Veganuary: Would it have been worth a try?
With many people jumping on the band wagon last month with Veganuary, you may have considered trying a vegan diet. Although, as with many others, you may have been concerned about where you would get the necessary protein and vitamins from.
Of course as we age, our bodies require a lower calorie intake, so going vegan could seem like a great choice to ‘lighten up’ our meals, to simplify our shopping lists, and perhaps even save some pennies.
Firstly, what exactly is a vegan diet? It is a diet consisting only of plant-based foods. Where a vegetarian diet can still include eggs, milk, yoghurt and cheese, a vegan diet excludes ALL animal-sourced foods such as meat, gelatin, honey, milk, yoghurt, cheese, etc.
To some this could seem a very extreme dietary choice, however it is said to have many advantages, not just physically, but also environmentally. With veganism being such a popular lifestyle choice currently, there are many options and choices available now for those who wish to try vegan without the complications, and easy alternatives for your favourite meals to save anyone from feeling restricted.
There has been lots of research in the veganism movement, some of which shows that vegans tend to be thinner, have healthier cholesterol levels, and lower blood pressure. However, how do we ensure that we still get the necessary quality nutrition? Here we explore the positive and negative impacts a vegan diet can have for older adults.
1. Vitamin deficiency
Likely the primary concern for those looking to change their diet - Will I still get the optimal amount of vitamins and nutrients? Doctor Ellsworth Wareham, a Cardiothoracic surgeon (who has been vegan since his teens and who retired at 95 years of age), claims that as long as he takes his vitamin B12 supplements, he gets everything else he needs through his diet (B12 is the only vitamin that is not recognised as being reliably supplied from a varied wholefood, plant-based diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables, together with exposure to sun).
At 98 years young, he says the key to good heart health is to keep cholesterol levels low, thus decreasing your intake of saturated fat, which is abundant in meats. Red meat can contribute to inflammation and chronic inflammation, known as a high risk factor for illness and death for those in their older years. Meat consumption has also been linked to the risk of many types of cancer including colorectal and prostate cancer. A vegan diet is rich in fruits and vegetables, naturally creating an increase in fibre, vitamins and minerals helping to promote a healthier heart and reduce risk of cancer.
There should be no concerns of other vitamin deficiencies if you are getting enough variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes, etc. There are many foods that now come fortified with vitamin B12, however surprisingly our bodies can only absorb and therefore need, a very small amount, in fact 10 micrograms is all we need. Therefore a good quality supplement would do the job. If you prefer to avoid supplements, then Vitamin B12 is found in Fortified yeast extracts (e.g. Marmite) and vegan spreads or margarines, packeted 'veggie burger' mixes, some cereals (e.g. Kellogg's Fruit & Fibre, Porridge oats, and Bran Flakes). Possibly: fermented foods (e.g. tamari, miso and tempeh, sea vegetables (e.g. hijiki, wakame and spirulina). It is worth noting however, that there is no evidence for an increased requirement for vitamin B12 in older age.
To keep ourselves strong, we need to ensure that we have adequate amounts of protein, meaning we must increase our intake as our age increases as we are prone to losing muscle mass and bone mass, and we have a harder time healing from wounds. The recommended daily allowance for people aged 65 years and over is at least 1.2g per kg of body weight, for example if you weigh 60kg you would need to eat at least 72g per day.
As protein is derived from amino acids, which are the building blocks for the body to create protein, plant based foods are a fantastic option as so many of them are rich in essential amino acids. There are many good plant-based sources of protein: nuts and seeds, especially cashew nuts, pistachio nuts, chia seeds, ground linseed, hemp seeds and pumpkin seeds, beans and lentils, buckwheat, quinoa, white rice, chickpeas, tofu, and alternatives to milk and yoghurt. Not only will they help you to get adequate protein, they will provide you with those essential vitamins and minerals, as well as a good serving of fibre.
3. Bone health
It is common knowledge that we need a good daily dose of calcium for optimal bone health (as well as dental, heart, nerve and blood health). Luckily, a vegan diet includes plenty of dark leafy green vegetables (spinach, kale, etc), alongside figs and black-eyed peas, tofu, calcium-fortified plant milks, soya and linseed bread, chia seeds, oranges and almonds, all of which are excellent sources of calcium.
However certain other factors can have a positive influence on bone health: Adequate protein as detailed above, vitamin K, and Vitamin D, which plays a very important role here, as it helps the body to absorb calcium. To boost your intake of Vitamin D you can reach for the breakfast cereals, then head outside for a daily dose of sunshine. Short but regular sessions will help you to reach the levels you need. Almond milk should be a staple fridge item – it is a great source of Vitamins D and E, as well as calcium and protein.
Staying active, especially resistance (weight-bearing) exercise, can help your bones stay strong. The NHS recommendations for healthy activity levels for older adults are as follows:
- Aim to be physically active every day. Any activity is better than none. The more you do the better, even if it's just light activity such as getting up to make a cup of tea, moving around your home, cleaning & dusting and vacuuming, making the bed, or walking at a slow pace.
- At least two days a week should involve activities that strengthen your muscles, for example carrying heavy shopping bags, lifting weights or using resistance bands, doing exercises that use your own body weight, such as push-ups and sit-ups, or heavy gardening such as digging and shoveling.
- At least two days a week should involve activities that improve balance and coordination, for example Tai chi, Pilates, and Yoga.
- At least 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity activity such as brisk walking, water aerobics, riding a bike, dancing, hiking, tennis, pushing a lawn mower, OR at least 75 minutes per week of vigorous intensity activity such as jogging or running, fast swimming, aerobics, hiking uphill, energetic dancing and martial arts.
If you are restricted by an injury or other restrictive condition, consider simply increasing your moderate activity to keep your bone health in check. Yoga, Pilates, and walking (ideally in nature) are all fantastic gentle options, benefiting not just your body but your mind as well.
4. Wound healing
A common concern amongst older adults. Zinc deficiency has been associated with delayed wound healing, and vegan diets usually tend to contain less zinc than non-vegan diets. However, in a study involving healthy older adults they have been shown to be in zinc balance despite an apparent low dietary intake, suggesting that there is at least some degree of adaptation. Plant foods rich in this mineral include nuts, seeds and wholegrain cereals so be sure to top up with these healthy snacks to keep your Iron levels up.
5. Reduced appetite
Many of us tend to have a reduced appetite when we reach our older years as we require fewer calories. People aged 65 years and above tend to take in less energy (calories) than younger people. Perhaps this is because of the natural decline in the rate of metabolism as people age, or perhaps a decrease in physical activity, either way a vegan diet could suit you if you have a reduced appetite. The Vegan Society explains that various light snacks are available at little cost and effort and there are some tricks to adding extra calories & nutrients to our lighter food choices:
- Nutrient dense drinks such as smoothies, fortified milk alternatives or hot chocolate. To really increase the nutrients, opt for coconut, almond or oat milk.
- Add peanut butter, cacao butter, cocoa powder, bananas, avocado, berries and seeds to smoothies
- Add cashew nuts or tofu to soups and blend for a more creamy texture and extra nutrients
- Add olive oil to vegetables
- If you have a preference for sweet foods, you can make sandwiches with bananas and nut butters or jam.
- Combine plant food sources to maximize your intake of vitamins and nutrients. Soups, salads and smoothies will help you to increase calories and maximize nutrients.
If you really struggle with lack of appetite, you may wish to consider switching to a plant-based diet, as studies have shown that older adults tend to prefer vegetables, fruits and beans to red meat, milk, and dairy products.
There are also certain techniques that you can use to arouse hunger:
- Try (healthy) high-fat foods such as avocados, as they have a pleasant, creamy texture.
- Adding healthy oils to sharp tasting vegetables can enhance their flavour and, as mentioned above, boosts your calorie intake.
- Choose foods that are fresh, brightly coloured, full-flavoured and seasonal, and arrange them attractively. Foods that appeal to the eye produce more salivary and gastric (stomach) secretions. Familiarity is also appealing and pleasing.
- Experiment with different shapes, colours, sizes and textures to add interest throughout a meal. For example, start with a hot, chunky soup; switch to a creamy pasta with tender mushrooms and crunchy steamed asparagus; and then finish with irregular berries. Switching foods may also reduce sensory fatigue, for example eating one bite of vegetables, followed by one of starchy foods, and then nuts and so on.
- Try using strongly flavoured ingredients such as herbs and spices, garlic, onions, olives, vinegars, citrus fruits and ripe berries. Perhaps be sparing with some of these however, as they may irritate a sensitive stomach.
6. Soft food or liquid diet
A lot of the advice given above could apply to you if you have digestive trouble or find it harder to chew and swallow, and therefore are on a soft diet or a pureed food diet. Additionally, adding pulses (lentils, peas, beans) to soups, stews and curries, adding tofu or ground nuts or nut butters to soups, and freezing your smoothies as ice lollies can create more variety for you.
Our ability to digest, absorb, and use vitamins and minerals decreases with age, meaning that even taking just one of our meals in liquid form each day can enhance our absorption of these vital nutrients. Try turning breakfast into a healthy juice of fresh fruit and vegetables, or upgrade it to a delicious smoothie by adding banana or avocado, and some nut butter and seeds for a truly strong start to the day.
Constipation is another common lifestyle concern, especially as older adults tend to eat low fibre diets. Add that to the various medicinal intake and low levels of activity, these can all have a negative impact on transit time. However a vegan diet is generally rich in fibre, which helps the digestive system to stay regular, active and healthy.
8. Social Impact
Veganism is a very popular topic of conversation, and many people tend to have an opinion on the subject matter. As an older adult perhaps with family who believe they always have your best interests at heart, or a partner who is very much against veganism, or just wants to keeps things the same as they always have been, this could cause problems. It could be that each meal time you have to prepare two different meals, or certain arrangements need to be made when joining friends and family for dinner. This is a very important factor to consider if you are trying to decide if a vegan diet would be good for you.
Eating out is less of an issue these days, many restaurants are offering vegan meal options just as they have been with vegetarian for many years.
If you are only cooking for yourself it can be very tempting to reach for food with a longer shelf life as opposed to fresh foods, and it may seem difficult and expensive to prepare meals with fresh ingredients. There are many tricks to make cooking for one much easier, for example, make a batch of your favourite dish, reduce to single portions, and freeze them. There are many vegan recipe sites online to refer to, and when doing so you can ‘cut the recipe in half’ to suit your single needs. If you are trying something new it’s almost always a better idea to try making a smaller amount. You could also consider purchasing frozen fruits and vegetables and take them out of the freezer as and when you need them. You could also batch cook certain staple ingredients such as rice, pasta, beans and oatmeal so that they are ready & waiting for when you would need them. And if you are concerned that reheating rice is dangerous, this is a complete myth. As long as the rice is piping hot again you will be fine.
As we age, our risk factors for health problems can increase, leaving us more prone to heart disease, cancer, alzheimer’s disease, and many more. A vegan diet has been shown to improve telomere activity. Telomeres are the enzymes that rebuild the caps at the end of our DNA strands. While they are important for human life, they shorten with age. (Think of them as the plastic tips on the end of your shoe laces, as time goes by, they tend to wear down). Research conducted by the University of California San Francisco showed that adopting a plant-based diet for three months can significantly increase the production of telomeres and slow the aging process.
A plant-based diet has also been proven to boost the immune system. If you are not consuming meat you will automatically increase your intake of fruits and vegetables, providing yourself with a positive influx of vitamins and nutrients. Certain immune boosting & infection-fighting vegan foods include:
- Pulses (peas, beans and lentils), green vegetables, sesame and pumpkin seeds, and sourdough bread. All of these boast high zinc levels.
- Wholegrains, soya beans, peanuts, walnuts, hazelnuts, raisins, bananas and yeast extract all boast high levels of vitamin B6.
- Plant oils especially olive oil, nuts and seeds, and wheat germ (found in cereals) are excellent sources of vitamin E.
A vegan diet is also known to influence a healthier weight, more energy, and better sleep, all of which contribute to living a longer, happier life.
10. Diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke
Some of us have to adapt our diets to help control illnesses such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or heart disease. As mentioned above, studies have shown that reducing or completely stopping your intake of meat can significantly reduce your risk of heart disease. Cholesterol is found only in animal foods (meat, fish, eggs, dairy and so on) and there is none in any plant food of any kind - even those which contain lots of fat, such as avocados, nuts and seeds, are cholesterol free.
Regarding diabetes, studies in the past have shown that those people who follow a low-fat vegan diet, avoiding meat and dairy, lower blood sugar levels very efficiently and lose weight. Researchers have shown that people with diabetes who eat a vegan diet also lower their cholesterol and improve kidney functioning.
A recent Viva Health study of 89,000 people showed that those who ate a vegan diet had cut their risk of high blood pressure by a huge 75% (those on the vegetarian diet cut their risk by 55%). High blood pressure goes hand in hand with high cholesterol levels and heart disease. Heart disease occurs when the arteries start to become blocked. It is a gradual process of furring up with ‘plaques’ - a thick sludge formed from cholesterol and other substances. It’s known as atherosclerosis, and can start at the tender age of three, if given a bad diet. A review of the evidence published in the journal Nutrition Reviews, explains how a diet high in fruits, vegetables, pulses and nuts lowers blood pressure by a variety of mechanisms. And a recent scientific analysis showed vegetarian diets are good for that, but vegan diets are better.
There have been strong debates about the vegan diet contributing to higher risk of stroke, however further research shows that most studies incorporated vegetarians (who still consume dairy products coming from animals) and vegans together within the study groups, so there is little proof that a vegan diet can increase the risk of stroke. Considering that people at high risk of strokes tend to have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and those who are smokers, based on the findings above it would be safe to assume that a vegan diet would have a positive influence on lowering the risk of having a stroke as well.
So, it seems that a plant-based diet could in fact be a great choice, especially if you are hoping to improve any health concerns you may have, or simply increase your intake of nutrients. Vegan diets also typically cost less than diets that contain meat. For a retiree on a fixed income, that could be a great lifestyle choice.
As with any dietary or lifestyle change, it would be best for you to consult with your doctor before making any significant alterations. Baby steps can also be the best approach here, perhaps consider changing your diet in stages, cutting out meat first for one or two weeks, then fish for the next two weeks, then dairy, and so on.
References: The Vegan Society / vegetarianforlife.org / diabetes.co.uk/vegan-diet / Juliet Gellatley BSc (vivahealth.org.uk) / medicinenet.com / plantbasednews.org / nhs.co.uk / The Vegetarian Resource Group