October is fast becoming known as ‘Stoptober’ thanks to the national campaigns to get people to quit smoking. Another monthly campaign gaining exposure and interest is the Vegan Society’s ‘Vegan Pledge’: a 30-Day commitment to giving up any kind of edible and non-edible animal derived product.

The aim of the pledge is to encourage people to try being vegan and broaden awareness of the many and varied animal-free products that are available nowadays. Over 1000 people are taking the Pledge each month, a number which has doubled within the last year.

Vegetarianism is well known and widely accepted yet there is often confusion surrounding the term ‘veganism’; what do vegans eat? How are they different to vegetarians? What nutrients might be lacking in a vegan diet?

The term ‘vegan’ was coined by the founders of the Vegan Society back in 1944 from the first and last letters of the word ‘vegetarian’. Veganism is seen as the natural extension of vegetarianism so this name seemed an appropriate fit.

Vegans avoid all types of animal produce including eggs, dairy and honey whilst vegetarians generally include these items in their diets. A typical vegan diet consists of beans, pulses, grains, nuts, seeds, plant oils, plant-based milks, fruits and vegetables.

People often wonder about protein levels in vegan diets as the usual sources of protein such as eggs, meat and fish are omitted, but with thoughtful meal planning this is not an issue as plant based foods can be combined together to provide all the amino acids needed for health (amino acids are the small building blocks of protein molecules). A good example of vegan protein combining would be beans and rice or quinoa and nuts used together in the same meal.

One nutrient vegans frequently struggle with is vitamin B12. This vitamin is vital for heart health, brain function and energy levels and the best sources are meat, fish and eggs. Vegans can opt for tofu and yeast extract as sources of B12, though many prefer to maintain their levels with a B-complex supplement.

Iron is another nutrient that needs attention as the body finds it easier to absorb from meat and fish rather than plant foods. Prunes, dried apricots, beans and cashew nuts are valuable vegan sources and eating vitamin-C rich foods alongside them enhances iron absorption (the same goes for meat eaters too – enjoy plenty of watercress, broccoli and peppers with that rump steak!).

I have mentioned before the need for healthy oils and fats in our diets and this applies to vegans too, especially since they are not getting the beneficial omega-3 fats found in oily fish. Pumpkin seeds, flax seeds, walnuts and some types of algae do provide omega-3 oils but they are in a slightly different form and require converting to a more usable state in the body.

A vegan diet can be tasty, varied and health-full: if you’re curious to discover more, sign up for the Vegan Pledge this month!

- Sally Duffin is a nutritional therapist and writer based in Holgate, York.