Whatever your level of interest in veganism, it’s safe to say that it’s not just a fad, but a diet that is here to stay. Qualified and registered Nutritionist, Kristy Coleman, shares her top tips and things to consider with a plant-based diet.
You may already be vegan, or you may be dabbling with #veganary or #meatfreemonday, or you may just have noticed the growing interest in environmental health and animal welfare, not to mention the various health benefits of increasing plant based foods. In just the past 2 years, veganism has grown by 700% and vegans now make up approximately 7% of the UK population, which is a lot of people (around 3.5 million).
So why is it suddenly so popular?
A vegan diet means excluding all animal products, which includes meat, fish, eggs, dairy and even honey. If done right, the benefits of a vegan diet include:
- a diet higher in nutrients, phytonutrients, antioxidants, flavonoids, carotenoids and fibre and lower in saturated fats, which support overall health and reduce risk factors associated with disease;
- better for the environment due to less resources needed to produce plant based foods (but this depends on where you are sourcing your food from); and
- research suggests that vegans have a lower incidence of depression than those eating meat and fish.
What is the attraction behind it?
However, there is no avoiding the fact that it is a highly restrictive diet if not approached carefully, and followers of a vegan diet do need to be mindful to cover their nutritional bases to avoid nutritional deficiencies (such as omega 3, vitamin b12, calcium and protein) which can have fairly serious consequences.
The key areas to focus on are:
This is usually the first criticism levied at veganism – that it is just too difficult to get enough adequate protein from a plant-based diet. Protein is essential. It is your body’s main building block (and not just used for muscle), it is used for so many different things, such as making your neurotransmitters, enzymes and hormones and for your body to repair.
Not all protein sources are what we called ‘complete’. A unit of protein is made up of components called amino acids – your body can make 12 of these, but there are 9 that you need to get from your diet. These 9 are called ESSENTIAL amino acids. When a food contains all 9 amino acids, it is a ‘complete’ protein. Complete proteins include meant, fish, seafood, eggs and dairy. Few plant based proteins contain all 9 amino acids (soybeans, buckwheat, quinoa) but you would have to eat large quantities to get what you need. The majority of plant based foods are not a source of complete protein in themselves, because they don’t contain all 9 essential amino acids you need.
However, with the right knowledge, you can carefully pair incomplete proteins with complementary other incomplete proteins. You don’t need to eat the proteins together in the same meal but aim for the same day. Examples include:
- Wholegrains (e.g. brown rice, brown bread) with beans: hummus (you can make your own with butterbeans or chickpeas with tahini, lemon and olive oil) and wholegrain bread, black bean chili and rice, lentil dahl with brown rice, bean soup with whole grain bread.
- Seeds/nuts with wholegrains: nut/seed butters on oatcakes or toast.
- Beans with seeds or nuts: hummus (contains tahini, which is made from sesame seeds), porridge with sunflower seeds.
Now, turning our attention to the various nutrient deficiencies that are common amongst vegans…
Getting enough B12 (cobalamin):
The key functions of B12 are to help you produce energy from fats and protein and to make haemoglobin and red blood cells and support your nervous system, which is why some people experience tingling if they have a B12 deficiency. You simply cannot get adequate B12 from plant based sources alone. Supplementation of this vitamin is important as without adequate B12 you may experience fatigue, headaches and pale skin.
Getting enough iron:
Iron is an essential mineral, which is needed for many functions within the body, including the production of haemoglobin, which transports oxygen around your body, energy production, immunity and brain health.
While animal derived iron is more bioavailable (easier for your body to absorb), you can also get your iron needs from plant based sources, such as dark leafy greens, dried unsulfured fruits, legumes and pulses. To optimise your absorption of iron from plants, add vitamin c (e.g. squeeze lemon juice over greens) and lightly steam your greens and soak your legumes/pulses to break down phytates, which bind to iron.
Omega 3 fatty acids:
Omega 3 fatty acids are a family of essential fatty acids, which your body cannot make, so you need to make sure you get them through diet. They are needed for your brain, nerves, eyes, connective tissues, skin, blood vessels and support the regulation of inflammation.
The most bioavailable source of omega 3 fatty acids comes from oily fish (salmon, anchovies, maceral, sardines and herring). You can get omega 3 fatty acids from plant based sources, like flaxseeds and walnuts but unfortunately, we lose around 70% in converting these into a usable form. Seaweeds and algae are not a reliable source as the quantity of omega 3 varies considerably. If you are relying on plants for your source of omega 3, you might want to look at a supplement to ensure you are meeting your requirements.
Getting enough calcium:
Like iron, calcium is another essential mineral you need in your diet. There is more to calcium than bone health, it is crucial for nerve function (e.g. muscle contraction and relaxation), blood clotting and regulating your heart beat.
Contrary to popular (misguided) beliefs – calcium doesn’t have to come from dairy! Plant based foods can be a great source of calcium but how bioavailable that calcium is depends on the plant. For example, dark leafy greens are a great source of calcium but it is more difficult for your body to absorb the calcium in spinach than the calcium in kale due to the levels of oxalates, which inhibit calcium absorption. Fortified milks, tofu, tempeh, nuts and seeds are good sources.
A note about plant based milks: plant based milks may seem like a simple swap for dairy (especially as many are labelled as ‘good source of calcium’) but the reality is many contain stabilisers and fillers like rice water to bulk them out. This makes a lot of alternative milks incomparable in nutrient profile to milk, so just swapping your milk isn’t going to be enough to maintain adequate calcium levels. Always read the label and look for those with as little added to as possible and look at plants for sources of calcium and protein, instead of your oat latte.
We do all need to eat more plants. Research shows we should be eating closer to 10 portions of vegetables and fruit per day for optimal health and choosing plant based foods to make up the bulk of your diet is a great way to achieve this. Not only do plants contain plenty of nutrients but also polyphenols and important fibres to support your gut health.
A new EAT report released by the Lancet by 37 of the World’s best scientists has illuminated the need for an increased consumption of plant based foods to save destroying the planet. So even if you just include a few extra vegan plant-based meals a week, you will be going some way in supporting the environment.
But don’t believe the hype that all vegan food is healthy! Beware of marketing strategies that appeal to those thinking that opting for ‘vegan’ choices will automatically make them healthier. This is where we need to look at the label – just because food is labelled as ‘vegan’ doesn’t always mean it is healthy.
From vegan donuts to nachos, there are lots of examples of less healthy vegan food so like everything, these should be consumed in moderation, rather than being used a free pass to eat as much as you want. Make plant based foods the base of your diet and minimise processed and fried foods, even if they are vegan!