Veganism can promote health, but that depends on individual needs and how you do it.
Drastically changing your diet can bring huge benefits, becoming more plant based or flexitarian is probably one of the healthiest things we can do. Going one step further by cutting out all animal products and becoming vegan means you need to pay special attention to certain nutrients which are harder to get from a plant-based diet. Protein, Essential Fatty Acids, Iron and B12 must be on the Vegan watchlist. If deficiencies occur health issues will eventually manifest.
Protein comes from the Greek word ‘Proteios’, meaning ‘primary’ and is our most important nutrient besides water. Most of the body is made from protein, and so protein deficiency can cause health issues that can be serious. Symptoms of protein deficiency include fatigue, lowered immune resistance, depression, muscle weakness, joint and bone issues, slow injury recovery and more. When meat, fish and eggs are included the diet, there is not such a need to pay attention to protein intake as these are good bioavailable sources and most people get plenty, along with easily absorbed iron.
Dietary protein is broken down into amino acids as food travels through the digestive system. There are 20 amino acids that the human body needs, 9 of those must be in our diet as we cannot make or ‘synthesise’ them. Each amino acid, whether it’s phenylalanine, tryptophan or methionine, has a specific vital task like detoxification, tissue repair, immune function or neurotransmitter to name but a very few. These are life giving essential tasks. If even one is missing it will hinder the body’s ability to grow muscle and even to repair tissue. Plant proteins are not as ‘bioavailable’ or as complete as animal proteins. Most rate around 60% bioavailable on the scale where eggs are 100%, meat 80% and dairy 91%. This means you must consume more in terms of volume and variety to get the equivalent amount.
The plus side is that plant foods have more fibre, less saturated fat and more antioxidants, that will hugely benefit your health.
The dangers of not doing your vegan homework can have very serious health consequences. The first couple of years of being vegan can be good, you may feel lighter, more energetic if you are consuming a lot healthier foods like fresh fruit and vegetables, healthy grains and fats. But if you are not careful about your protein intake or do not make sure you get enough B12, Iron and Essential Fatty Acids you may start to notice physical changes like hair loss, lowered energy, weakened muscles and joints.
Digesting plant proteins can be influenced by the balance of beneficial and non-beneficial microbes in the gut. Support may be needed to make sure you are breaking down both the plant protein, fats and fibre. You can do this by consuming fermented foods, taking probiotics and reducing portions of carbohydrates.
Nowadays there are many faux meat products created especially for vegans. These can add variety and make the transition from meat to plant based easier, but just because its vegan, doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Take a good look at the ingredients panel before you buy as there may be preservatives, sugars, excessive sodium, inflammatory oils and other unhealthy ingredients. Check what the protein and fat source is.
With all that in mind here’s a guide for vegans and flexitarians and where to find those vital nutrients:
Omega3 Essential fatty acid – Normally found in oily fish and fish oil supplements. Vital for all cell membranes, immune system, brain and nervous system, eye health, skin and nail health, all organs and more.
Best Vegan sources: Walnuts, Flax seeds, chia seeds, Algae Omega3 supplements.
B12 – Vital for activating the enzymes that synthesis healthy red blood cells. I recommend a mix of dietary sources and a supplement as this is too important a nutrient to not get in consistently good amounts.
Food Sources: Nutritional Yeast, Nori seaweed, Food Supplements
Iron – Good plant sources are dried fruit like prunes, dates and figs, pulses and green leafy vegetables, molasses.
An average person requires around 0.8g of protein per kilo of weight, as plant proteins have less bioavailability it’s more helpful to use 1g of protein per kilo.
Example dishes that would contain adequate plant protein:
1. Tempeh sauteed in garlic and ginger, with buckwheat noodles and mushrooms and broccoli (see recipe on page 13).
2. Buckwheat noodles with leeks, shiitake mushrooms, black beans, peppers, fresh peas and courgettes flavoured with lemongrass, garlic and tamari sauce and a pinch of cayenne.
3. Garlic sauteed chickpeas with quinoa
4. Brown rice with lentils, pumpkin seeds and kimchi
5. Adding greens will increase fibre, essential fatty acids and mineral content.
Written by Sam Bourne originally for the INTERSCHOOLS ADVERTISER