Should you go vegan?

I wrote about the trend for your adult children to adopt vegan diets (and expect you to accommodate them). But is it a good choice for you, the older adult? Good question.

Because vegans don’t eat any foods from animal sources, intake of several key nutrients can suffer. Unfortunately many of those are nutrients that are of concern to older women and men, even if you aren’t vegan. So switching to a vegan diet can increase the risk for nutritional deficiencies.

The other significant issue is food preparation. Vegan recipes are generally not convenient. You’ll need to learn about and purchase new foods and ingredients. The thought of spending hours in the kitchen every day preparing time-consuming vegan recipes may be a deal-breaker.

Solve the cooking problem by going out to eat? Maybe not. Few restaurants, other than those that specialize in vegan food, will offer interesting vegan meals. That goes for take-out food as well.

Nutrients of Concern

Protein

Older adults are prone to sarcopenia, gradual loss of muscle mass. Left unchecked, sarcopenia can lead to increasing weakness and frailty. Research suggests boosting protein intake above the minimum daily recommendation helps to prevent muscle loss. Many people already have higher protein intakes. But for many older adults, intake of high protein foods falls off with age. Taste changes, cost, cooking and chewing problems all contribute.

Poorly planned vegan diets can be particularly low protein, since high protein animal foods — meat, fish, eggs, dairy foods — are prohibited. What’s left for protein? Beans, nuts, tofu, soy milk. In order to eat enough protein everyday, you’d need to eat a lot of those foods every single day at all meals.

Are you likely to eat beans and/or tofu every day, two to three times a day, indefinitely? The other problem is the volume of these foods. For example, you might need to eat 3 cups of beans every day. Every. Day. Many older adults, particularly women, have reduced appetites and can’t fit that volume of food into their stomachs, along with all the other food they need to eat.

Take Away: getting enough protein from a vegan diet requires dedication to eating the necessary volume of high protein plant foods.

Minerals

Vegan diets can lack several minerals that are particularly important as we age. Zinc (important for immune function) is one example. Older adults may already have poor zinc status, due to malabsorption or poor intake. Some plant foods have significant zinc, but substances in the foods interfere with zinc absorption.

Calcium intake can be another problem. Older women need to keep up calcium intake to support bone strength. Calcium sources include legumes (you’re already eating lots of those everyday for protein, right?), fortified soy milk and greens. So this is a matter of consuming those foods every day. Or you can opt for supplements, although it’s much better to get most of your daily calcium from food sources. And calcium supplements usually come with vitamin D. Why would that be a problem for a vegan? See below.

Vitamins

B12 is only found in animal-source foods. And it’s of particular concern for older adults because absorption decreases with age. Insufficient B12 is linked to signs of cognitive impairment and dementia, as well as peripheral neuropathy and anemia leading to extreme fatigue. The only source of B12 for vegans is supplements, unless B12-fortified foods are consumed on a daily basis.

Vitamin D is another concern for vegans. Some plant “milks” are fortified with D, but you’d have to drink 6 cups a day everyday to get enough (remember, you’re already eating 3 cups of beans, and you should be eating lots of greens too). You could just rely on supplements, but there’s a catch if you’re a very devoted vegan: most supplements are vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) which comes from lanolin, a product of sheep’s wool. The sheep aren’t harmed, but they are animals and vegans object to this on principle. You would have to look for supplements clearly labeled as “vitamin D2” or ergocalciferol, which is plant sourced. However, this form of D is not as effective for raising blood levels.

Omega-3 fatty acids

These special fatty acids are critical for immune function, brain and eye health and vascular health. Intake can be a particular problem for vegans. Very few plant foods have any omega-3, and even then it’s the less biologically active alpha linolenic acid form (ALA). Walnuts, flax seed, chia seed and canola oil are good sources. So you can get some omega-3 if you eat some of those foods everyday (in addition to all those beans, soy milk and greens!). But ALA has to be converted to active forms of omega-3 in your body, and that process is not very efficient. So you may not get much of these important fatty acids from your diet. You might need to resort to supplements, and if you are a strict vegan, you’ll need to find omega-3 supplements of EPA and DHA that are sourced from algae, not from fish.

Do you see my point?

You can, with lots of effort and several supplements, have a sufficient intake of nutrients from a vegan diet as you age. But it means paying attention every day to what you’re eating. With all those beans and flax seeds and tofu and soy milk and greens, there’s not room for much other food. There’s almost no room for empty calorie foods like sweets or snack foods or desserts. Plus you’ll have to spend a fair amount of time cooking if you want variety and flavor in your food.

Is there any upside to a vegan diet for older adults?

  • It’s associated with easier weight management and lower risk for Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
  • It’s high fiber. Better for your digestion and your gut microbes.
  • It’s potentially full of other nutrients like potassium, vitamin A, magnesium, B-vitamins and healthy fats.

If you’re willing to put in the time for cooking, it can be tasty. If you don’t want to spend a lot of time cooking, it can be as easy as a big salad garnished with nuts and beans. Or a plate of veggies and hummus. Or a wrap with chopped vegetables, refried beans, salsa and some shredded soft tofu. Or rice with vegetables and tofu and spicy peanut sauce. These are all wonderful foods.

What do I recommend then? I prefer vegetarian diets for older women and men. You can include eggs and dairy foods, which boosts protein intake with lower volume, while also boosting calcium, vitamin D and B12. Plus these foods give your diet more variety of flavors and more choices. Eating out will be more convenient too. You can eat vegan meals sometimes, but your food choices are more flexible. When it comes to food, I’m all for a wide range of choices and flexibility.