Vegan diets and food allergies

Read Time:   |  4th November 2020

The Vegan Society dietician Heather Russell looks at how to cope with allergies on a vegan diet

Some vegan-curious people have health concerns about transitioning to a vegan diet – but The Vegan Society is here to help. This month, we’re looking at considerations around food allergies.

What is a food allergy?

If you have an allergy to a particular food, you experience a reaction that involves your immune system. This is different to a food intolerance, which doesn’t involve your immune system.

The symptoms of food allergies range from unpleasant ones, like rashes or vomiting, to life-threatening anaphylaxis, involving breathing difficulties and collapse. Some reactions occur immediately – up to two hours after eating. There is also a delayed type of reaction, which can occur 2-48 hours later, usually involving skin or gut symptoms.

Vegan versus free-from

It’s important to be clued up about the differences between vegan and allergy standards. The Vegan Society doesn’t claim that products registered with the Vegan Trademark are suitable for people with allergies to animal products; this depends on the standards achieved by individual manufacturers.

The licence agreement asks companies to confirm that they strive to minimise cross-contamination from animal products as far as is reasonably practicable.

Therefore, vegan products may carry warnings about animal allergens. Even if you’ve bought a product before, it’s recommended that you check the label in case there have been any changes.

Going vegan with a food allergy

A food allergy can make it more challenging to make dietary changes, including the transition to a vegan diet. However, the level of difficulty partly depends on the nutritional impact of avoiding a particular plant food.

Careful planning may be required to compensate for the exclusion of a staple food in vegan diets, such as peanuts, seeds, nuts, peas, lentils, soya or other beans. Here are some examples of potential considerations:

  • Beans, peas, lentils, peanuts, soya products and certain seeds and nuts are sources of good quality protein, as well as of iron and zinc.
  • Peanuts, nuts and seeds contain healthy fats. For example, walnuts, ground linseed (flaxseed), hemp seeds and chia seeds are really rich sources of omega-3 fat.

Due to the potential effects on nutrient intakes, it’s important to be confident that any dietary restrictions are necessary, particularly if you’re avoiding multiple plant foods. Accessing the best support is key.

Professional support

If you have concerns about food allergies, seek advice from your local healthcare team, who can refer you for specialist diagnosis and management. Dietitians are in the best position to provide individualised dietary advice as part of this process. They can also support people with an existing food allergy diagnosis who are interested in eating a vegan diet. Another way of accessing help is to contact a specialist charity, such as Allergy UK.

Heather Russell is passionate about eating well and She trained to be a dietitian to combine her love of science with a desire to help people, and she loves food! She worked in the NHS from 2010- 16, and is now using her dietetic skills to support the work of The Vegan Society. www.vegansociety.com

Find out how to get to grips with a vegan diet as a coeliac here

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