Nutrition basics | Viva!

Nutrition basics

Myth Busters R Us

Every vegan has heard them – cautions about your health when you go vegan, usually delivered with great concern and a sad shake of the head. Well, here are your answers to the most common


Where do you get your protein?

From the same place as cows, elephants and gorillas get theirs – plant foods. Of course we need protein - for normal tissue growth and repair and protection against infection - and a well-balanced vegan diet provides plenty.

Good sources include soya foods, either as whole beans or tofu, tempeh, soya milk and veggie mince. A comparatively new kid on the block is quinoa. Pulses are packed with protein – good old peas, beans and lentils but also nuts and seeds and even wholegrain foods such as wholemeal pasta, bread and brown rice.

There are no known health risks from veg protein while meat and dairy protein has been linked to some cancers, heart and other diseases. And there’s very little carbohydrate and no fibre or calcium in meat.


Won’t you miss out on iron?

One of the largest studies of vegetarians ever undertaken (EPIC Oxford study) found that vegans had a higher intake of iron than either vegetarians or meat-eaters. But make no mistake, iron deficiency anaemia is a big problem but it is no more common amongst vegetarians and vegans than it is meat-eaters. But the myth prevails...

Pulses, soya milk, tofu, green leafy vegetables such as broccoli and watercress, fortified breakfast cereals, wholemeal bread and pasta, dried fruits, molasses and dark chocolate are all good sources. This iron from plant sources is called non-haem iron and is safe as your body absorbs as little or as much as it needs. The iron in meat is called haem iron and it can build up in your body and cause constipation, nausea, vomiting and stomach pain. Very high levels can lead to liver damage, heart failure and diabetes.


But you need cow’s milk for calcium!

This is the most successful myth in the universe and it is wrong, despite all the hype from the dairy industry. You do not need dairy for strong bones - exercise and a healthy vegan diet are much more effective.

Good sources include dark green leafy vegetables (but not spinach), dried fruits, nuts, seeds and pulses. Calcium-set tofu and calcium-fortified plant milks are also great. Vitamin D helps you to absorb calcium and it comes mostly from sunlight.

Over 70 per cent of the world’s population get their calcium from plant foods because they are lactose intolerant and can’t digest the sugar in cow’s milk. Just think about it, evolution created milk as a baby food!

Despite the hype, dairy products can increase the risk osteoporosis and other illnesses. Yes they contain calcium but the damaging effects of animal (but not vegetable) protein which they also contain may cancel out any of its positive effects. You’re better off going dairy-free. 


What about vitamin B12?

It’s a myth that B12 comes only from animal foods - we can’t make it and neither can they. They get it from bacteria on the plants they eat. Commercially produced B12 is used to fortify vegan foods such as veggie burger mix, yeast extract, margarine, breakfast cereals and plant milks. It is also used to make supplements – and this form of B12 is the most easily absorbed.

As B12 deficiency increases with age, the US Institute of Medicine recommends that all adults over 50 should take supplements or fortified foods.