It wasn’t so long ago that coming across a vegan eater was a rare occurrence, but veganism is now steadily becoming one of the most popular ways of eating around the world. It has a lengthy list of celebrity backers, including athletes such as Serena Williams, and most of us know someone who has gone vegan and feels great having done so.
What is eating a vegan diet?
So what does eating a vegan diet entail? Eating a vegan diet means that you exclude meat, eggs, dairy products and all other animal-derived ingredients. This includes things such as honey, gelatin (comes from the skin, bones and connective tissue of cows and pigs), and some natural flavourings.
Why are so many people turning to veganism?
Apart from any ethical concerns, there certainly seem to be other significant benefits to eating a vegan diet:
It’s good for the environment; agriculture is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions (more than all transport). Rearing livestock for animal based products requires far more land, water and energy than producing grain.
It might make you live longer; while veganism isn’t necessarily a one-way ticket to eternal youth, numerous scientific studies have been taken to measure the impact of a plant-based diet in reducing the risk of major diseases, including diabetes and heart disease with very positive results. A vegan diet can also ease the symptoms of arthritis sufferers and help prevent obesity.
Eating more vegetables is good for you; unless you plan to last on a diet of chips and vegan sausages (and I don’t recommend it), you’ll be eating more vegetables. And we all know we need to eat more vegetables!
So, how do I make sure I get all the nutrients I need on a vegan diet?
The vegan diet can be a healthy way of eating as long as long as macronutrient and micronutrient needs are met. You are more restricted than those who eat animal products and whilst it can be challenging to meet your nutrient needs, it’s far from impossible. It’s not just a case of finding new sources of protein though. There are certain vitamins and minerals that you need to pay special attention to, to avoid deficiencies.
Here are my tips for staying healthy and full of beans on a vegan diet:
Your plate should look similar to that on a non-vegan plate in terms of food group balance; each meal should include non-starchy vegetables such as green beans, broccoli, capsicum, mushrooms, spinach, zucchini etc. It should then also contain sources of proteins like quinoa, beans, lentils, chickpeas, tofu or nuts, and complex carbohydrates like sweet potatoes, brown rice, cous-cous or pumpkin.
Add healthy fats to each meal, as these help with the absorption of nutrients. Foods like seeds, olive oil, nuts, avocado, tahini and edamame are great vegan options. Watch the portion size though, the size of your thumb is plenty.
Don’t replace animal products with junk. Swapping animal products for bread, pasta, and other packaged foods sets you up for failure. It will only make you hungry, grumpy and ensure you put on weight! The majority of a vegan diet needs to be made up of whole foods such as vegetables, fruits, beans, pulses, legumes, nuts and seeds, as opposed to heavily processed vegan products. Give plenty of thought as to the ‘real’ foods you will eat before switching to a vegan diet, and be prepared to read food labels.
Take it easy on soy-based meat substitutes. I think critics of soy meat substitutes overstate the dangers of these soy based products, but I think that the benefits are also usually exaggerated. Though scientists are still arguing over the effects of soy on cancer and heart health, one thing is for certain: soy-based vegan ‘meat’ products are often highly processed, and loaded with salt and preservatives, so read the labels carefully. The healthiest sources of soy are miso, tempeh, unsweetened soy milk, and edamame.
And what about vitamins?
Calcium is essential for bone health, amongst other things, and is usually found in dairy products. Up your intake of green leafy vegetables, chia seeds, almonds and fortified plant milks. There are several available in supermarkets and health food shops, just ensure the label states that it’s fortified with calcium.
Iodine is also an important mineral that is usually found in dairy and fish. It is essential for thyroid health (regulates metabolism as well as many other essential bodily functions) so you don’t want to be deficient. Good vegan sources are seaweed and other sea vegetables, potatoes (ensuring you eat the skin too) and prunes. Cranberries can also be a rich source, however I recommend buying fresh cranberries or fresh juice. If you’re buying store bought juice, shop around and compare to make sure you’re getting the lowest amount of added sugar. Store bought, processed juice usually equals a mountain of added sugar!
Vitamin D can be found in sunlight, and foods such as meat, fish, dairy and eggs, so vegans could find themselves lacking in it. Spend at least 15 minutes outside, with your skin exposed to sunlight at least 4 times a week to produce sufficient amounts to keep at an optimum level. It’s also worth noting that sufficient vitamin D levels are also essential for the body to absorb calcium.
Iron – this is a tricky one. Iron comes in two forms: heme and non-heme. Heme, which makes up about 40% of the iron in animal foods, is easily absorbed by the body. Vegan diets contain non-heme iron only which is less readily absorbed, so you may need to ingest more iron if you want to get the same benefit. Good vegan iron sources include beans and lentils, sunflower seeds, dark leafy greens and raisins (in moderation). Certain Vitamin C-rich foods, such as capsicums, citrus and broccoli, aid iron absorption so it would be worth eating more of those.
Vitamin B12 works in every cell of the body and there are some serious consequences of not getting enough vitamin B12, such as muscles weakness, shortness of breath, numbness, heart palpitations and behavioural changes. As this vitamin is only found naturally in animal products, the only reliable sources are foods fortified with B12 (some plant milks, some soy products and some breakfast cereals) and B12 supplements. Most vegans get enough B12 to get by, but can often be borderline deficient. To be sure you’re getting enough, I’d advise supplementation. If you’re unsure, ask your doctor for a blood test.
Remember, food diversity is so important for weight management, digestive and mental health, immune function, and so many other factors of overall health. Try to eat as much variety within the vegan parameters as you can.
If you wish to become vegan but haven’t yet done so, you don’t have to make the switch all at once. It takes effort to follow this way of eating, so you should take your time when transitioning. Start by adding more plant-based foods to your diet, while at the same time cutting back on animal products and processed refined foods in general. Making gradual changes and assessing how you are feeling will be the key to your success!
If you have any questions or need assistance on this or any other topic, please get in touch :)