of including lot more plants into your menu.
Easy as it sounds, this is one of the major benefits of this lifestyle intervention. More plants consumed meaning more fibre, which improves satiety through the process of chewing, calorie displacement and slowing down the absorption of macronutrients (Slavin, 2005), which lowers the overall calorie intake and therefore lowers the overall BMI. Fibre consumption is also related to type II Diabetes prevention, as it modulates your blood glucose and lipid metabolism via enzymatic action, which is further related to cardiovascular disease prevention. And last but not least, fibre plays a role in intestinal cancer prevention through lowering the contact time of carcinogens in the intestines (Freund et al., 2012).
Even if you’re not convinced to join the plant-based hype even during January, with the expanding range of plant-based meals, Veganuary brings an opportunity to expand your options and have a go increase your vegetable intake and reducing meat consumption through introducing new meals, ingredients, and flavours or different alternatives to your regular food routine, improving your overall nutrient profile.
Whether you want to change your diet to plant-based only for January or if you’re in it for the long haul, the major health benefit is that your diet is more likely to involve foods richer in fibre and other nutrients contributing to good health.
Downfalls of going Plant-based
There are always two sides to the story. With the expansion of plant-based food products on the market, many perceive that the vegan option instantly presents a healthier option, which isn’t always true. This mainly concerns highly processed and refined foods, which are typical to the Westernized-type diets. Regardless of the fact that they're vegan, if consumed in large proportions and lacking whole foods in the diet, they still increase the risk of previously mentioned chronic diseases including obesity linked with diabetes (Aguilera et al., 2017).
*the supplements pictured are not related to this website or the article
There are two major nutrient concerns when switching to a plant-based diet, which can negatively affect your health if you switch to a plant-based diet without much information. As often discussed, the first one is protein intake. Protein as a macronutrient consists of amino acids, necessary to sustain and build muscle mass often gets into our diet via animal products, which tend to be protein-rich. When on a plant-based diet, it is important to involve foods such as nuts and seeds, legumes and grains as a source of protein that can reach a sufficient amount.
However, animal and plant-based foods contain different ratios of essential and non-essential amino acids. When those ratios were compared from the mentioned sources and a hen egg, plant-based sources tend to consist of non-essential amino acids rather than the essential ones (Babinska et al., 2005). With the current easy access to protein supplements such as protein powders and fortified foods, especially in products tailored for those on a strictly plant-based diet, it is not overly difficult to obtain sufficient protein amount to maintain good health.
Nonetheless, to obtain a sufficient amount of essential amino acids (essential meaning we are not able to synthesize those within our bodies hence must be consumed within our diet) can become difficult on a strict Vegan diet. To prevent essential amino acids deficiencies, which can further disturb other nutrient metabolism, lower overall appetite, cause vomiting, anaemia, insomnia, irritability and impair growth and development and other disturbances to good health (Hou and Wu, 2018), it is beneficial to research relevant information before you switch to plant-based diet from a reliable source, such as your GP or a Nutritionist accredited by the AfN.
Another well-known topic important when switching to a Vegan diet is vitamin B12. As you may know, the amount of B12 consumed on a Vegan diet is less likely to be sufficient due to its abundance outside foods of animal origin. Vitamin B12 is essential for many metabolic pathways affecting the blood and nervous system, including fatty acid metabolism and cell reproduction and it is often abundant in vegetarian and vegan diets (Buscema et al., 2016). Due to the storage of B12 in the liver, you are less likely to suffer from serious harm when joining Veganuary however, it is the long-term plant-based diet that can eventually result in the B12 deficiency.
The early B12 deficiency from a blood sample is not easy to determine due to other serum markers (Buscema et al., 2016). The amount of B12 stored depends on the individual, their metabolism and previous diet, however, the exhaustion of the stored vitamin may even take years (Institute of Medicine (US), 1998), therefore it is important to pay attention to other ways how to include this nutrition in your diet, especially in the long-term to prevent its deficiency.
Take home message
Whether your reason to join Veganuary is ethical or Netflix documentary, health or intolerance* related, or whether you just wanted to give it a go, learn new recipes and try new foods which will increase your vegetable consumption, make sure you will do your research first and in case of considering to completely switch to plant-based diet, talk to credible healthcare professional.
Including more variety of whole foods in your diet will only bring you benefit and if you decide not to continue in strictly plant-based, make the most out of it and expand your view on different options for your diet to support good health and vitality.
*If you have a suspicion that you suffer from a food allergy, talk to your GP first as you may cause yourself more harm than benefit when excluding certain foods from your diet due to lowering nutrient variety.
Abbate, R., Casini, A., Dinu, M., Gensini, G. and Sofi, F. (2017). Vegetarian, vegan diets and multiple health outcomes: A systematic review with meta-analysis of observational studies. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 57(17), pp.3640-3649.
Aguilera, M., MacSharry, J., Melgar, S. and Statovci, D. (2017). The Impact of Western Diet and Nutrients on the Microbiota and Immune Response at Mucosal Interfaces. Frontiers in Immunology, 8(838), pp.1-21.
Babinska, K., Krajcovicova-Kudlackova, M. and Valachovicova, M. (2005). Health benefits and risks of plant proteins. Bratislavske Lekarske Listy, 106(6-7), pp.231-4.
Buscema, M., La Ferrera, G., Laganà, A., Muscia, V., Nigro, A., Rapisarda, A., Rizzo, G., Rossetti, P., Sapia, F., Sarpietro, G., Valenti, G., Vitale, S. and Zigarelli, M. (2016). Vitamin B12 among Vegetarians: Status, Assessment and Supplementation. Nutrients, 8(12), p.767.
Freund, G., Kaczmarczyk, M. and Miller, M. (2012). The health benefits of dietary fiber: Beyond the usual suspects of type 2 diabetes mellitus, cardiovascular disease and colon cancer. Metabolism, 61(8), pp.1058-1066.
Hou, Y. and Wu, G. (2018). Nutritionally Essential Amino Acids. Advances in Nutrition, 9(6), pp.849-51.
Institute of Medicine (US) (1998). Standing Committee on the Scientific Evaluation of Dietary Reference Intakes and its Panel on Folate, Other B Vitamins, and Choline. Dietary Reference Intakes for Thiamin, Riboflavin, Niacin, Vitamin B6, Folate, Vitamin B12, Pantothenic Acid, Biotin, and Choline. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US), pp.117-29.
Slavin, J. (2005). Dietary Fiber and Body Weight. Nutrition, 21(3), pp.411-8.