This is part 3 the series “A beginner’s Guide to veganism”. You can find Part One here
In Part 2 of this beginner’s guide I sent you to the shops with the advice not to worry too much about nutrition but just to buy tasty whole foods. I still think this is good advice – however I do think that it is worth thinking a little bit about where we get our nutrients from if only to set our minds at ease. I was a vegetarian for 22 years because I didn’t think you could eat a balanced vegan diet. I had always been taught that a vegan diet would be lacking in certain macro and micro nutrients and that I couldn’t be healthy. The thoughts below are the things that I have discovered over the last couple of years that have kept me healthy.
Protein: When you tell someone you are a vegan they suddenly discover they have 1) a master’s degree in nutrition and 2) a deep concern for your health. Both of these will come together when they express the certain knowledge that you are going to die of a protein deficiency. The fact is that most people consume far too much protein. The RDA for protein is only about 55g or 220 cal. About 10% of our calories should come from protein. Brown rice, whole grains, pulses, lentils, soy products, nuts and seeds all contain a high proportion of their calories from protein and 10% of the calories from most vegetables come from protein.
When we talk about protein what we really mean are the 9 essential amino acids that our bodies can’t synthesise for themselves. Few plant sources contain all 9 of these in the right proportion which is why they are often called ‘incomplete proteins’ but eating a wide range of foods over the day will mean that this isn’t really an issue. See here for more.
Calcium: The dairy industry has done a very good job at pretending that we need their products to get our calcium. Humans are the only animal that drinks milk past weening and the only one that drinks the milk of another species. So how does every other animal cope without calcium? How do elephants have such strong bones without any calcium? The truth is that many plants are loaded with calcium; especially dark leafy greens. Other good sources are calcium set tofu and soy milk. Eat lots of whole foods and plenty of greens and calcium is no issue. See here for a calcium rich meal.
Iron: Studies do show that iron stores in vegetarians are low than those of meat eaters however incidence of anaemia is not. It could even be that having iron stores at a slightly lower end of the normal range might actually be healthier. There is lots of iron in plant foods, however the body has a harder time absorbing it than iron from animal sources. Eating vitamin C alongside iron helps its absorption which is handy as vitamin C is also found alongside iron in many plant foods. Every so often I monitor my daily intake of key vitamins and never find my iron consumption is below 150% of its RDA.
B12: This is the only vitamin that isn’t found in plant foods. It is produced by bacteria that are consumed by animals and so by eating these animals we consume the vitamin. It is possible that by eating vegetables straight out of the ground we would be consuming this as well but frankly I don’t think it is worth the risk. B12 is the only vitamin supplement that I think every vegan should be taking. See here for more details.
There are of course a whole host of vitamins and minerals that we should be consuming for optimal health and I find nutritional science fascinating. However this reductionist approach is not always helpful. Michael Pollan points out that you cannot isolate the vitamin from the food, the food from the diet or the diet from the lifestyle. If we eat nutrient dense, unprocessed whole foods then we really shouldn’t have to worry about nutrients. We should be far to busy enjoying a lovely meal.
Speaking of which – here is something to try 🙂
We went out for dinner last night to a lovely vegetarian restaurant in Brighton called Food for Friends. We both had their salad for a starter and I decided to try to replicate it as best I could for my lunches at the start of the week and for dinner tonight. It is. a great mix of grains, nuts and seeds and could be host to a whole lot more; I had meant to add some sea vegetables.
The most time consuming part is preparing the different grains which need to be cooked separately and for different amounts of times. I cooked up a big batch of each so that I could not only use them in this salad but have some to stir into a chilli tomorrow.
1 cup cooked barley
1 cup cooked quinoa
1 cup cooked green lentils
1/4 cup walnuts
1/4 cup sesame seeds
1/4 cup pumpkin seeds
1 large sweet potato
1 large beetroot
1 tbsp cumin seeds
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 tbsp Olive oil
2 tbsp finely chopped capers
Slice the beetroot and sweet potato as thinly as possible, rub in oil and roast until crisp. Sprinkle with cumin seeds.
Once cooked mix all the other ingredients together and serve with a green salad, topped with the root vegetable crisps, a slice of sourdough bread and a spoonful of hummus.
What are your thoughts in eating a healthy vegan diet? What advice would you have to address people’s concerns?