Veganism in mature years

According to Google trend data, the search term Veganuary, has received a 550% increase in searches within the last month alone.  Such an uplift in searches reflects the nations desire to adopt a diet that aligns with their ethos.  Here, Nutritional Practitioner and Technical Supervisor at Viridian Nutrition, Jenny Carson BSc (Hons), reveals what to consider if you are adopting the vegan diet for the 1st time at a mature age, the benefits of veganism, what to consider if you choose to reintroduce meat and who should avoid the vegan diet.

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Prior to a person aged 40+ adopting a vegan diet, there are some factors to consider.

Going plant based at any age is a great opportunity to increase the nutrient density of your diet.  As we age, we require a greater number of nutrients and increasing the intake of plants can be a great benefit.   However, in preparation of adopting a vegan diet it is important to acknowledge that certain nutrients are lower or deficient in a vegan diet as opposed to an omnivorous diet.  Subsequently, embarking on a vegan diet can be highly successful if meals are planned and food supplements are considered to provide the missing or lowered nutrients. 

Often around the age of 40, people notice visual ageing and wish to slow it.  Lines, wrinkles, and patches of hyperpigmentation can be attributed to sun exposure, especially UVA rays and oxidative damage.  Subsequently a plant focused diet can introduce an abundance of plant specific nutrients that quell the oxidative damage associated with sun exposure.

But other health conditions may start to arise, for example in some, the early stages of arthritis, diabetes, cardiovascular outcomes such as blood pressure and cholesterol may rise, besides a gain in body-fat, joint pains, ligament and tendon damage and digestive problems or acid reflux.  A plant-based diet is naturally lower in calories and lower in simple carbohydrates, for example, cakes, biscuits, and chocolate, each of which contain eggs, milk or butter and cannot be consumed.  Therefore, by removing these foods some improvement may be seen in cardiovascular outcomes, weight gain and diabetes.  However, in conditions that involve inflammation, a vegan diet may be too low in omega 3 essential fatty acids that once metabolised to the forms, eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid (EPA and DHA) are known to interrupt the inflammatory cascade.  Subsequently a marine algae-based EPA and DHA food supplement may be necessary.  It is known that gastric secretions decrease at this age and the stomach may start to become less acidic at this time.  This may explain the increase in digestive issues and acid reflux, subsequently the inclusion of betaine hydrochloride, digestive enzymes, alongside digestion-supporting herbs, such as peppermint and ginger may be useful.  Another risk of impaired digestion is the poor absorption of vitamin B12, this is a double whammy as the vegan diet does not provide vitamin B12.  In which case a course of high dose vitamin B12 may be helpful, approximately 1000mcg daily.  Finally, metabolism may slow, this is the rate at which we can convert food into energy and to use nutrients to support body processes.  Metabolism is regulated by the thyroid and so it is essential that the thyroid is nourished with protein sources, iron, iodine, B vitamins and vitamin A or carotenoids.

A great food supplement investment would be a multivitamin and mineral formula that is designed specifically for those following a vegan diet.  This would provide the nutrients that are lower or deficient in the vegan diet at good levels.  The individual can then decide if they need additional protein, calcium, magnesium, and omega-3 essential fatty acids as EPA and DHA as supplements.

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50+ and introducing the vegan diet for the 1st time…

A great way to dabble with veganism is to introduce vegan meals into the weekly menu.  Meatless Monday is a campaign to eat wholly plant based each Monday.  This can be a great way to try new recipes and to see how you feel after vegan meals and how veganism would fit into your lifestyle.  It is important to plan your meals ahead, as unplanned meals may not provide a broad range of nutrients and be very low in protein.  However, with a little planning and some meal preparation adopting a health vegan lifestyle can be easy.

Most people experiment with veganism around the ages of 18-25, which is the age that people often attend University and are exposed to new ideas and cultures.  It is common for parents to become curious and join in to see what it is all about.

There can be the development of health conditions as people enter their 50s, such as diabetes, muscle wastage, cardiovascular or digestive issues.  Ensuring you have a good amount of protein at each meal is useful for everyone in their 50s, not just those following a vegan lifestyle.

Protein is necessary in this age group to offset muscle wastage, often referred to as sarcopenia.  However, regarding non-animal protein sources, all except soy, which is a complete protein, will need to be provided alongside another source.  A complete protein is a protein that contains all the essential amino acids.  Amino acids are termed ‘essential’ when they must be consumed as the body cannot make them.  For example, lentils and quinoa, or seitan and mixed seeds.  Generally, the following combinations should provide a complete protein: legumes and whole grains, legumes and nuts and seeds, or nuts, seeds, and wholegrains.  Plus, food supplements to enhance B vitamin, iodine, iron, calcium, and zinc intake.

The benefits of veganism…

Introducing a greater quantity of plants into the diet is a huge benefit.  They are abundant in nutrients and plant-specific compounds, often those that are suboptimal in the typical western diet.  As opposed to a diet that includes fast foods, ready meals and processed foods adopting a vegan diet may have several benefits for mature individuals that include, lowered blood pressure and cardiovascular risk, increased nutrient density, lower caloric intake which can help with body composition and balanced blood glucose.

If you do return to meat, take the following steps…

When returning to an omnivorous diet it is useful to support digestion on the days that meat is consumed.  Meat provides a far greater quantity of protein per serving than vegan sources, and if the digestive system has altered to a lower protein intake, then digestion may be impacted.  Subsequently it may be worthwhile using a digestive supporting food supplement until your body readjusts.  One that provides betaine HCl and digestive enzymes that include protease to support the digestion of the protein.  When reintroducing non vegan foods aim to maintain a good volume of vegetables, 3-4 different vegetables and salad items per meal.  Plus, limit organic red meat, organic poultry, organic dairy to two portions of each weekly and fish or shellfish to 4 portions.  This will leave room in the weekly menu to retain some vegan meals and to attain the nutrient density from the veggies, fruit, salad, legumes plus nuts and seeds that they provide.

The health conditions veganism should be avoided.

When managing a health condition, it is useful to be aware of which nutrients may be required in larger volumes and to implement them in a sustainable manner.  This may make following a vegan diet harder due to the planning of meals that are vegan and provide the nutrients necessary to support the health condition.  Therefore, it is vital to plan, prepare and freeze foods and purchase food supplements.

However, that aside, there are several scenarios when eating vegan may be not recommended or too difficult to achieve: 

  • Allergy to Soy: following a vegan diet may be difficult for those with a soy allergy as many foods, especially those providing a complete protein (all the essential amino acids) are provided by soy. In addition to this, vegan spreads, dairy alternatives, and meat alternatives often include soy in the ingredients list.  For some the remaining food choices may be just too limiting.
  • Infants and children: child development and growth require the support of an abundance of nutrients. Here careful planning around the child’s nutritional requirements, and their latest fad plus supplementation can be like juggling.  And so, consulting with a nutritional therapist may be useful to ensure the growing child’s diet provides all the necessary nutrition.
  • Pregnancy and lactation: Foetal development places many nutritional demands on the mother-to-be, for example there will be an increased requirement of iron to support foetal blood supply, calcium, magnesium, boron, vitamin D and vitamin K for bone and tooth formation plus omega-3 essential fatty acids in the form of EPA and DHA alongside Iodine and choline for brain and macular development. While the production of new cells involves B vitamins, magnesium, zinc, and yet more omega-3 essential fatty acids.  When planning a pregnancy, it may be useful to consult with a nutritional therapist to ensure maternal, foetal and infant health are supported by the necessary nutrition.
  • Eating disorders: The vegan diet may be used to mask an eating disorder, subsequently those with history or at risk of an eating disorder should look to work with an Eating Disorder Specialist when considering the vegan diet.

Jenny Carson, BSc (Hons) is a Nutritional Practitioner and Technical Supervisor at Viridian Nutrition

Jenny is a qualified nutritionist with over 5 years’ experience supporting people with nutritional health advice. Jenny developed a keen interest for Nutrition whilst working in the Civil Service and subsequently studied to achieve a first-class BSc honours degree in Nutritional Science, awarded in 2014. Upon graduation she was quickly employed at Viridian Nutrition to expand the Technical Services department, where she provides client advice and research new clinical evidence.

In 2019, Jenny completed a Master of Research (MRes) in Public Health (awaiting results) which gives her a wide understanding of public health nutrition including the impact on society and public services like the NHS. Other focus areas include ageing, dealing with stress, peri and post-menopause, detox, and mood.

A keen writer, Jenny often contributes to blogs and journals and her technical knowledge leads her to be a core part of education events for health food stores. Additionally, as an active member of the British Association of Nutritionists, Jenny continually keeps abreast of research developments and maintains her annual CPD accreditation.

Inspired by sport and healthy living, Jenny is passionate about fitness and preventive measures to maintain health. She believes that our diet provides the vital building blocks for everything we do and therefore the right nutrition is crucial for health and happiness.

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