Veganism is tough, but has many benefits
While there’s much to be said for the strict regime, supplements should also be considered for balanced diet
The vegan diet: accepting it is not for the faint-hearted. Photograph: Thinkstock
Can a plant-based diet really satisfy your appetite and help you lose weight? A client just returned from Costa Rica was reminiscing about his fondness for gallo pinto. That is, rice and beans mixed with onion and bell pepper. His vegan diet had helped him shed more than two stone. But since his return an increasing number of calories from beer were scrambling into his total intake.
He wanted to continue to lose weight, yet found himself concerned with the overall balance of nutrients in his diet and the problem of juggling two pretty intensive nights of drinking in the local every week. He was right to be concerned. Just because a drink is vegan doesn’t make it healthy, especially if it replaces other essential nutrients from food. Vegans can drink many soft drinks, except for some red-coloured ones that contain cochineal from crushed beetles.
They can also drink certain beers and wines not clarified using animal protein. Vegans seek out alternative clarifiers such as the clay mineral, bentonite, in their wines. However, this doesn’t mean their vegan tipple is free of either calories or alcohol.
Most of us would do well to move more pulses, vegetables, fruits, seeds, nuts and grains to the centre of the plate more often, instead of leaving them on the fringes.
However, adopting a completely vegan diet is not for the faint-hearted. It can certainly be a path to better health but only if it is well planned. Vegans avoid all animal foods such as meat, poultry, seafood, dairy, eggs and honey, as well as anything that comes from an animal such as gelatine, colours and byproducts.
This means vegans spend more time reading labels, adapting recipes and shopping. They are creative with their plant-based diets to ensure they include the myriad of nutrients they might potentially miss out on, such as protein, iron, vitamin D and B12, omega 3 and calcium.
A well-planned vegan diet is even more restrictive than a vegetarian diet and many people find it a challenge to sustain. However when it is right, the matrix is a healthy balance of good fats, high in fibre and full of phytonutrients, vitamins, minerals and plant proteins.
The health benefits of a balanced vegan diet are impressive. Research has found lower levels of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers associated with this eating pattern.
However when cutting out animal products there are some specific nutrients to consider. The following information outlines common sources of important nutrients in the vegan diet, but is not meant to replace individual tailored advice from a qualified INDI dietitian.
Protein is made up of amino acids, some of which are essential as the body cannot make them. While proteins from animal sources contain the complete mix of essential amino acids, few plants foods do.
Soya, quinoa and hemp are examples of plant foods containing all the essential amino acids. Most other plant proteins provide some, with each plant providing a different combination. A mixture of different plant proteins over the course of a day allows you to make up the full complement of essential amino acids your body needs.
Vegan sources of protein
n Beans, peas, lentil, chickpeas, kidney beans, etc.
n Soya and soya products such as soya milk, tofu and tempeh.
n Nuts and nut butters, eg cashew butter, almond butter.
n Seeds such as pumpkin, sesame and sun flower
n Meat alternatives such as textured vegetable protein
Non-haem iron is found mainly in fortified foods such as breakfast cereals; wholemeal breads; textured vegetable protein; dark green leafy vegetables such as broccoli, spinach and cabbage; peas, beans, chickpeas and lentils; nuts and sesame seeds; blackstrap molasses; and dried fruit such as apricots and raisins. This type of iron is not very easily absorbed.
For vegans, including a rich source of vitamin C such as orange juice or salad with meals will enhance the absorption of iron from plant-based foods. For example, a small glass of unsweetened orange juice with a fortified breakfast cereal in the morning can help increase the amount of iron the body can absorb.
Tannins in tea and coffee and calcium reduce the amount of iron the body can absorb from food, so take tea and coffee and calcium supplements between meals rather than with them. Avoid adding bran and wheatgerm to meals, as this will decrease the absorption of iron from plant foods.
Sources of vitamin C
n Citrus fruits and juices
n Green vegetables such as broccoli, Brussel sprouts and spinach.
Dairy foods are sources of iodine, vitamin B12, phosphorous, protein and calcium. When these are avoided, significant amounts of alternatives need to be introduced to replace the daily requirement of 800mg calcium.
n Calcium-enriched rice milk, oat milk, soya milk and so on
n Nuts and seeds
n Dried fruit such as apricots and figs
Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium from food. Vitamin D can be made in the skin through the action of sunlight on it. But we cannot rely on making sufficient vitamin D in this country at our latitude. It is important to include sources in your diet as well. Check the amounts in fortified foods to ensure an adequate intake.
Sources of vitamin D
n Some fortified brands of soya milks, yogurts and desserts
n A few fortified breakfast cereals
Vitamin B12 is important for making red blood cells and helping the body to use fats. Folic acid another B vitamin when taken in high dose supplements can sometimes mask a vitamin B12 deficiency. The danger is that, without symptoms, vegans may not realise they have a B12 deficiency and an increased risk of nerve damage. Regular blood tests measuring vitamin B12 are recommended and a vitamin B12 supplement from methylcobalamin if deficient.
Sources of vitamin B12
n Textured vegetable protein
n Fortified dairy alternatives
n Breakfast cereals
n Fortified brands of rice drinks and oat drinks
n Nutritional yeast
Omega 3 fatty acids
Omega 3 fatty acids are important for heart disease and for eye, nerve and brain development. Good sources of omega-3 fats include vegan sources of alpha linolenic acid (ALA) are vegetable oils, particularly linseed, walnut, rapeseed and soya oils. Although our bodies can convert some ALA into the essential EPA and DHA we need, the conversion isn’t very efficient. To optimise the conversion, try to avoid foods high in trans fats and saturated fats, and limit oils that are high in linoleic acid, such as safflower, sunflower and corn oils. When you don’t eat fish, you might consider a supplement made from algae-derived DHA or a linseed-based supplement.
Sources of omega 3 fatty acids
n DHA supplements made from algae
n Sea vegetables such as seaweeds
n Linseed and linseed oil
Brazil nuts are the richest plant source of selenium. Choose these more often.
Paula Mee is a dietitian and a member of the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute.
See medfit.ie; @paula_mee