10 Common Mistakes Vegans Make & How To Avoid Them

We all learn from our mistakes, but once you look at them as a step towards success instead of a failure, you'll learn to embrace them. This article uncovers the most common vegan mistakes people make on a plant based diet and how to avoid them.

A wholesome, plant based diet can provide many health benefits which will have you feeling better than ever, inside and out! However it can be challenging for some to maintain a well rounded diet that is sustainable long-term and provides all the essential nutrients we need.

1. "PLANT BASED" DOESN'T ALWAYS MEAN HEALTHIER 

Remember, just because a food product is labelled “vegan” or "plant based", that doesn’t necessarily mean it's healthier than the regular alternative.

You may find products such as processed veggie burgers, meat alternatives or mock meats, are often highly refined with a long list of artificial ingredients. Some plant based milks might have added sugar and unnecessary additives. So these products may not bring as much nutrition as you may have initially thought. Always read the ingredient list and get familiar with what is in your food. 

2. NOT GETTING ENOUGH B12

Vitamin B12 plays several important roles in the body, and this is one of the most mistakes vegans make, and that’s not getting enough of it. Some of it’s key roles include keeping the body’s nerve and blood cells healthy and helping make DNA. (1) 

How is B12 made? It is made by anaerobic microorganisms which are often found in soil and faeces. Animal products contain B12 due to the food they eat being contaminated by bacteria, having supplements added to their feed and in some cases also eating faeces, some animals can absorb B12 made by their gut bacteria. (2)

In the modern world we are careful about hygiene and our fresh produce that have been grown in soil are washed well (thankfully!) however this means the chances of B12 bacteria being present on the produce is practically none.

Sources of B12 from food therefore are meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy products. However there are still ways of meeting your B12 requirements. Fortified foods like nutritional yeast, plant milks or some breakfast cereals contain some vitamin B12. Supplements are also a quick and easy way to meet the recommended amount. (1)

It’s important to be aware of your vitamin B12 intake and consider taking supplements if needs aren’t met through diet alone. Symptoms of deficiency include tiredness, weakness, constipation, loss of appetite, megaloblastic anaemia, poor memory, nerve problems and more. (1)

If you are concerned that you may not be getting enough B12, haven’t supplemented whilst being on a plant based diet for a prolonged time or are presenting with any of these symptoms, please visit your GP and discuss with them about getting your levels checked via a blood test.

3. EATING TOO FEW CALORIES

As you know, there are some foods that are not on the cards for plant eaters, like meat, eggs and dairy, these foods are more calorically dense in comparison to plant based foods. This can mean when switching from consuming animal products to a plant based diet, some may accidentally eat too few calories as they are still eating the same volume of food as before without realising these plant based options are lower in calories.

Calories are the main source of energy for the body and our body needs a certain amount of them to function. Restricting calories too much can lead to several negative side effects, such as nutrient deficiencies, fatigue and a slower metabolism. So make sure you are meeting you calorie needs sufficiently through plant based foods. 

4. FORGETTING ABOUT IRON

Iron can be found in every cell of the body, it is a component of haemoglobin in red blood cells and myoglobin, which distribute oxygen throughout the body. It also is used in aid of the electron transport, energy metabolism and DNA replication and repair. (4,5) Iron exists in the body as ferrous and ferris forms of iron.

The two dietary forms of iron are heme (animal origin) and non-heme (majority plant origin). Heme iron is better absorbed than non-heme iron. (6,7) Due to the fact that heme iron is better easily absorbed by the body, some may worry transitioning onto a plant based diet that they may become deficient, it has been shown that vegans generally have adequate iron intake and actually do not experience anaemia more frequently than others. (8)

Although it is still important to remember that anyone can develop a nutrient deficiency if they are not getting adequate nutrition.

A healthy plant based diet that includes adequate iron rich foods can meet your daily needs without a worry. So make sure you consume plenty of good sources of iron, including lentils, beans, nuts, seeds, oats and leafy greens.

Additionally, consuming iron rich foods with foods high in vitamin C strongly enhances the absorption of non-heme iron. Vitamin C is found in many fruits and vegetables. So including a vegetable side dish, salad with a squeeze of lemon or a piece of fruit with your meals can help increase iron absorption. (9) 

vegan iron sources

5. SKIPPING OUT ON WHOLE FOODS

Instead of relying on processed foods, use your plant based diet as an opportunity to reduce your consumption of processed foods and increase your intake of nutrient dense whole foods such as fruits, veggies and whole grains. Increasing your intake of these foods will help you get the valuable vitamins and minerals you need.

To start including more whole foods in your diet, simply swap out refined grains for whole grains, for example white bread for wholegrain brown bread, and limit the amount of process and convenience foods you consume. Additionally, try adding more natural vegetables and fruits to your meals and snacks throughout the day.

6. CONSUMING A DIET LOW IN CALCIUM

Calcium is a crucial mineral that our bodies need to keep bones and teeth strong, help muscles work efficiently and support the function of the nervous system. This is a common mistake amongst vegans.

A calcium deficiency can lead to osteoporosis, a common condition that causes weak, porous bones and increases the risk of bone fractures. Though calcium is found in a variety of foods, the most well known source of calcium to the average person is automatically dairy.

Though there are many calcium rich plant foods that not only provide you with a sufficient amount of calcium, but a bunch of other goodness too which dairy could never offer.

Such foods include kale, collard greens, broccoli, bok choy, almonds, figs, etc. Fortified foods can also be a good source of calcium. You can easily get all the calcium you need by incorporating a few servings of these foods into your meals and snacks.

vegan calcium sources

7. UNDERSTANDING THE IMPORTANCE OF MEAL PLANNING

Whether you are cooking at home or dining out, eating a wholesome and plant based diet usually requires some extra planning at the start. 

Meal plans are especially useful if you’re currently changing your diet to consume more plant based foods, as they can help ease your transition and make it easier to maintain a balanced and nutritious diet.

Also, when you’re eating out or travelling, advance meal planning can become especially important. Some restaurant's offer limited choices for plant eaters, so looking at the menu in advance can help you make informed decisions and select the most nutritious choices available.

Additionally, make it a habit to find new healthy plant based recipes each week and cook them on your own to develop your tool box.

8. NOT MEETING PROTEIN REQUIREMENTS

Protein is an essential part of the diet, and along with carbs and fats, we cannot live without it. Our bodies use it help build body tissue, create enzymes and produce hormones. Eating protein can also promote feelings of fullness, increase muscle mass, reduce cravings and more! 

When consuming plant based foods, you may need to make more of a conscious effort to eat high protein foods that will help you meet your protein requirements.

There are plenty of plant foods that contain an amount of protein comparable to the amount you would find in meat. For example, 1 cup of cooked lentils contains around 18 grams of protein. Other foods like beans, peas, nuts, seeds, tofu and tempeh can all easily up your daily protein intake.

vegan protein sources  

9. GETTING ENOUGH OMEGA 3

If not mindful about O3 consumption, its easy to not get enough omega 3 in a plant based diet.Omega 3 is an essential fatty acid that supports the health of the brain, heart, joints and skin. It is considered an ‘essential’ fatty acid as it cannot be produced by our bodies, so must therefore be consumed through our diet.

If you are eating a varied and balanced plant based diet, it is likely that you are consuming good sources of LA (Linoleic Acid) on a regular basis. These include hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds.

However, eating enough ALA (Alpha Linoleic Acid) may require more planning, these are found in flaxseeds and chia seeds in particular, along with walnuts and hemp seeds too, so make sure you are loading up on those.

However, in order for it to be used by our bodies ALA must first be converted into longer chain omega 3 fatty acids known as EPA and DHA.

Unfortunately the conversion rates of ALA to EPA and DHA are not good. Due to this, you should still eat all different kinds of nuts and seeds for the other health benefits, but they should not be relied on as a good source of omega 3.

So consider supplementing with a good plant based omega 3 supplement. 

10. RELYING ON REFINED CARBS

Many people who make the switch to a plant based diet fall into the trap of replacing meat with refined carbs. Unfortunately, pasta, bread, bagels, crackers and cakes often end up as the main ingredients in a plant based diet.

During such a process, refined grains are stripped of the beneficial fibre that is found in whole grains, and fibre helps ward of many chronic disease, keeps you full and slows the absorption of sugar to maintain steady blood sugar levels.

A high intake of refined carbs has been linked to a greater risk of diabetes, as well as an increase in unwanted weight gain.

So to maximise the nutrients your diet, switch out refined grains like white bread, pasta and white rice for whole grains such a quinoa, oats, brown rice and buckwheat. In turn, make sure you’re pairing those whole grains with plenty of whole fruits, veggies and legumes to keep your diet balanced and nutritious.

IN CONCLUSION

The overarching theme here has been not understanding how to properly go about a healthy plant based lifestyle and these mistakes are common amongst all vegans, not just newbies too.

That said, if you have any set backs or feel like you aren’t doing it “right”, feel free to reach out for more tips, guidance and support! 

SOURCES:

(1) National Institutes of Health. 2020. Vitamin B12. [online] Available at: <https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminB12-Consumer/> [Accessed 14 March 2020].
(2) Thomas Campbell, M., 2020. 12 Questions Answered Regarding Vitamin B12 - Nutrition. [online] Center for Nutrition Studies. Available at: <https://nutritionstudies.org/12-questions-answered-regarding-vitamin-b12/> [Accessed 14 March 2020].
(3) Veronese, N., Solmi, M., Caruso, M., Giannelli, G., Osella, A., Evangelou, E., Maggi, S., Fontana, L., Stubbs, B. and Tzoulaki, I., 2018. Dietary fiber and health outcomes: an umbrella review of systematic reviews and meta-analyses. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 107(3), pp.436-444.
(4) SACN, 2011. SACN Iron and Health Report. [pdf] London: TSO. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/sacn-iron-and-health-report [Accessed 14 March 2020].
(5) Zhang, C, 2014. Essential functions of iron-requiring proteins in DNA replication, repair and cell cycle control. Protein Cell, [online] Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4180463/ [Accessed 14 March 2020].
(6) Gibney, et al. 2009. Introduction to Human Nutrition. 2nd edn. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell. pp.205-209
(7) Linus Pauling Institute (LPI), 2016. Iron [online] (5 Jun 2016) Available at: http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/minerals/iron [Accessed 14 March 2020].
(8) Craig, W., 2009. Health effects of vegan diets. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 89(5), pp.1627S-1633S.
(9) Conrad, M. E.; Schade, S. G. 1968. Ascorbic acid chelates in iron absorption: a role for hydrochloric acid and bile. Gastroenterology Vol.55. [online] Washington, D.C. Available at: https://www.cabdirect.org/cabdirect/abstract/19691404761

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