'Veganuary' is a movement that is growing year on year with people turning to a plant based diet or a vegan lifestyle for the month of January.
It is a great idea to make people more aware of what they are eating and the effect that food has on the planet as well as the effects on our body. I want to focus on the food and nutritional impact in this blog.
Whether following the vegan lifestyle or more simply embracing a plant based diet, Veganuary essentially helps people become more mindful of what they are eating, consume more vegetables, and start the path towards a healthier attitude to food.
But as with any diet it can be unhealthy and there are certain nutritional considerations to bear in mind when transitioning to a plant based diet and eliminating all animal products. This blog is going to dive into some of those specifics and how optimal health can be achieved through plant based interventions.
Plant based diets have clear associations with improved health markers, which does not prove that the elimination of animal products is necessarily the key to health, but does require us to consider the complete nutrient profile of our food. Some key considerations that I find with vegan, vegetarian and plant based clients are listed below:
Calories: One of the first common denominators with those on plant based diets compared to other dietary regimen is the amount of food eaten. Plant based diets require a larger volume of foods to match caloric intakes of other dietary choices. This is why they can be successful in weight loss, as there is a subconscious adherence to a calorie deficit. Psychologically, a plate full of vegetables can appear to be a large plate of food, yet the caloric density and overall mass will be lower than expected. Recognising this means that we can appreciate the more calorically dense plant foods and incorporate these into a varied diet. In addition, when the requirement for higher caloric intake is present, we can adjust our eating patterns and foods accordingly.
I feel that this is one of the most under valued areas of a plant based diet, lettuce and ketchup doesn't always cut it, yet there are elements of the foundational knowledge of what makes up the food we eat and the effect that has on the body, that is commonly lacking in those transitioning to plant based diets.
Protein: Protein is a long standing argument between both sides of the plant based and omnivorous fence. When we look at this from an unbiased position, we need to understand what protein is. Protein is formed of amino acids, some essential and some non-essential, that helps muscles rebuild and repair, maintain a healthy immune system and aid in healthy aging as well as a wealth of other benefits.
Essential amino acids are those which are not synthesised (created) in the body and required through diet. Non-essential amino acids are produced in the body by simply eating enough total protein.
A 'complete protein' is a protein source that has the full range of essential amino acids, an 'incomplete protein' does not. It just so happens that animal proteins are naturally complete proteins and have a full profile of amino acids, in a large concentration per gram. Soy and quinoa are two plant based complete proteins but do not have adequate amounts of the essential amino acid range in a standard portion size. This is where the necessity to eat a range of proteins presents itself in a plant based diet. The breadth of plant based protein sources leads to a plethora of amazing recipes available to expand your protein repertoire.
For athletes, this is of particular importance, and getting at least two meals a day with a large and mixed protein selection will help ensure you are maximising muscle protein synthesis, recovery and protein effect.
This is the same principle with vegan protein powders. These are convenient sources of protein, but aim for those with a combination of protein sources, such as hemp and rice, pea and bean etc. instead of just one singular ingredient. It is frustrating to me that supplement companies market these powders in full knowledge of this.
The key point to understand here is that we need to consume the range of amino acids in adequate amounts. Simply put, eat a variety of protein sources per large meal.
BCAAs: Branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) are likely to prove beneficial on a plant based diet for those participating in regular sports, exercise and on training regimens of competition. BCAAs are three essential amino acids (leucine, iso-leucine and valine) that are the building blocks of muscle. These are are the key ingredients to ensure you are maximising muscle protein synthesis. These can be found added to protein powders, in their own powder or in tablet form.
The alternative to those who are not participating in lots of physical activity, or those who do not want to take lots of powders and tablets, simply eat a wide variety of proteins in your diet. When putting together a meal on a plant based diet, simply focus on protein first , ensure variety and then complete your meal with your choice of carbohydrates, fat and fibre.
The beauty of plant based diets is the inspiration to branch out and get more and more variety in to your daily food.
Iron: Iron is another subject for hot debate in the clash of the diets. This boils down to the bioavailablity of non-heme iron found in plants and heme iron found in animal products. There is a lot of 'tip of the wedge' thinking in this area that concentrates too much on trying to prove the other side of the debate wrong, without actually helping people with their own nutrition. A plant based diet is great, and if you choose to follow this way of eating, just remember to prioritise the recommendations in this list. If you go about your nutritional planning (aka a shopping list) while prioritising high protein and iron rich foods, you are more likely to avoid any deficiency and simply enjoy the food.
Foods high in iron include lentils, chickpeas, beans, tofu, cashew nuts, chia seeds, ground linseed, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, kale, dried apricots, dried figs, raisins, quinoa and fortified breakfast cereal. Equally, the same rule applies to those on an omnivorous diet, consuming vitamin C at the same time helps aid the absorption of iron, this is a great cause for fruit with your meal too.
Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12 supplementation has become more mainstream knowledge for those on a completely plant based diet. B12 is essential for nervous system function and DNA synthesis, deficiency has been linked to heart disease and irreversible neurological disorders. As vitamin B12 is only synthesised by micro-organisms, supplementation in plant based diets is essential.
Calcium: It is common to see calcium deficiency in plant based diets that lack variety. As it has been mentioned already, aiming for a varied shopping list and prioritising the recommendation here is going to help ensure you have a nutritionally adequate diet without having to micromanage your food. Many vegetables contain calcium in relatively low levels, which is where calcium fortified foods have such an advantage. Calcium fortified tofu and plant based milks are a staple part of your varied plant based diet, opting for fortified versions will help maintain optimal levels of calcium, along with a varied intake of other plants, without supplementing or over-analysing everything you eat.
Omega 3 fatty acids: Adequate omega 3 is a staple of any diet and something to be considered no matter how or what you eat. Of course the main non-vegan omega 3 is found in fish oils, but the vegan alternative from algae is just as good as long as you are achieving a combined about of 500mg of EPA and DHA per serving (and probably more sustainable too, but I am not an expert in this subject). EPA and DHA are the two most important omega 3 fatty acids to get in your diet, and all too often, supplements have an inadequate amount (less than 500mg) per serving,. Those on a plant based diet should consider these supplements from algae in their daily diet.
Vitamin D3: To be honest, adequate vitamin D supplementation is a drum I will bang no matter what your dietary choice. Research clearly shows that those in northern hemisphere, temperate countries, those of us who work all day indoors and rarely get outside are deficient in vitamin D. This makes up the core supplement in evidence based recommendations. Unless you are getting at least 20 minutes of sunlight every day, 365 days a year, then supplementing with up to 4000IU per day is beneficial for optimal health.
It is important to note that Vitamin D3 does not come from any food. Food derived vitamin D is found as D2, which is a different metabolite of the vitamin and accounts for a small percentage of the benefit. Vitamin D3 (or cholecalciferol) is the metabolite of vitamin D that is produced from sunlight exposure. If you take that exposure away, add a cold, dark winter and the majority of the day indoors, then you are most likely deficient. There are plant based and no plant based vitamin D3 supplements and one thing I have experienced is that the potency of vegan D3 is less than other no-vegan products. This means you will need to take more than one tablet, but a common practice I recommend is to try and find the most potent source so that you are taking less tablets. Our attitude to food needs to transcend that of just taking tablets for health.
Remember, this is not an exhaustive list, so please do not take it as that. These are common issues that I find with vegan and plant based clients. I strongly believe that we do not need to be looking to hyper-supplement everything in separate tablets and powders, but rather seek to consume a wide variety of foods, prioritising certain foods based on their nutritional adequacy. Not only does this improve our culinary mastery, but also ensures a more sustainable approach to dieting, eating healthily and our positive attitude to food.
Stay safe, stay informed.