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The motives and challenges facing South African vegans and the nutritional quality of their diet.

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Introduction: A vegan diet is a voluntarily chosen plant-based diet that excludes all meat and animal products and includes wholegrains and legumes, fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds and healthy fats. There are many different motives that influence an individual to become vegan including ethical motives, environmental motives and health motives. Internationally, many studies have been conducted to investigate these motives along with the nutritional intake and quality of the vegan diet. This diet is also becoming increasingly popular in South Africa, yet there is a paucity of studies that have been conducted to determine what motivates South Africans to follow this diet, what challenges they face while following the diet and what the nutritional quality of their diet is. Aim: To determine the motives of South African vegans, challenges faced and the nutritional quality of the South African vegan diet. Objectives: To determine the demographic characteristics of South African vegans; the motives that influenced the decision to become a vegan; challenges associated with following a vegan diet and how these challenges are overcome; and to determine the nutritional quality of dietary intake compared to recommendations (EARs) consumed and identify the variety of food groups and types of processed food in the vegan diet. Methods: A cross-sectional study in the form of an online questionnaire was conducted using South African vegans who were part of the South African Vegan Society online group on Facebook. The questionnaire consisted of four sections. Section one obtained information regarding the demographics of South African vegans. Section two obtained information on the main motives for following a vegan diet. Section three obtained information on the challenges experienced while following a vegan diet and how these challenges were overcome. Section four obtained information on the nutritional quality of the vegan diet which included a veganspecific Food Frequency Questionnaire (FFQ) with 291 food items and one 24-hour recall. Results: The first two sections of the online questionnaire were completed by 205 respondents, of which 82.4% (n = 169) were female and 17.6% (n = 36) were male. The respondents were predominately White (82.4%, n = 169), resided in the Gauteng province (43.9%, n = 90), were more likely to be single (53.2%, n = 109) and belonged to the 18-29 (29.3%, n = 60) and 40-49 age category (22.0%, n = 45). Most of the respondents had followed a vegan diet for one to less than three years (38.5%, n = 79). A significant number of respondents did not engage in smoking (83.9%, n = 172) but did consume alcoholic beverages less than once a week (60.0%, n = 123) (p<0.0005). Most of the respondents participated in varying amounts and intensities of physical activity (84.9%, n = 174) and made use of nutritional supplements (72.7%, n = 149). There was a significant agreement that ethical concern for animals (p<0.0005); followed by protecting the environment (p < 0.0005); and the effect of animal product consumption on climate change (p < 0.0005) were the main motivating factors for choosing to become a vegan. Most of the respondents reported that their initial motivation to become a vegan had not changed (71%, n = 146) and there was a significant agreement that experimenting with food assisted the respondents during their transition into the vegan diet (p < 0.0005). Section three of the questionnaire was completed by 197 respondents. Over one third of the respondents reported that it was “easy” to transition into the diet (35.1%, n = 72) and their initial emotions were enthusiasm and excitement (29.3%, n = 60). A significant number of respondents reported that they did not experience any financial challenges following the diet (74.6%, n = 176) and that their main challenge was finding vegan meal options in a restaurant (p < 0.0005). The respondents in this study overcame any challenges by conducting research on the internet and agreed that vegan recipes were easily accessible (p < 0.0005). The respondents significantly agreed that a vegan diet was nutritionally complete and adequate for a healthy lifestyle (p < 0.0005). The FFQ was completed by 113 respondents. Respondents consumed a wide variety of fruit; most often bananas (22.4%, n = 46) at least once a day, leafy-vegetables- most often cooked spinach (24.9%, n = 51) at least once a week, non-leafy vegetables- most often cooked broccoli (36.1%, n = 76) at least once a week. The starches most often consumed were whole-wheat bread (18.0%, n = 37) once a week, grains and cereals- most often white or brown basmati rice (20.0%, n = 41) once a month, peas and beans- most often chickpeas (32.2%, n = 66) at least once a week, fats- most often olive oil (20.5%, n = 42) at least once a day, snacks- most often potato chips (19.0%, n = 39) at least once a month. Desserts most often consumed were eggless cake (17.1%, n = 35) at least once a month, sweeteners- most often brown sugar (17.1%, n = 35) at least once a day and beverages- coffee decaffeinated or regular (29.3%, n = 60) at least once a day. The most commonly consumed plant-based milk alternative and meat alternative was soy milk (21.0%, n = 43) consumed at least once a day and soya products (28.8%, n = 59) at least once a week respectively. The 24-hour recall was completed by 134 respondents. The mean total energy of the respondents was 7471.15 kJ (SD = 3093.39). Males had a mean total energy of 7893.76 kJ (SD = 3415.37) and females had a mean total energy of 7374.22 kJ (SD = 3023.43). All respondents met the estimated average requirement (EAR) for protein (56 g for males and 46 g for females), carbohydrates (130 g) and the percentage of total energy for fat (10 - 35%). The respondents mean intake for protein was 74.73 g (SD = 52.28), carbohydrates 190.40 g (SD = 190.40) and fat 62.34 g (SD = 62.34), which contributed 18.5%, 47.36% and 33.7% respectively, of total energy in the diet. Females consumed significantly greater amounts of added sugar than males (M = 20.51 g) vs (M= 13.18 g). Both gender categories met their EARs for fibre, iron, vitamin C, vitamin B6, vitamin A, thiamine, riboflavin, folate and vitamin K. The respondents had a decreased intake of cholesterol, saturated fat and mono-unsaturated fatty acids and higher intakes of poly-unsaturated fatty acids. Females met their EARs for zinc and niacin, 9.02 mg and 15.32 mg respectively, while males were below their EAR, consuming 9.8 mg and 15.59 mg respectively. Males met their EAR for vitamin E consuming 20.32 mg, while females were below their EAR, consuming 13.56 mg of vitamin E. The respondents were shown to be lacking in calcium, sodium, vitamin D and vitamin B12. Conclusion: This study revealed that although veganism is widespread in South Africa, White females living in Gauteng were more likely to be following this lifestyle and be members of the South African Vegan Society online group on Facebook. Their main motive for following the diet was preventing cruelty towards animals and protecting the environment and its resources. This suggests that South African vegans are concerned about animal rights and the environment and their knowledge about veganism should be further investigated. The main challenge faced by the respondents was finding vegan options in restaurants. Therefore, restaurants that are vegan-specific or have vegan options available are recommended to list their restaurants online and upload their menus to assist vegans, as the internet was commonly used for research among this group. Major retail supermarkets are recommended to increase their stock and variety of options of vegan products especially plant-based milk and meat alternatives as these products are widely consumed. Research has shown that the vegan diet is linked to many potential health benefits, yet there is concern regarding whether the diet leads to nutrient deficiencies over time. As veganism is growing in South Africa, this study highlights the need for fortified food products and nutritional supplements to reduce nutrient deficiencies in the vegan diet. Longitudinal studies will also assist in examining trends and sustainability of a vegan diet in South Africa as well as determine whether nutrient deficiencies develop over time.


Masters Degree. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg.