Many people lately have expressed an interest in vegan (a.k.a. plant-based) nutrition and have asked me to explain the fundamentals of it. Nutrition is a very complex topic and there is so much to talk about. In order to keep this article digestible (pun intended), I will here address the key aspects of this rapidly expanding diet.
Veganism is defined as “a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as possible and practicable, all forms of cruelty to animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment.” – www.vegansociety.com
People who therefore follow a vegan diet consume neither animal products nor ingredients from animal source. Meat, fish, seafood, eggs, milk, cheese and other dairy are the obvious ones. We also avoid products that contain gelatine, whey, milk powder, butter, etc. (e.g. lollies, egg pasta, milk chocolate, most biscuits). It may sound restrictive however veganism is growing exponentially worldwide. The consequent good news is that plant-based versions of our favourite foods are now available almost everywhere. Think plant-based mince, sausages, milk, yoghurt, butter, ice-cream, cheese, lollies, biscuits… you name it.
There are 3 major benefits to plant-based nutrition:
- First, obviously, is the benefit to the animals, as they suffer immensely because of us. New technologies such as drone footage and social media have enabled the world to see what is happening behind the walls of factory farms and slaughterhouses, and it is not pretty. By adopting a plant-based diet, one significantly reduces the harm done to animals.
- Second, is the benefit to the environment, as breeding land and sea animals is very wasteful, and space and energy inefficient compared to crops. Intensive growing of fruits, grains and vegetables is also detrimental and this is why we promote permaculture. The bottom-line is that producing 1Kg of meat or fish requires a lot more inputs (water, food, energy) than growing 1Kg of plants.
- And last but not least, is the benefit to your health. The excess consumption of animal products has been linked to many cardio-vascular diseases because of their high content of saturated fats, free radicals and hormones. Cow’s milk for instance is intended to turn a baby calf into a 400Kg’s cow and therefore contains lots of fats and growth hormones. Any animal milk also contains caseo-morphine, an addictive substance that get babies coming back to their mum for faster growth and resilience. On the other hand, plant-based foods are highly digestible, rich in fibres, vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants. Despite what many people think, they provide all the nutrients we need to thrive. More on that below, keep reading…
Beyond the experience of the body, you might also consider the benefit to your spiritual health. The food we eat carries a certain energy, and we can’t deny the physical and emotional pain endured by animals before they end-up on our plates. I don’t believe there is really a human way of taking the life of a sentient being who wanted to live. And I found that not only my physical energy increased when I transitionned to plant foods, but I also felt lighter at all levels – body and mind.
So what do we eat?
The basis to a healthy vegan diet, just like a vegetarian or omnivore diet, is to eat a variety of non-processed wholefoods. Fruits, vegetables, grains / cereals, nuts, seeds, legumes / pulses are the main staples. Then you can include mock meats, cheeses, yoghurts, ice creams, biscuits and other vegan goodies in smaller amounts if you want to.
What about macro-nutrients?
They are our main source of energy and should constitute the major part of our diet, about 60-65%. Healthy carbs come from fruits, veggies and grains and therefore you can consume them at every meal. Unless you suffer from cancer, don’t worry about the sugar from fruits. We’ve never heard of anyone getting diabetes because they ate too much fruit.
They should constitute about 25-30% of our diet and they are found in every plant. All herbivores on Earth from elephant to gorilla to buffalo get their proteins from plants. Some plants contain more proteins than others and not all plants will contain all the essential amino acids. Amino acids (AAs) are the building blocks of proteins, and there are 20 AAs called “essential” because the body can’t make them, which means we need to get them from food.
By eating a variety of plants, you will get all the essential AAs you need to build your proteins and muscle mass. In fact, many high-performing athletes have gone plant-based to increase their performance and have obtained amazing results.
Examples of food sources rich in proteins include peanuts and peanut butter, quinoa, hemp seeds, buckwheat, legumes such as peas, lentils and beans, and green leafy vegetables such as kale and spinach.
They should constitute about 10% of our diet. They play a very important role in the plasticity of cell membranes and health of our skin, as well as in the synthesis of neurotransmitters, among other things. Healthy fats are mostly found in avocados, coconut, seeds, nuts and nut butters. Try substituting oil and butter with avocado whenever you can and feel free to snack on nuts and seeds throughout the day.
What about micro-nutrients?
Vitamins A, B, C, D, E, K and carotenoids are super easy to get on a plant-based diet. Here are a few rules of thumbs:
- Vitamin A & carotenoids are in all red and orange veggies (carrots, capsicums, pumpkin, sweet potatoes…). It is important for healthy skin and eye function.
- Vitamin B group includes B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, Biotin (B7), Folate (B9) and B12.
- Wholegrains like brown rice, spelt, millet, wholemeal cereals are a good source of B1, B2, B3 and Biotin.
- Legumes, nuts and savoury yeast (also known as nutritional yeast) will also cover you for most B vitamins.
- Vegan foods high in vitamin B6 include tofu, sweet potatoes, bananas, potatoes, avocados and pistachios.
- You can get folate from leafy greens, legumes, seeds and citrus fruits.
- Despite its name, B12 is actually not a vitamin, it is a bacterium living in healthy soil and muddy waters. The problem is that with today’s hygiene obsession and cleaning procedures, no B12 survives by the time fruits & veggies hit the shelves. The animal agriculture injects synthetised versions of B12 to their cattle. It is therefore important that vegans take a B12 tablet or fortified foods to avoid deficiency overtime.
- Vitamin C is plentiful in kiwis, oranges, parsley, broccoli, apples, capsicums, green leafy vegetables… It’s an easy one.
- The best source of vitamin D is the sun. You can also get vitamin D in some foods if you live in one of those countries with little amount of sun in winter.
- Vitamin E, also known as tocopherol, is a very powerful anti-oxidant. You can find it in almonds and other nuts, sunflower seeds and avocados mainly.
- Vitamin K is a regulator of coagulation factors, it is very important for your blood. The best source of vitamin K are the leafy green vegetables (kale, spinach, green cabbage, silverbeet, etc.) and broccoli. If you like sauerkraut and other fermented foods, there are also great sources. Plus, they have the additional benefit of promoting healthy gut bacteria so go for it freely.
Most common minerals include calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium, zinc, iron, iodine, selenium. There are plenty more which we need in very small amounts, like boron or manganese for instance. Here are the ones that people wonder about on a plant-based diet:
- Calcium is plentiful in broccoli, nuts, sesame seeds and tahini, other seeds, dried figs and most leafy greens. Avoid the consumption of coffee with your calcium intake as it inhibits its absorption. Contrary to popular belief, people who drink too much milk and consume too many acidic foods tend be more subject to osteoporosis. This is because the body uses the phosphates to neutralise the pH, and the calcium bound to phosphates then gets released and lost into urine. This also sometimes provokes kidney stones.
- Magnesium is in pretty much the same foods as calcium, and also nut butters and cacao.
- Zinc is in pumpkin seeds (also known as pepitas), sesame seeds and sunflower seeds, and in wholegrains.
- Iron is in lentils, black beans, leafy greens and molasses. Vitamin C greatly enhances its absorptiom, but calcium inhibits it as both molecules compete for absorption. Try to have black beans with capsicums and lemon juice in a Mexican dish for instance; or some parsley with your lentils; or a glass of orange juice with your leafy greens.
- Brazil nuts and brown rice are an excellent source of Selenium. Actually, just one brazil nut will get you more than your daily selenium needs.
- Iodine is in iodised sea salt or seaweed derivatives such as nori, kelp, and other Japanese foods.
Essential Fatty Acids
They include omegas 3, omegas 6 and Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA).
- ALA is a precursor to Omegas 3 Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). DHA is converted in the body from EPA, which itself is converted from ALA; however the conversion rate is sometimes inefficient in some people. Great sources of ALA include flaxseeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds, walnuts, canola oil and soy foods. Consuming these foods regularly might be sufficient for most people; however if you are unsure you can consume seaweed and derivatives or also take an algae-based supplement. Fishes are rich in omegas 3 because they consume algae; vegans skip the fish and go directly to the source.
- Most people get too much omegas 6. These come from oils and are in most processed foods, baked goods and grains. You probably don’t need to worry about them.
There are other elements that are important such as Glutathione, Co-enzyme Q10, flavonoids, indoles, etc. But you don’t need to worry about them too much. Again, as long as you eat a variety of foods including leafy greens, berries, cruciferous, etc. you’ll be fine.
Ok, that’s a lot of info… So what now?
If you wish a nutrition plan or guideline, I highly recommend the “Daily Dozen” from Dr Michael Greger, from NutritionFacts.org. Dr Greger is a re-known figure in the nutrition world as he peruses through the latest scientific literature in all topics related to nutrition and publishes short videos explaining the findings in easily understandable language. He accepts no corporate or commercial sponsorship, funding, advertisement or promotion. This makes his website one of the few reliable, complete, non-commercial, 100% science-based and unbiased sources of information in matter of nutrition.
Here is the link to his Daily Dozen video: https://nutritionfacts.org/video/dr-gregers-daily-dozen-checklist-2/
Here is the link to his Daily Dozen challenge: https://nutritionfacts.org/daily-dozen-challenge/ where you can download his Daily Dozen Nutrition Guideline Chart for free.
Cooking Time !
Now that you hopefully understand a bit better the fundamentals of vegan nutrition, here are a few of my favourite websites for easy & healthy vegan recipes:
- I couldn’t recommend enough https://www.trinityskitchen.com. Vegan, gluten-free, easy, delicious, healthy recipes for the body and soul. If you need the one and only, there you are.
- Always yummy and easy, sometimes a bit naughty, food recipes from http://www.thebuddhistchef.com will never disappoint. Also available in French.
- If you want to try raw vegan food for maximum health and vibrancy, have a go at Emily’s website https://www.thisrawsomeveganlife.com/ Not only healthy and delicious, but also very, very beautiful.
- And last but not least, for ANY vegan recipes of ANY type, you can just check https://veganuary.com/ Categorised in foods from around the world, you will surely find something for you no matter your culinary background.
If you wish any further information about vegan nutrition, do not hesitate to contact me. It’s totally my jam: firstname.lastname@example.org
If you decide to give it a try, let me know how you go !