Increasing numbers of people are turning to the vegan lifestyle through concerns over animal welfare, the environment, own health or all three. While this is a huge step forward, no matter what some of the more eager advocates of veganism may proclaim, a vegan diet isn’t necessarily a straightforward replacement for a meat-eating or vegetarian one.
There’s no reason it can’t be perfectly healthy, but you must make sure you’re getting all the right nutrients, at least in the early stages of going vegan until your diet becomes settled. Here are eight things you need to look out for to make your vegan diet a healthy success as well as an ethical one.
Mention that you’re a vegan and someone will immediately ask how you can survive without protein. Whether they’re genuinely interested or merely being a wise-ass is perhaps beside the point. It’s a total myth that only animal products can supply the proteins necessary for a healthy diet.
It’s true that flesh is the most effective provider of “whole proteins,” i.e., those which contain the full range of amino acid building blocks in one source, but every component of protein is available in a plant-based diet. The trick is to obtain your proteins from a well-rounded, balanced diet rather than relying on a few foodstuffs rich in only selected amino acids. In other words, eat as wide a variety of food as possible.
Great sources of protein include grains such as quinoa, beans and peas such as kidney beans and chickpeas, and seed kernels, especially sunflower and pumpkin. Dark leafy vegetables like spinach are also good sources of protein, but only of limited non-whole types, and so should be treated as supplements to the mainstays of grains, beans, and seeds.
Non-vegans usually get most of their calcium from dairy products, but that’s not the only option. Watercress, mustard greens, kale, and other dark leafy vegetables are excellent sources and readily available.
However, many vegans like to vary their choice by using plant-based milk substitutes such as almond or soy, which are often fortified with calcium and other essential minerals to provide excellent dairy alternatives.
3) Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is the only major nutritional problem for vegans. The human body can’t synthesize this vitamin, which does not occur in plants, yet it plays a vital role in the nervous system including healthy brain function. Without it, you can experience depression, a lack of balance, tingling feelings, and numbness.
The only solution is to take regular B12 supplements, but of course, make sure the brand you choose is suitable for vegans as some are derived from sheep wool.
4) Vitamin D
Vitamin D is essential for absorbing calcium from any dietary source, and it also regulates mood and strengthens the immune system. Non-vegan sources include fish, liver, and eggs, but vegans have a tougher time. While you can find vitamin D in some varieties of mushrooms, it’s challenging to obtain your daily requirement from non-animal sources.
Unless you’re a huge fungi fan, consider taking a vegan-friendly supplement, as well as making sure you get plenty of sunlight to help your body produce the vitamin naturally.
5) Vitamin A
Vitamin A can only be eaten directly through animal products. However, beta-carotene is a precursor to vitamin A, and your body can use this substance to produce enough of it to meet your needs.
However, this is far less efficient than consuming the ready-made vitamin, so you need to pay particular attention to eating foods rich in beta-carotene such as carrots, sweet potatoes, winter squash, and most other intensely colored vegetables.
Also, be aware that dietary fat is a vital part of the conversion process, so if you’re following a low-fat diet, you’ll need to increase your beta-carotene consumption even more.
Iron can be found in a huge amount of vegetables, particularly leafy greens such as spinach or kale, as well as in most nuts, seeds, and legumes. However, there’s a catch. Plant-based iron isn’t as easily digestible as that from animal sources, and this is particularly true if you consume tea or coffee which lowers absorption even further.
As a rule of thumb, you’ll need to consume twice as much plant-based iron as that you’d get from animal sources to have the same nutritional effect, although boosting your vitamin C intake can help absorption.
Iodine plays a vital role in thyroid function and metabolism regulation. The traditional sources of this element are eggs and seafood, but neither of these is an option for vegans. Instead, useful alternatives include seaweeds such as kelp or the wraps sold for sushi. It’s also possible to boost your iodine intake by using iodized salt, although there are obvious health issues involved in relying on salt as a nutritional source.
8) Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Lastly, omega-3 acids are essential for healthy nerves, cognitive function, heart disease prevention, and much more. The usual advice for getting a healthy amount of omega-3 is to eat more oily fish, but vegans can find plenty of it in walnuts, chia seeds, and flaxseeds. However, getting enough omega-3 isn’t the hardest nutritional issue a vegan will encounter. A typical, well-balanced vegan diet containing plenty of whole foods will usually provide more than enough compared to an average meat-based diet.
The stereotypical image of vegans being pale, unhealthy souls is an irritatingly persistent one, but that doesn’t mean you can just cut out animal products and expect to meet your nutritional needs. It’s entirely possible to enjoy a robustly healthy vegan diet. It only takes planning and awareness of the few unique issues that you need to take into account.