What you really need to know to make a vegan diet work for you
Veganism seems to the buzz word of the moment doesn’t it?
You may already be vegan, or you may be dabbling with #meatfreemonday, or you may just have noticed the growing interest in the numerous health benefits associated with ditching meat.
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. 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 hell of a lot of people (around 3.5 million).
So why is it suddenly so popular?
A vegan diet excludes ALL animal products, which includes meat, fish, eggs, dairy and even honey.
The nutritional attraction of a vegan diet is the fact that it tends to be higher in nutrients, phytonutrients, antioxidants, flavonoids, carotenoids and fibre and is lower in saturated fats, which support overall health and reduce risk factors associated with disease. Research also suggests that vegans have a lower incidence of depression than those eating meat and fish.
Veganism is also better for the environment due to less resources needed to produce plant based foods (depends though on where you are sourcing your food from…aim for seasonal and local wherever possible!) – and then there is the animal welfare argument too surrounding how meat and fish products are produced.
However, there is no avoiding the fact that veganism 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.
Let’s have a look at the key areas that need to be considered by those following a vegan diet…
Getting enough PROTEIN
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, especially for new mums for whom protein is so important.
First, let’s run through a quick lesson in protein.
Protein is a macronutrient (the others being fats and carbohydrates) that is used by the body in the production of neurotransmitters, enzymes, hormones – and is essential to the body’s ability to repair itself – hence why it’s so vital in the postnatal period.
Protein is made up of chains of amino acids. There are various different types of amino acids – twelve of these occur naturally in the body, but there are nine that your body NEEDS you to get from your diet. These nine are called ESSENTIAL amino acids.
When a food contains all 9 amino acids, it is a ‘complete’ protein. The most common forms of complete proteins include meat, fish, seafood, eggs and dairy – all of which are not vegan!
There are a few plant based proteins that do contain all 9 amino acids, but the levels are much lower than those found in animal sources, so you would have to eat huge quantities to get what you need.
Some examples of high protein plant-based foods:
So you have to be smart to ensure you’re hitting your protein goals as a vegan. You CAN do this though, as long as you understand how to pair various plant based foods together to make a complete protein and therefore enjoy a protein-rich diet. You don’t necessarily need to eat the proteins together in the same meal but aim for the same day.
Examples of complete protein pairings:
- Wholegrains with beans:
- hummus and wholegrain bread or pitta
- 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 seed
I would also advise you to include protein rich foods with every meal and swap in higher protein options wherever possible, to ensure adequate amino acids intake throughout the day.
Some other high protein options to increase your intake throughout the day:
- Lentil, chickpea or pea pasta instead of wheat pasta
- Include pulses / legumes with salads and soups
- Add tempeh or tofu to vegetable stir-fries
- Hummus makes a great high protein snack instead of rice cakes/biscuits
Now, turning our attention to the various nutrient deficiencies that are common amongst vegans…
Getting enough B12 (cobalamin):
The key functions of vitamin 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.
There is no myth to bust here, you simply cannot get adequate B12 from plant based sources alone, even if heavily relying on fortified foods such as cereals. 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.
Getting enough 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.
Sadly for vegans, the most bioavailable source of omega 3 fatty acids comes from oily fish.
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’s needed for this too), 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 cleverly labelled as ‘good source of calcium’) but the reality is many contain stabilisers and fillers like rice water to bulk out the milk with an incomparable 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.
The Bottom Line…
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.
But turning vegan, or having vegan meals, or ‘vegan days’ shouldn’t be done willy nilly. During pregnancy, the early postnatal period and throughout your breastfeeding journey especially, the body needs higher levels of certain nutrients, so please be extra vigilant during this time to make sure you are getting enough nutrients from your diet.
Also, don’t believe the hype that ALL vegan food is healthy! Because it is considered the new ‘food trend’, a wide range of food companies have cottoned on to this and started changing up their marketing strategies to appeal to those thinking that opting for ‘vegan’ choices will automatically make them healthier. This is where we need to wise up against the marketers – just because food is labelled as ‘vegan’ doesn’t always mean it is healthy. Just because you’ve stripped out the animal produce, doesn’t mean you have to strip out the sugar, the fillers and the other ‘nasties’.
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!
For more information on all things vegan, or if you want to talk to Kristy directly about your own nutritional needs, you can find her on Instagram @kristycolemannutrition or you can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.