Done properly, a plant-based diet can provide nearly all the nutrients we need to thrive. Done badly, a vegan diet is the same as any other poor diet.
As a nutritionist I come across all kinds of diets. Vegan, juice fasts, raw food, keto, Paleo, Hay (not chewing on actual hay…although someone will probably make a ton of money from the idea one day) – and people ask my opinion of them.
When it comes to veganism, I think it’s fine so long as it’s done properly and involves real food. I have several vegan colleagues, including the brilliant nutritionist Elena Holmes, who epitomises the healthy vegan lifestyle.
However, a vegan diet is not;
– The answer to our environmental and food sustainability issues
– The cure for every known health issue
– Easy to follow. This is especially true if you dislike vegetables and pulses – and there are plenty of vegans who don’t like vegetables. Good luck with that.
There are certain nutrients that a wholly plant-based diet cannot easily provide and you may need to consider supplementation to side-step any deficiencies. Remember that some deficiencies can take months, even years to present with full on symptoms. Vitamin B12 is a good example of this. You may have good bodily stores of B12 when you begin a vegan diet, and these stores can keep you going for several months. Gradually, they start to drop and that’s when you’ll notice symptoms like tiredness, brain fog, and poor memory.
The most bioavailable form of B12 is unique to animal products. It plays an important role in mental wellbeing, heart health, nerve cells, and red blood cell function.
Top sources include shellfish, lamb, and beef (there’s an interesting list on Nutrition Data: it’s a US site, hence the inclusion of moose meat – not a common source for those of us in the UK!).
Many foods suitable for vegans are fortified with B12; nutritional yeast and breakfast cereals for example. Certain plant foods do naturally contain B12, the most notable being the sea vegetables green and purple nori. Studies have shown that eating these forms of nori can improve B12 status, though you would need to eat substantial amounts every day to support levels in the long term. Same goes for shiitake mushrooms. Of all the edible mushrooms, shiitake carries good levels of B12 but you would still need to eat an average of 50g (dried weight) per day to maintain levels. That’s a whole lot of mushrooms. To be on the safe side, include these foods regularly and consider using a B12 supplement if you plan to be wholly plant-based for more than a few months.
Spirulina and other edible cyanobacterias (commonly called blue-green algaes) contain pseudovitamin B12 which isn’t bioavailable to us as humans. We can’t absorb it or use it so please don’t be fooled by advertisements claiming otherwise.
Iron – haem and non-haem
Iron deficiency is a particular issue for female vegans due to regular iron loss from periods. Haem iron in animal products is much better at being absorbed than non-haem iron from plant sources. If you are relying on non-haem iron, be sure to include sources of vitamin C too, as this helps the absorption and usage of plant-sourced iron.
Good combinations include;
– Millet grain (iron) in a salad with vit-C-rich-foods like watercress, parsley, and peppers
– Blackstrap molasses (iron) in hot water with a good squeeze of fresh lemon juice (vit C)
– Pumpkin & sunflower seeds (iron) in a fruit salad with papaya, kiwi, and strawberries (all good sources of vit C)
Many of us, whether vegan or not, are low in vitamin D simply because we don’t get enough regular sunshine here in the UK. Unfortunately for vegans, the optimum dietary sources of vitamin D3 (the most active usable form) are eggs, liver and butter, with plant sources like mushrooms providing a little D2.
It is advisable for everyone to take a supplement during winter months (October to April) and vegans may need to continue all year round. To check your levels, see your GP or try a home test kit from www.vitamindtest.org.uk
Vegetarian and vegan diets tend to have plenty of omega-6, but often struggle with omega-3. Nuts and seeds provide what is known as the ‘parent’ omega 3 fat, Alpha Linoleic Acid (ALA). This needs to go through several conversion steps before it becomes EPA and DHA (eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid). These are the omega-3 fats we use for brain and heart health, and which are ready formed in fish oils.
These conversion steps rely on co-factor nutrients like magnesium, B-vitamins, zinc, and vitamin C, and a lot of ALA gets lost during the process. There isn’t an easy answer to this dilemma, other than to ensure vegans include walnuts, flaxseed oil, and/or pumpkinseed oil everyday for their rich ALA content, and to enjoy plenty of food sources of the co-factor nutrients too;
– Magnesium: almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, dark green leafy vegetables
– Zinc: nuts & seeds
– B-vitamins: widely spread throughout the plant kingdom; sweet potatoes, brown rice, avocadoes, nuts, seeds, and dark green leafy veggies are especially useful
– Vit C: watercress, peppers, broccoli, berries, kiwi, papaya, peas
Are you experimenting with Veganuary this year?
Have you a delicious vegan recipe to share?
Tell us in the comments below, hop on over to the friendly Facebook Group for more conversations and recipe ideas or catch me on Twitter @nutritioninyork
January 2019 is set to be the most popular Veganuary yet, with over 14,000 people pledging to stick to a vegan diet and lifestyle for the next month.
Whatever your reasons are for cutting out meat, fish, dairy, eggs, honey, and all other animal derived products, the sudden swap to a vegan diet can have a significant impact on your body, especially if you’re used to eating animal produce every day. Digestion and energy levels are frequently affected: let’s explore why…
Digestion:a sudden increase in fibre and indigestible starch from vegan staples like pulses, beans, nuts and seeds can cause bloating and wind. Our gut bacteria are influenced by what we eat, and it can take time for them to adapt to a different way of eating. They thrive on fibre, fermenting it in our gut, which is why one of the side effects of a vegan diet can be uncomfortable wind and bloating!
Bowel movements may also change: some people experience constipation whilst others find stools become loose and more frequent. Again, this is down to the change in fibre intake.
If you’re suffering with wind and bloating try using a plant-based digestive enzyme formula to support the breakdown of tough plant fibres and starches. Look for one containing alpha-galactosidase, an enzyme proven to reduce gas and bloating.
Soaking pulses before cooking and using fermented soya products like miso and tempeh can aid digestion.
Sprouting beans in a seed sprouter can make them easier to digest.
Soak nuts overnight then allow to dry before eating; this can aid digestability.
Be mindful of your fluid intake, especially if constipated. Fibre soaks up fluid in the gut, so remember to drink more water throughout the day, and opt for hydrating foods like soups and stews that combine fibre-rich beans and pulses with fluids.
Energy levels: switching from being carnivore to vegan means your body has to adapt to different nutrient sources. This can affect energy levels, particularly if you’re a pre-menopausal woman with regular periods as you are now reliant on plant-based or non-haem iron sources.
The main nutrients to consider are;
Iron: non-haem iron absorption is helped along by vitamin C so aim to combine these nutrients where possible:
Zinc: red meat, poultry, and seafood are packed with easily absorbed zinc, so your body has to adapt to deriving it from plant foods on a vegan diet. Nuts and seeds – especially pumpkin seeds – are good sources, but they also contain phytic acid which can impair zinc absorption. Soaking the nuts and seeds before eating helps to breakdown phytic acid and improve zinc bioavailability.
Vitamin B12:most plant forms of B12 are not readily used by humans with the exception of purple & green nori, fortified yeast (and other fortified foods), and shiitake mushrooms. You may have enough B12 stores in your system to manage Veganuary, but if veganism is a long-term plan, consider using a B12 supplement or B-Complex containing B12.
Protein: protein is present in varying amounts in foods, which is where the term protein quality comes from. Eggs are an example of high quality or perfect protein as they contain the right ratio of amino acids (the building blocks of protein) to match our human needs. On a vegan diet it is important to combine different protein sources at each meal so that over the course of the day you get all the amino acids you need.
Vegan protein sources include:
– Nuts (whole or as nut butters)
– Pseudo-grains like quinoa and amaranth
– Legumes and pulses
Omega-3 fats: the omega-3 oils found in oily fish are DHA (docosahexanoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). We can use these straight away with no need for conversion: they help regulate inflammation and support heart health and mental wellbeing.
Plant foods contain ALA (alpha linolenic acid) which is the ‘parent’ of DHA and EPA. It goes through several conversion pathways in the body to become EPA and DHA and we lose some of it along the way. Because of these conversion losses, it’s important for vegans to include ALA sources everyday.
The richest concentrated source of ALA is flaxseed oil; this can be drizzled over cooked vegetables, salads, granola, coconut or soya yoghurt, included in smoothies – the ideas are endless! I know a lady who adds it to her gravy! It can be added to hot foods but don’t cook with it as high temperatures affect the oil structure.
Other sources of ALA include walnuts, pumpkin seeds, pumpkin seed oil, hemp oil, and chia seeds.
Plant-based diets can be as varied and nutritious as meaty-fishy ones, but they do require thoughtful planning, especially at the outset. Browse these recipe blogs for meal inspiration and remember to join the Facebook group and follow me on Twitter where I share a #MeatfreeMonday recipe each week.
Kim Broderick has her milk-making process down to a fine art. While listening to Ken Bruce on Radio 2 she produces 200 bottles in just 4 hours – that’s a whole lot of almond-milking!
The story began when Kim received an unusual gift for Mothering Sunday last year: a bottle of homemade almond milk.
Her daughter-in-law was missing the rich nutty taste of New York almond milk, so decided to make her own – and Kim was more than impressed with the result.
Fast forward a few months to September 2017 and ‘Nutty Health’ launched themselves at the York Food & Drink Festival. “I was full of doubts when we arrived at the Festival” says Kim, “but we sold out within hours.”
I met Kim at Nutty Health HQ: her immaculate kitchen workshop in the beautiful South Yorkshire countryside. As we chat, Kim dons her rubber gloves and gives me a demo of how the milks are made.
Unlike any of the standard supermarket milks which only contain 2% almonds, Nutty Health is made with 14% high quality Californian almonds – a difference which is immediately noticeable in the rich creamy taste.
The nuts are soaked in spring water for 11-20 hours, before being rinsed, blended, strained twice through a cheesecloth bag, then pressed through a custom made fruit press. The only additive is a tiny amount of sunflower oil (1ml per 250ml bottle of milk) which acts as a natural preservative, giving the product an 8 day shelf life.
No artificial sweeteners, sugars or thickeners are added. The milk is beautifully simple and pure, brimming with vitamin E antioxidant goodness.
And the almond pulp doesn’t go to waste – Kim uses this to make energy balls to sell at Festivals and shows alongside the milks.
The plain almond milk is accompanied by 3 flavoured varieties: cacao made with organic raw cacao; vanilla, and organic green matcha – a flavour which is surprisingly popular with male customers and cyclists!
Since launching last year, Nutty Health has blossomed and expanded into health stores and farm shops across our region (you can find a list of stockists here). Kim offers a delivery service in Leeds and York, allowing customers to buy direct if the products aren’t available locally.
This recipe comes from Elena Holmes, a fellow nutrition consultant and superb vegan cook! Based on a traditional dish from northern Italy, Elena has added more vegetables and spices to increase the taste, colour and nutritional quality.
200g Gram flour (also sold as chickpea flour)
approximately 400ml water
1 medium leek
1 red onion
1 red pepper
1 large courgette
4-5 medium tomatoes
1 bunch fresh (or dried) sage
Optional spices: crushed chillies, turmeric, curry, smoked paprika – select according to taste
Olive oil to grease the tray and drizzle over the farinata
Pinch of salt
Carefully mix the flour, water and salt until it has the consistency of cream or gravy – use a whisk to avoid lumps. Leave this mixture to rest for 40-60mins.
Preheat the oven to 200°C.
Dice the vegetables and sage. Oil a standard sized baking tray and scatter the veg and sage evenly over it. Add your chosen spices. Pour the flour mixture over the vegetables, drizzle sparingly with olive oil and bake for 25-30mins until the vegetables are cooked andthe farinata has the consistency of soft flat bread. Allow to cool for a few minutes then cut into pieces and serve. Leftovers can be eaten cold the next day.
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