Veganism, whether you’re an advocate or completely fed up of it, is everywhere. It’s very possible you’ve been tempted to dip your toe in the vegan diet. Veganuary or Cowspiracy, anyone?
Following a vegan diet for a few days a week can certainly be beneficial from a nutrition point of view. Like any diet, it can be approached in a healthy or an unhealthy way. Having more crisps, doughnuts and G&Ts, even if they’re vegan, probably won’t lead to a healthier diet. No fear! Below Sophie Thurner has explained everything you need to know so you can introduce veganism the right way.
How to introduce veganism
While a vegan diet can be very nutritious, there are some nutrients that are significantly more difficult to obtain when you switch. These includes iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin B12, Vitamin D, iodine, omega 3 fatty acids and complete protein sources. So, when considering going vegan, it’s best to go through a transition period. Going vegan a few days a week and including some animal products for the rest is unlikely to put anyone at risk of nutritional insufficiencies.
Tip: If you go full-on vegan, you have to be mindful of some nutrients that are more difficult to obtain from a strictly plant-based diet.
Some nutrients, such as vitamin B12, cannot be obtained by a purely plant-based diet. B12 deficiency can have severe health consequences, as it is essential in the development of healthy red blood cells and nervous system. As such, supplementation is highly advised.
This also applies to vitamin D – though vitamin D supplementation is recommended for everyone between October and March, irrespective of their diet.
Tip: If you drastically limit animal produce, take a vitamin B12 supplement, or a B-complex supplement. If you live in the UK or the Northern hemisphere, take a vitamin D supplement from October to March.
Adequate levels of nutrients such as omega 3 fatty acids, selenium and iodine can be met with consumption of a variety of seeds, nuts and fortified nut milks and other milk alternatives. However adequate levels are not as easily obtained as they are with plant-based products.
Tip: Supplement with an omega-3 supplement that contains EPA and DHA. Vegan versions derived from algae can be found in health food stores.
How to naturally supplement
Other nutrients such as calcium, iron and zinc can be found in plant-based foods. However, these nutrients are less bio-available in the body, particularly because absorption is affected by other compounds found in the same foods, including oxalates and phytates.
Absorption can be increased with prior preparation like soaking and rinsing grains and legumes before cooking, or, in the case of iron, adding a source of vitamin c.
Tip: Soak, sprout and wash whole grains and legumes before cooking. When eating iron-rich foods add a source of vitamin C, such as a side of red pepper, orange juice or a cup of mixed berries for dessert.
What about protein?
Lack of protein is typically the first concern for anyone considering a vegan diet. However, adequate protein levels can easily be met with a vegan diet. Very few plant-based foods contain the full spectrum of essential amino acids (building blocks of protein that the body cannot make itself and must be obtained from the diet), however a daily combination of different plant-based products will provide sufficient protein.
Tip: Combine different plant-based protein sources in order to achieve the full spectrum of essential amino acids. Possible combinations include grains and legumes. These include black beans and rice, pasta and peas, wholewheat bread and peanut butter, bean soup and crackers. Alternatively, go for nuts and seeds plus legumes. Think roasted nuts, seeds, and peanuts, hummus (chickpeas and tahini), lentils and almonds.
Basing a diet on wholesome plant-based products, including vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes, has a vast array of reported benefits. Not only do these foods provide ample micronutrients, including vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients, they are also fantastic sources of fibre. The UK average daily fibre intake is 18g which is nowhere near the daily recommended 30g. Considering that adequate fibre intake is imperative for a healthy gut and can decrease the risk of chronic disease. Most people would benefit from including more plant-based products into their diet.
Tip: Include a large variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes when following a vegan (or any) diet.
Should you eat a vegan diet?
When done right, the vegan diet can be easy to follow and may provide various health and environmental benefits.
Whether it is informing yourselves of the different protein profile of different foods, taking extra time to prepare grains in advance, or investing in good quality supplements, it’s clear that a vegan diet requires more thought and care than an omnivorous one. If you introduce a vegan diet a few days a week, there’s little chance of nutritional deficiencies. However if you decide to go strictly vegan long-term, you need to start planning ahead.
Ultimately, with some supplementation and a focus on a variety of healthy foods, a vegan diet can be healthy and nutritious.