Diet therapy

Thinking of going vegan?

Veganism is a form of vegetarianism that prohibits the consumption of animal products.

Why do it?

The top three reasons people give for wanting to remove animal products from their diet is:

Animal welfare

Concern for animal welfare extends beyond avoiding foods such as meat, fish, poultry, dairy products, gelatine and honey to also include animal products such as leather shoes, handbags and furniture and the exploitation of animals e.g.for entertainment such as zoo’s, horse and dog racing, circuses and aquariums.

Environmental concerns

People are interested in sustainability of life on our planet and many are avoiding meat, eggs and dairy in favour of cropping as a better form of land use and maybe concerned that methane released from farm raised animals is contributing to warming of the atmosphere and climate change.

Health Benefits

These may include a reduced risk of heart disease; lower LDL cholesterol; lower blood pressure; less chance of developing Type 2 Diabetes; obesity and some forms of cancer

Veganism is also heavily promoted through social media and endorsements from some celebrities and high profile athletes.  The range of foods available commercially have boomed over the past 2-3 years along with merchandise such as cook books, blenders, online cooking classes etc. all of which is making Veganism more visible.

So is it really that healthy to go Vegan?

Vegan diets can be high in carbohydrate; dietary fibre; micronutrients; phytochemicals and antioxidants which may be good for health and help  build our immunity but there are other nutrients that can be lacking:


While plant based foods are  high in carbohydrate and dietary fibre they are low in energy density and promote early satiety. Plant foods can be very filling and low in calories. While this might help with weight loss, people needing higher energy levels such as athletes, growing children, the elderly or  those recovering from injury, may become energy deficient.  High fibre levels may also cause some gut distress especially for runners and cyclists and people stooping such as gardeners and construction workers, necessitating a modification of fibre intake.


Vegans appear to consume less protein than meat eaters or vegetarians as plant based protein contains less essential amino acids especially  the Branch Chain Amino acids such as lysine, methionine, isoleucine, threonine and tryptophan. The concept of combining protein sources to achieve a complete essential amino acid profile is no longer thought necessary.

Including foods such as grains, legumes, nuts and seeds can provide essential amino acids and protein powders including soy, hemp, pea and rice can also help although these appear to rate lower for protein digestibility and biological value than animal based proteins such as eggs, chicken and beef. This may necessitate vegans needing a higher estimation of their protein needs.

Athletes do need to take care that they are not consuming Protein Fortified Foods’ (PFF) that are banned in sport.

A study conducted by the AIS, Sport Australia and Sport Integrity Australia has found that commercially manufactured ‘Protein Fortified Foods’ (PFF) present no additional risk of containing substances banned in sport than other processed foods. This is the result of high quality food manufacturing standards in Australia.
However, some shops or cafes prepare and sell protein fortified foods that contain unidentified protein ingredients or added botanical ingredients (such as Maca powder) and as such are higher risk PFFs. PFFs containing hemp protein ingredients may contain trace amounts of the banned substance Tetrahydrocannibinol (THC) and should be avoided by athletes. Learn more..


Provided vegans avoid palm oil and coconut they do have lower levels of saturated fats than omnivores and vegetarians. However without marine sources of fat their diets can be very low in Omega 3 fatty acids which are important for growth and development and also aids cardiovascular and respiratory health and immunity. Microalgae oil supplements can help along with the consumption of flax seeds, walnuts and chia seeds.

Vitamin B12, iron, zinc, iodine, calcium and Vitamin D

All these nutrients are important for growth and development, they take part in the body’s energy systems, cellular processes and assist brain function. The dietary and blood levels of these nutrients can be assessed so check with your doctor and dietitian before embarking on supplementation as needs will differ depending on age, activity, health issues, medication and life goals.

6 Practical tips if becoming a vegan

1. See your GP first

Discuss any health issues you may have and the need for you to have any blood tests to check such things as your  blood lipids; blood glucose (HbA1c) iron status; calcium, vitamin D, thyroid function and B12 levels.

2. Know your height and weight at the start

Vegan diets can lead to weight loss so it may be important  to monitor your weight on a regular basis to ensure that your body mass index is kept within a healthy range that is right for you. While a BMI between 18.5- 24.99 is considered healthy for the general population this will not take into account variations in muscularity associated with in some sports.

However monitoring BMI can be an important screening tool for young people competing in weight categorised sports e.g. light weight rowing, gymnastics, ballet, who are still growing especially females as when BMI drops below 17 monthly periods may cease and lead to reduced bone mineral density. Low body weight in men can also disrupt hormone levels important for bone, muscle and sexual development. So it is important to be aware of these things

3.See a Dietitian

Arrange a nutritional assessment of your current diet at the start. This can help to reveal any nutrient shortfalls; underlying eating, drinking or snacking habits that need to be worked on simultaneously in order for a healthy diet to be established.

It can also offer a benchmark against which to measure your dietary progress, especially showing such things as your dietary fibre, B group vitamin and mineral status, carbohydrate, fat and protein intakes, all of which may improve on a more plant-based diet but can also highlight when corrections may be needed.

4. Keep a record of your daily exercise (in minutes)
Especially the time you spend that is over and above your normal incidental exercise. This is particularly important for people who are playing sports that exceed 2 hours in duration or are training for events such as cycling, running or athletic pursuits. Vegan diets can be lacking in energy, protein and iron which can impact performance.

5. Plan your meals and meal prep.
If you are wanting to use fresh local produce or you have limited cooking experience it will make life a lot easier if you plan your meals and undertake some meal preparation (eg over the weekend) and freeze some foods so can pull a meal together quickly if you need to. You may also consider signing up for a weekly vegan meal delivery service, especially if you have limited time or cooking experience.

 6. Plan snacks and carry fluids when you are away from home.

Delays throughout the day with work and school commitment can disrupt mealtimes and lead to pockets of low energy. This not only will slow your performance but also mentally it can increase your feelings of stress and anxiety

Last word…

With the correct knowledge of nutrition, shopping, meal preparation and planning Veganism can be a very healthy lifestyle but as we have seen there are some important things to know about before deciding that veganism is going to be right for you, something you can sustain and that will provide the energy you need to achieve your life goals.

Do contact me if you would like help to get started.

For more articles by Lea on this topic

How to make the most of a plant based diet
Snacking on a plant based diet

Get into fruit and vegetables for better health

6 tips for helping athletes eat more plant foods

Vegetarians face extra hurdles


  • Rogerson D. Vegan diets:practical advice for athletes and exercisers. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (2017) 14:3
  • Australian and NZ Nutrient Reference values.


About the author View all

Lea Stening

Lea is one of New Zealand’s leading paediatric dietitians and also specialises in Sports Nutrition. She has specialised in Paediatric Nutrition for 31 years and in 1985 was the first paediatric dietitian to enter private practice in New Zealand. Lea helps families through her private consultations, public lectures, newspaper and magazine articles as well as television and radio interviews. Read more »

View all posts by Lea Stening »


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