Vegan health FAQs


Is it healthy to be a vegan?

Vegans actually tend to be healthier than their dairy- and meat-eating counterparts! Why? Because a vegan eats no animal products: red and white meats, fish and other water creatures, eggs, dairy and insect products such as honey and cochineal. That means no damaging animal protein, animal fats or cholesterol in their diet. Far from going short, vegans can – and are more likely to – pack their diet with a wide range of healthy, disease-busting foods high in plant protein, fibre, complex carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and good fats. These include fresh fruit and vegetables, a wide range of pulses, including peas, beans and lentils, wholegrain pastas, breads and rice, nuts and seeds, herbs and spices and vegetable oils. A vegan diet can provide all the nutrients required for all stages of life, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence. It’s great for athletes too!

See the Balanced Vegan page for a handy overview of a balanced vegan diet or browse through our guide Vegan for Health for all the essential health information in one place.Veganism isn’t just a diet, however, it’s a lifestyle and vegans also avoid animal products in their clothing, footwear, accessories, toiletries, household items and avoid products tested on animals.

Where do vegans get their protein?

There are plenty of protein sources in a vegan diet. The best ones include pulses (peas, beans, lentils, chickpeas and soya – and products made from them), nuts, seeds and wholegrain foods (wholemeal bread, wholewheat pasta and brown rice). If you eat a healthy and varied vegan diet that provides enough calories, protein won’t be on your worry list.

On average, men need around 55 grams and women 45 grams of protein daily, which is easy to achieve with plant-based foods. If you do manual labour, work out a lot, are pregnant or breastfeeding, you need a little more – between one and 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.See more about protein here and find out more about protein in our Protein Myth factsheet.

Do vegans need to combine foods?

No. A varied, vegan diet provides all the protein building blocks – amino acids – that you need. There are nine essential amino acids which have to be included in the diet as our bodies cannot make them (the other non-essential ones can be made in the body). Plant foods contain all the essential amino acids we need and the idea that vegans need to combine foods, like beans and rice for example, to get complete protein is considered outdated. Simply eating a variety of foods throughout the day will provide the range of amino acids you need.

Do I need to eat meat for iron?

No, you can get all the iron you need from a varied, vegan diet. Iron is an essential part of the oxygen-carrying molecules haemoglobin, found in red blood cells, and myoglobin, found in muscles. Iron also makes up part of many proteins in the body.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends 29 to 59 milligrams (mg) of iron a day for pre-menopausal (menstruating) women and 14 to 27 milligrams for men aged 19 and over. The wide range reflects the different rates of absorption seen in different types of diets. 

Women who lose a lot of blood during menstruation (heavy periods) and pregnant women may need supplements, regardless of diet. See more about iron here.

The best plant sources of iron include wholegrains (quinoa, oats, wholewheat pasta and wholemeal bread), pulses (peas, beans, lentils, tempeh – fermented soya beans, tofu, baked beans and kidney beans), seeds (pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds and tahini – sesame seed paste), dried fruit (apricots and figs), seaweed (nori) and dark green leafy vegetables (broccoli, kale). Some breakfast cereals are fortified with iron too – check the packaging for details.Vitamin C helps the absorption of iron from foods so it’s good to combine iron and vitamin C-containing foods in one meal, such as beans with fresh red pepper or seeds with slices of orange.

Do I need dairy for calcium?

No. A varied, vegan diet will provide all the calcium you need. You don’t need dairy – most people in the world don’t drink it as over 70 per cent of the world’s population are lactose intolerant and cannot digest the sugar in dairy milk. So, it’s clear humans don’t need to consume cow’s milk for healthy bones.

Calcium is the building block for bones and they contain 99 per cent of the total calcium in your body; but it has other functions too – it’s important for muscle function, nerve transmission, signalling within cells and hormone formation. Calcium can only build bones properly if your body has enough vitamin D; so even if you eat plenty of calcium, it could go to waste if you are not getting enough vitamin D.

Adults need 700 milligrams of calcium per day. The best plant sources are: tofu (made with calcium sulphate), sesame seeds and tahini (sesame seed paste used in hummus), almonds, kale and other green leafy vegetables, fortified vegan breakfast cereal, plant-based milks fortified with calcium, dried figs, tempeh (fermented soya beans), wholemeal bread, baked beans, butternut squash and oranges.

See more about calcium here and for more information on health effects of dairy, see our White Lies factsheet.

Do vegans need supplements?

Everyone needs a reliable source of vitamin B12. For vegans this means taking a supplement because relying only on B12-fortified foods may not ensure a sufficient intake. B12 deficiency can lead to sever health problems and is not to be taken lightly. Aim for 50 micrograms of B12 daily or 2,000 micrograms weekly. See more about vitamin B12 here.

Even though there’s plenty of sunshine in Uganda all year round, it’s not always enough to ensure that everyone has enough vitamin D. It’s the vitamin your skin makes when exposed to sunlight. Children, in particular, tend to have low levels. It’s best to take a vitamin D supplement and the recommended dose is 10 micrograms (400 IU) daily. See more about vitamin D here.

Everything else, you should be able to get from a varied, vegan diet. It’s important, for example, to ensure you get a regular supply of omega-3 fats (found in walnuts and flaxseed oil), iodine (found in seaweed) and zinc (found in pumpkin seeds), but this applies to everyone, regardless of diet.

Should vegans worry about B12?

Not if you make sure you have a regular intake. Vitamin B12 is essential for good health; it helps maintain healthy nerve cells and works with folic acid to make red blood cells. It also has a role in immune function and mood. The latest expert recommendations are higher than most government recommended intakes – we should take 50 micrograms daily or 2,000 micrograms weekly.

B12 is made by bacteria in soil and water. Traditionally, people and farmed animals got B12 from eating food from the ground that was naturally contaminated with the right bacteria. However, now food production systems are so sanitised, it’s best to take a supplement.Animal-based foods only contain B12 because farmed animals are given a supplement – making the recommendation to eat meat and dairy for B12 invalid. Cut out the middleman and take your own supplement and include B12-fortified foods in your diet. See more about vitamin B12 here.

Where do vegans get iodine?

Iodine is a mineral found in seawater, rocks and some types of soil. It is essential for the production of thyroid hormones that regulate how energy is produced and used in your body. It is also necessary for the development of the nervous system and cognitive abilities in infancy and childhood. Adults need 140 micrograms of iodine per day. Most people should be able to get all the iodine they need by eating a varied and balanced diet.

The best vegan sources of iodine include seaweed (arame, wakame and nori) and iodised salt. Wholegrains, green beans, courgettes, kale, spring greens, watercress, strawberries and organic potatoes with skin have varying iodine content depending on iodine levels in the soil in which they’re grown. 

Seaweed is a convenient source of iodine and easy to use – sprinkle a little in soups and stews but choose the types listed above and avoid kelp as it might contain very high levels and excess iodine can disrupt thyroid function. The easiest way to obtain iodine, however, is from iodised salt. As a national policy, table salt is iodised in Uganda, so using it ensures regular iodine intake. See more about iodine here.

Do I need oily fish to get omega-3 fats?

No. A varied, vegan diet can provide all the healthy fats you need. They are vital for the development and functioning of the brain, nervous system and cell membranes. They also help regulate blood pressure and are involved in the body’s immune and inflammatory responses.

The omega-3 fat found in plant foods, ALA, is converted by the body into the longer-chain omega-3s EPA and DHA. Good sources of ALA include ground flaxseed and flaxseed oil, chia seeds, hemp seeds, soya bean oil, rapeseed oil and walnuts.It’s simply not true that you need to eat fish for omega-3s. Fish don’t produce their own omega-3 fats, they get them from the algae in their diet. So, if you want a belt and braces approach, you too can get EPA and DHA directly from a vegan algae-based supplement, available to buy online or in some health food shops. Find out more about healthy fats here.

Is honey vegan?

No, honey is produced by bees so it is an animal product and is therefore avoided by vegans. Many bees are factory farmed and live in extremely unnatural and cruel conditions. The queen’s wings are clipped to prevent her from fleeing the hive. Bees make honey as a store, to provide them with nutrients during the winter months. When humans take the honey, they replace it with inferior sugar syrup. Swap honey for date, agave or golden syrup which have the sweetness without the cruelty.

Find out more about bees here and honey production here.

Can I eat foods with “may contain traces of…” written on them?

The ‘may contain’ list on products includes substances that could have accidentally cross-contaminated (in trace amounts) the product in the manufacturing process. For example, a company could be making milk chocolate bars one day and vegan dark chocolate bars the next. Cow’s milk would not be listed as an ingredient but they have to say that there could be traces of it in the vegan chocolate. It’s mainly a warning for people with severe allergies. There are very few 100 per cent vegan food factories so most vegans accept that so long as the ingredients listed are vegan, so is the product.

Is veganism safe in pregnancy?

Diet is very important when you’re nurturing a growing baby but your body still has the same nutrient requirements as before – you’ll just need to eat a little more as the baby gets bigger to ensure you both get all the essential nutrients. Experts agree that a well-planned varied vegan diet is suitable for everyone, including during pregnancy and breastfeeding.

A vegan diet can provide all the nutrients you need (with a vitamin B12 and vitamin D supplement) but it is a good idea to pay a little extra attention to ensure you are getting plenty of protein, iron and calcium. Other nutrients you may want to keep an eye on include iodine, zinc and omega-3 fats – to help healthy brain development.

Folate (folic acid) is needed for cell division, a healthy nervous system and plays a part in blood formation. One of its key roles in a growing embryo is the development of the neural tube, from which the brain and spinal cord form. Women deficient in folate have a higher risk of having a baby with spina bifida, which is why all women, regardless of diet, planning a pregnancy are advised to take 400 micrograms (but not more than 1,000) of folate per day and continue this until they are 12 weeks pregnant. See more about folate here.

By being vegan, you’re already doing well because you’re not consuming harmful substances such as heavy metal residues from fish, dangerous bacteria in cheese, pesticides and cancer-causing chemicals in meat. A great start! See more about being vegan during pregnancy here.

Is it safe to raise babies and children vegan?

Good nutrition is especially important during childhood as it’s a time of rapid growth and development. Experts agree that a well-planned varied vegan diet is suitable for everyone, including babies and children, as it contains all the healthy fats, plant protein and carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals needed. It helps to protect children’s heath because it contains no cholesterol, animal protein, hormones and many other undesirable substances linked to disease and is low in undesirable saturated fats.

Vegan children are much more likely to get the fruit and vegetables they need, vital for ensuring an adequate intake of vitamins, minerals and fibre. Pulses (peas, beans, lentils and soya), wholegrains (wholemeal bread, wholewheat pasta, oats, brown rice and quinoa), nuts and seeds provide plenty of protein and iron. Calcium-fortified plant milks and yoghurts, calcium-set tofu, green vegetables (broccoli, pak choi and spring greens), tahini (sesame seed paste in hummus), nut butters and pulses (peas, lentils, beans including soya) are all excellent sources of calcium. Nuts and seeds, particularly chia seeds, flaxseed and walnuts, are a great source of healthy omega-3 fats. Whole nuts and seeds shouldn’t be given to children under five as they are a choking hazard.

All children should take vitamin D supplement and vegan children should take a daily B12 supplement. A healthy, varied vegan diet can supply all the other nutrients they need. Find out more about thriving vegan children here.

Can athletes be vegan?

Yes, in fact, since the 2019 Netflix documentary The Game Changers took the sports world by storm, an increasing number of athletes are going vegan to improve their performance.

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t build muscle by eating muscle (meat). Muscles develop by being used and the best diet to fuel this is a balanced vegan one. It provides complex carbohydrates for long-lasting energy, plant protein, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fibre, while reducing undesirable saturated fats and completely avoiding animal protein and cholesterol; all linked to heart disease, diabetes, obesity and some cancers.A vegan diet not only provides the best fuel for physical activity, it can also reduce recovery time. Compared with meat-eaters, vegans get considerably more antioxidants in their diets, which help neutralise free radicals, harmful molecules that can hinder athletic performance, cause muscle fatigue and impair recovery. An increasing number of professional athletes are switching to veganism to gain these advantages. Can body-builders be vegan? Yes, they can! See more about sports nutrition here.

Is it safe for men to eat soya?

Soya contains phytoestrogens, which are natural plant hormones also found in many fruits, vegetables, peas, beans and wholegrains. Their chemical structure is similar, but not identical, to the hormone oestrogen found in animals, including humans. However, they are 100 to 100,000 times weaker and therefore have very little effect on the human body – if any. Studies on humans agree that phytoestrogens from soya foods are completely safe to consume for people of all ages. In fact, men may even benefit from eating more of them as studies suggest that soya consumption is linked to a lower risk of prostate cancer. And don’t forget, cow’s milk and dairy products contain actual oestrogen.

A UK government in-depth review examining the effects of soya found no evidence that people who regularly eat high quantities have altered sexual development or impaired fertility. Scare stories suggesting that soya can cause such effects are based on animal experiments, which have no relevance to humans as phytoestrogens behave differently in different species. Many of these experiments were based on injecting animals with high doses or force-feeding them excessive amounts – again, no relevance to the way humans ingest them.

Soya is a great source of protein, containing all nine essential amino acids and providing more protein than most other pulses. It’s also a source of ‘good fats’ (omega-3 and 6), antioxidants, calcium, B vitamins and iron. It lowers cholesterol and reduces the risk of certain cancers and other diseases.Find out more about soya here.

Are soya-eating vegans destroying the rainforest?

Soya growing is indeed a serious problem – but not because of vegans. More than three-quarters of the world’s soya production is fed to livestock – cows, pigs and chickens – so that people can eat meat, eggs and dairy foods. Most of it comes from the Amazon and other places facing environmental destruction, with only around six per cent being eaten by humans either directly as whole beans or in products like tofu, soya milk and soya sauce.Find out more about the environmental impact of soya here.

Is soya formula safe for babies?

Breast is best but not always possible – fed is best! Soya and other plant-based infant formulas offer a safe alternative ensuring similar patterns of growth and development to those seen in breast-fed infants. In the US, millions of babies have been fed soya formula over the last 50 years with no adverse effects.

Find out more about plant-based infant formulas, including scientific facts and practical tips, here.