Doing vegan right - getting everything you need from a fully plant-based diet
It's Veganuary, and I wanted to add my nutritional voice to the plant-based conversation.
There are numerous studies into the potential health benefits of vegan and plant-based diets, including for coronary artery disease, Type 2 diabetes and certain cancers. The advantages of eating more fruit and vegetables are proven and irrefutable.
There is no doubt that the ethical and environmental arguments in favour of veganism are numerous, powerful and compelling too. But as a nutritional therapist, I don't feel it's my role to get into these. A vegan lifestyle is an individual and highly personal choice that I fully respect and recognise the ethical and potential health benefits of.
MEETING YOUR NUTRITIONAL NEEDS
This month you might be planning to go fully-fledged vegan, or maybe you're an omnivore who wants to include more plant-based foods in your diet. Either way, including more nutrient-dense fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, nuts and seeds is something we can all aim for.
I want to support those following a vegan diet to get the most out of it. Veganism is often criticised because it's argued that we need animal products to get all the nutrients our bodies need from food. However, it's completely possible to be well nourished and healthy following a vegan diet if you plan what you eat carefully in response to your individual nutritional requirements. An understanding of key nutrients (and knowing when and where supplements are appropriate) goes a long way towards making sure you're getting everything your body needs.
As always, the points I'm making here are general, they don't take into account your individual nutritional needs - your family and personal health history, genetics, current diet, lifestyle and nutrient status all play a role in how best to adapt your diet to suit you. For personalised nutrition and lifestyle support, get in touch to discuss how I can best support you.
"Vegan" doesn't always mean "healthy"
It's a misconception that plant-based = healthy. Just because a food doesn't contain animal products, it doesn't mean it's good for you. As with omnivores, there are plenty of unhealthy vegans, who eat too many processed, refined convenience foods which bear little resemblance to fresh, nutrient-dense wholefoods.
There are also those vegans whose diets may be high in fresh fruit and veg, but who lack important nutrients from other food sources, such as omega 3 fats or vitamin B12. Because there are some essential nutrients that are more abundant and easy for our bodies to absorb in animal products, it's important to be mindful of how to get these through a fully plant-based diet.
So if you want to follow a vegan diet, what should you be eating?
Proteins are the building blocks for all cells, fluids, tissues, muscles and organs in the body. Most 'complete' sources of protein come from animal sources.
As a vegan, you mostly need to combine proteins in your daily diet to get the full spectrum of essential amino acids. Amino acids form proteins and there are 9 amino acids which are 'essential', meaning we have to get them from food.
There are some plant-based complete protein sources, including soy beans, quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth, chia seeds, spirulina and nutritional yeast, so include these in your diet.
However, we get the majority of complete proteins from plant-based foods when we combine beans/legumes with nuts, seeds or cereals (eating these combinations on the same days is fine, not necessarily in the same meal).
What to eat:
- Beans and legumes including lentils, chickpeas, blackbeans, peas, kidney beans, aduki beans and soy beans.
- Grains and cereals including brown rice, oats, sprouted grains, pearl barley, wholegrain breads, pasta, buckwheat, quinoa, amaranth and teff.
- Nuts and seeds including almonds, cashews, sesame, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, chia seeds (including nut and seed butters)
See this Bastyr University article for more information.
The form of iron that our bodies find easiest to absorb and use is haem iron, which is obtained from meat sources. However, there are plenty of plant-based sources of iron too, including beans and legumes, dark green leafy vegetables and certain nuts and seeds. Make sure a range of these foods are consumed as part of your daily diet.
Iron is essential for transporting oxygen around the body via haemoglobin in our red blood cells. Iron deficiency anaemia is fairly common, especially among menstruating and pregnant women, and can initially manifest as physical and mental fatigue, intolerance to cold, shortness of breath, dizziness and pale skin.
What to eat:
Lentils, sesame seeds, chickpeas, soybeans, kidney beans, spinach, swiss chard, beetroot, olives, almonds, apricots, parsley, cumin, turmeric, pine nuts, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, wheat germ, blackstrap molasses.
To increase the amount of iron absorbed from foods, combine iron containing foods with those rich in vitamin C (eg. citrus fruit, tomatoes, broccoli). Using cast iron cookware and soaking grains and legumes before cooking also increases iron absorption.
If you suspect you have low iron levels, see your GP for a blood test.
B12 performs important functions in the body; it's involved in the production of red blood cells, and is also needed for regulating homocysteine levels (high homocysteine levels are associated with cardiovascular disease). B12 is also used in DNA production and nervous system function. Adequate B12 levels are especially important for pregnant and breastfeeding women as a maternal B12 deficiency carries risks for infants.
In an omnivore's diet, vitamin B12 comes from animal sources. Following a vegan diet carries a risk of B12 deficiency without supplementation or eating fortified foods. A good quality B12 supplement is recommended for vegans as the most effective and convenient way of getting the required amounts.
The Vegan Society recommends vegans supplement either 10 micrograms of B12 daily or 2000 micrograms per week (the less frequently you absorb B12, the more you need to take).
What to eat:
Fortified foods, such as some brands of cereal, nutritional yeast and non-dairy milk can also provide B12. If relying on fortified foods, a variety need to be consumed 2-3 times daily to provide adequate levels.
It is recommended that anyone following a fully plant-based diet gets their B12 levels tested by their GP.
OMEGA 3 ESSENTIAL FATS
Omega 3 fatty acids cannot be made by the body, but must be obtained from food. Omnivores get most omega 3 from oily fish (or fish oil supplements), as they are the food source with the highest concentration of these fats.
Omega 3 fats are needed for cell membranes to function properly, for the production of certain hormones and the for regulation of inflammation. Omega 3 fats are also associated with cardiovascular health and are highly concentrated in the brain, meaning they play an important role in cognitive function.
Vegans can get some omega 3 from nuts and seeds, but the form in these foods has to go through a long conversion process in the body to get the active forms (EPA and DHA).
A more reliable plant-based source of omega 3 fats are algae oil supplements. These provide a rich source of DHA (meaning they skip the conversion process), and can be taken by those following a vegan diet to provide optimal omega 3 levels.
What to eat:
Walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds, dark green leafy vegetables.
Alongside these foods, consider a good quality omega 3 algae oil supplement.
While omnivores may get some vitamin D3 from food sources, plant-based sources of D2 are less bio-available for humans.
However, vitamin D deficiency is a risk for all populations without sun exposure or those exposed to low levels of sunlight. All babies, children and adults in the UK - regardless of diet - are now recommended to supplement with vitamin D in the winter months.
Ask your GP for a vitamin D test or use City Assays to find out your vitamin D status so you can supplement at an appropriate dose.
Although calcium is often associated with dairy, there are plenty of plant-based sources rich in this mineral, including dark green leafy vegetables and nuts and seeds.
Calcium is needed for bone and tooth health and muscle and nerve function. It also helps to maintain the body's acid/alkaline balance.
By following a varied, balanced vegan diet, it's completely possible to meet your body's calcium needs.
What to eat:
Tofu, sesame seeds, almonds, buckwheat, blackstrap molasses, dried figs, broccoli, collard greens, kale, bok choy, seaweed, mustard greens, turnips, white beans.
Zinc deficiency can cause problems with skin health, low attention and mood, digestive issues and a weakened immune system.
Zinc performs a number of important functions in the body, from supporting proper immune system function to healthy cell division and wound healing.
For those following a fully plant-based diet, eating a range of nuts, seeds, legumes and wholegrains should provide a healthy zinc intake.
What to eat:
Sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, cashews, lentils, chickpeas, quinoa, mushrooms, cacao.
This hearty salad provides a range of key nutrients:
- Quinoa for complete protein, with some extra protein from the peas.
- Beetroot and spinach for iron, with vitamin C from the lemon juice to aid absorption.
- Tahini for zinc, calcium and iron
Some of my other favourite vegan recipes: