With global veganism on the rise, most of us are well aware of the benefits of switching to a plant-based diet. Not only are vegan foods utterly free from animal cruelty, but this diet is also widely respected as a more environmentally friendly way for people to get their daily nutrients. If that’s not enough, vegans also gain a wide range of health benefits, including a lower average BMI, reduced risk of heart disease, and even protection against type 2 diabetes and some cancers.
But while the pros of veganism are well reported these days, if you’re transitioning to a meatless diet in older age, it is crucial to consider some of the potential risks of this lifestyle choice.
As we age, our bodies process nutrients differently, and essential vitamins and minerals can be harder to come by. Frustratingly, many of the nutrients that an elder body might struggle to absorb can also be tricky to meet in a vegan diet. Despite these imbalances, however, it’s absolutely possible to enjoy a plant-based vegan diet in your later years. Whether you’re transitioning to a vegan lifestyle for the first time, or it’s been years since your last BLT, there’s no reason veganism needs to have an upper age limit.
Whether you’re an older or younger vegan, getting enough protein is one of the first challenges. While meat-eaters get the bulk of their protein from meat, vegans and vegetarians need to be a little more creative.
There’s no evidence that plant-based protein is inferior to the protein found in animal derivatives. Many plant foods are surprisingly high in protein and can form an incredibly healthy and protein-rich vegan diet. Some of the most protein-rich vegan foods include:
- Kidney beans
- Tofu (to make delicious tofu-based dishes, you’ll want to press the tofu first, so it cooks nicely and absorbs the flavours of the rest of the meal).
As an elderly vegan, it’s important to remember that you may need more protein in your diet than you did in your younger years to preserve and maintain your lean muscle mass, normal bodily functions, and general good health.
While most adults require around 0.75kg of protein per kg of body weight daily, older adults should increase this consumption by 1-1.2kg of protein per kg of body weight. If you’re malnourished or have a severe illness, this may need to be even higher.
We all know that cow’s milk is a particularly great source of bone-friendly calcium and other nutrients, but animal milk is (literally) off the table for vegans.
Thankfully, it’s not too tough to find calcium-rich vegan foods. Plant milk (particularly soy and almond), calcium-fortified cereals, pitta bread, chapatti, and white bread are excellent calcium sources.
While most adults require 700mg of daily calcium, women who have been through menopause and men aged 55+ require 1,200mg of calcium to maintain bone health. This reduces the risk of common age-related illnesses such as osteoporosis, plus the risk of serious injury following a fall.
3. Vitamin D
In addition to calcium, Vitamin D is essential for good bone health, particularly in older adults who need around 10mg of Vitamin D daily.
When we’re younger, our bodies can absorb Vitamin D from a wide range of sources, including sunlight. However, older skin is less capable of absorbing this vitamin, which can cause deficiencies.
For vegans, mushrooms that have been grown in the sunlight with fortified spreads, cereals, and many dairy alternatives are all excellent sources of Vitamin D.
Elderly vegans may also benefit from taking a supplement of Vitamin D, particularly during winter months or if you’re not able to get outdoors as much as you used to.
4. Vitamin B12
Older adults require around 1.5mg of Vitamin B12. While this isn’t much more than a younger adult, there does seem to be a trend of older individuals lacking in this essential vitamin, with vitamin B12 deficiencies affecting 1/20 people aged 65-74 and 1/10 over the age of 75.
Vegans must be especially aware of this nutrient, as it’s far more commonly found in animal products than in plants. Vegan cereals are often fortified with B12, and you can find the nutrient in things like yeast extracts (Marmite, for example), soya yogurts, and non-dairy milk. You might also want to consider a B12 supplement if you’re at risk of a deficiency.
Iron deficiencies are a high risk for vegans and non-vegans alike who don’t have a sufficiently varied diet, particularly in older age. To ensure your red blood cells are as healthy as possible, older adults should be consuming 8.7mg of iron daily.
There are plenty of plant-based sources of iron you can add to your diet. Some top foods include:
- Green leafy vegetables (spinach, kale, etc.)
- Dried fruits
Vitamin C-rich foods (like citrus fruits, green peppers, and broccoli) can aid in iron absorption, so you should also eat plenty of these!
Vegans and non-vegans alike should be taking care of their diets to ensure a healthy balance of nutrients. Like a carnivorous diet has risks, cutting out meat and dairy comes with vital considerations that you need to be aware of to live a happy and healthy lifestyle.
These tips will help you know what aspects of your diet you need to focus on as an elder vegan. Whether it’s ensuring you have plenty of grains and legumes in your diet or considering adding supplements, there are plenty of options to get your daily dose of nutrients without consuming animal-based foods.
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