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Q&A: Dietitian Lisa Donaldson Talks Veganism

Vegans: the voice for the voiceless and the warriors for animal, human and environmental rights. The vegan community has created a movement that is gaining volume every day by simply changing what goes on their plates.
Australia is now the third fastest growing vegan market in the world and almost 9.9 million (53.4%) Australian adults admitted they are consciously eating less red meat.
Veganism is a multi-layered lifestyle that begins with diet. All meat and animal products are off limits, including dairy, eggs, honey, and gelatine. With such a strict plant-based diet, are vegans healthier than those who eat animal products?
Lisa Donaldson is a dietitian for Michelle Bridges 12WBT, a Dietitian in Residence at the University of Canberra and founder of FEED Inc.
Lisa is here to answer these questions and more about the intricacies of the vegan diet.
Q: What are the health risks and benefits of a vegan diet?
A: “Done well, a vegan diet can be very healthy. However, if not managed correctly, there is risk of deficiencies in vitamin B12, calcium, iron and zinc.”
Q: How can a vegan diet become unhealthy?
A: “I once had a vegan patient who only ever ate hot potato chips with tomato sauce! The lack of exposure to a variety of nutrients left him ‘malnourished’ despite being very overweight.”
Q: How would someone on a vegan diet supplement the nutrients they would get from meat?
A: “Vegans need to ensure that they have a good understanding of nutrition. With no access to haem iron, it’s important that they are aware that by eating spinach alone they are not going to get the same levels of bioavailable iron.  Non-haem iron from plants needs to be supported by vitamin C to assist its absorption. Many vegan foods are ‘fortified’ with B12 and calcium to help meet requirements. Eating a broad variety of legumes, nuts, seeds, and plants need to occur.”
Q: Does meat negatively affect our health?
A: “There is a variety of research that supports a plant-based diet to lower the risk of death from ischemic heart disease, lower blood cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, lower rates of hypertension and type 2 diabetes, and lower body mass indexes, as well as lower overall cancer rates. Meat is very satisfying and due to its rich protein content, it helps us feel fuller for longer. So eaten in appropriate portions it can also have benefits in managing satiety levels, as well as assisting with iron, B12, and zinc.”
Q: What is your opinion on the “fake” meat and cheeses that are designed and marketed to replace meat and dairy products for vegans? What is the nutritional value of these products?
A: “Fake meat is often made from gluten or a soy base – so certainly not matching the nutrition content of real meat. For many vegetarians or vegans, the look of these products can be unpleasant. The salt content of some of these foods can be high to improve palatability.”
Q: Would you recommend a vegan diet to someone? Why or why not?
A: “I personally would not recommend a vegan diet to a patient unless it was medically advised to do so. If they wanted to become a vegan, I would support their understanding so that it could be achieved in a healthy way. I strongly encourage patients to eat more plant food, loading up half a plate at all meals with either vegetables or fruit.”
Q: Finally, what advice would you give someone that is trying to convert to a vegan or vegetarian diet/lifestyle?
A: “It’s really important that they seek advice from an Accredited Practising Dietitian so that they can achieve the most balanced approach. It’s important that the diet is varied and used a broad range of plant foods. I would also encourage them to have a blood test to ensure that their iron levels were OK. Sometimes supplementation can be required, but only if the blood test reveals a deficiency.”

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