Eat well

Andrea Rymer, Dietitian at The Vegan Society, on how psychologists and dieticians can support vegans to eat in line with their beliefs and values, in response to a letter from Leigh Gibson.

The reasons for choosing a vegan diet are multiple; the most commonly cited include health, reducing environmental impact and ethical beliefs about animals. A belief that the exploitation of animals is wrong is foundational to veganism, but other factors are often important in people's decisions to follow vegan diets.

Proper nutrition is hugely important, which is why The Vegan Society has a nutrition team consisting of two registered dietitians to help promote optimal nutrition on a vegan diet and provide accurate information and guidance to help the vegan population thrive. As an organisation, we work towards these goals through our Catering for Everyone and Vegan and Thriving campaign work and our health and nutrition resources, as well as our Memorandum of Understanding with the British Dietetic Association (BDA), which outlines that we work together to show: 

‘...those who choose to follow a vegan diet that it is possible to follow well-planned, vegan-friendly diets that can support healthy living in people of all ages, and during pregnancy and breastfeeding. This should include information on appropriate use of fortified foods and supplementation.’

Leigh Gibson’s letter ‘Public health pitfalls in a vegan future?’ acknowledged this to some extent and described strategies vegans use to ensure they consume key nutrients. However, it went on to state:

‘…these strategies need nutritional knowledge – so the finding from a large French study that vegans are less educated than omnivores or vegetarians may be important (Allès et al., 2017) – and usually come at a cost, especially financial and/or temporal, and potentially cognitive… a (new) diet without good support leads to deficits in cognitive performance (as tested in a lab at least)…’

Data suggests that food insecurity is increasing at a population level, however, with no routine measurements, factors contributing to household food insecurity are difficult to establish. Food inflation costs could be a possible contributor, and The Vegan Society’s Live Vegan for Less Campaign shows that staples of a vegan diet can be economical, and it is important for people to be aware that it is possible to eat well as a vegan on a budget. 

Regarding education, we should be cautious about generalising study findings but it is interesting to note that UK vegans involved in the EPIC-Oxford study were similar to vegetarians in terms of higher education, which was lower in meat eaters. Well-planned diets are important to achieve optimal nutrition and most people in the UK could benefit from learning more about nutrition. The National Diet and Nutrition Survey shows that UK diets lack fibre, fruit and vegetables and contain excessive saturated fat. Accessible and reliable information can help to promote health, and this is especially true for people making dietary changes, including the transition to a vegan diet.

The letter also highlighted that some people use veganism as a ‘cover’ for restricting their dietary intake, which is an important issue. The Vegan Society’s Senior Dietitian Heather Russell has reflected on the language people sometimes use to describe vegan diets:

‘It has never been easier to go vegan and many people seeking to follow a more compassionate lifestyle find it empowering to change their eating habits by replacing animal products with alternative sources of nutrition. This is far from the idea of deprivation and loss that is conveyed by describing vegan diets as restrictive or strict and by relating them to research about “dieting”.

‘Unfortunately, the terms restrictive and strict are widely used in relation to vegan diets and other diets that are different to the kind eaten by most people. It’s important for everyone to promote healthy relationships with food and we would love to see our compassionate way of eating described using less negative terminology. It’s also important to raise awareness that veganism is a belief system centred on the principle of avoiding animal use as much as possible and practicable, encompassing dietary and non-dietary choices.’

For information about considerations around treating vegan patients with eating disorders, readers can access a consensus statement produced by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Beat and the BDA. This is a quote from that consensus statement:

‘From a therapeutic standpoint, eating disorder teams should fully explore and understand their patients’ veganism on an individual basis. (The British Dietetic Association’s Mental Health Specialist Group provides guidelines on this.)’

Regarding public health, some people do need individualised dietary advice about vegan diets, particularly those with complex needs, who can be referred to a dietitian for expert support. 

Psychologists and dietitians share the same desire to help people – we can agree that appropriate support is key in promoting healthy living. Regarding vegan diets, psychologists are in a great position to signpost people to reliable and ideally vegan-specific information, whilst making them aware that a dietitian can provide expert advice specific to their individual needs. This holistic care can help to achieve favourable outcomes for those interested in vegan diets. 

Food choices are complex and influenced by many factors. Therefore, multi-faceted support is required from a structural to an individual level. As a charity, we undertake a variety of health and nutrition work, striving to support vegans from a variety of angles and help relevant services and professionals to meet vegan needs. Together, we can support people to eat well in line with their beliefs and values.

- Andrea Rymer, Dietitian, The Vegan Society

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