January is coming to an end, as is 'Veganuary' - an ever growing movement created to inspire and support people to try out veganism during the month of January. Choosing to follow a vegan lifestyle is a personal decision, but if you do decide it feels like a good fit for you, here are some nutrition tips to ensure you get the best out of your vegan diet.
Eating a vegan diet is automatically healthier than eating as an omnivore right? Well, not necessarily! The increase in demand for vegan products has created a boom in the availability of vegan meat and cheese alternatives. This has given rise to the 'Junk Food Vegan' - someone whose diet mainly consists of packaged and processed vegan foods. Sure those vegan hot dogs are delicious! But just like regular hot dogs, they shouldn't form the foundation of a healthy diet. Eating a plant-based diet full of fresh fruit and vegetables, wholegrains, legumes, fortified plant-based milks, nuts and seeds is the best foundation to ensure you are getting a range of nutrients to nourish your body.
Some nutrients, however, can take a little more planning to ensure you are getting enough from your vegan diet:
Protein provides our body with the building blocks to create strong muscles, healthy enzymes and hormones, and maintain a healthy immune system. Unlike protein from meat sources, only soy protein (tofu, tempeh) and quinoa are 'complete proteins' - i.e. they provide us with all 9 essential amino acids that our bodies cannot make. This doesn't mean a vegan diet can't provide enough protein or that you have to live off tofu and quinoa, you simply need to ensure you eat a variety of plant-based protein options (beans, lentils, peas, nuts, seeds, tofu, tempeh, quinoa, wholegrains and meat alternatives) to get all 9 essential amino acids from your diet.
Iron plays a key role in creating healthy red blood cells, immunity, and energy production (click here to learn more). Plant-based sources of iron (such as tofu, spinach, kidney beans, chickpeas etc.) provide us with non-haem iron, which isn't as readily absorbed within our bodies. To boost the absorption of non-haem iron make sure you eat iron-rich meals with foods high in vitamin C (i.e. orange juice, capsicum, tomatoes, kiwifruit etc.).
Calcium is an important nutrient to include in your diet for healthy bones and teeth, as well as a healthy heart. If you don't get enough calcium from your diet, over time your bones may become weak and break easily - a condition called Osteoporosis. You can find plant-based calcium in dried figs, kale, chia seeds, tofu, edamame beans and by choosing calcium-fortified plant-based milks. Vitamin D helps to increase the absorption of calcium from food. Your body can make vitamin D from exposure to sunlight- in summer being outdoors before 11am and after 4pm allows enough sunshine to be absorbed to meet vitamin D requirements, whereas in winter 30 minutes of sun exposure is needed.
Vitamin B12 is a vital nutrient involved in creating healthy blood cells and proper nerve function. Untreated vitamin B12 deficiency can lead to serious (and sometimes irreversible) damage to the nervous system. As the main sources of B12 are from animal based products (eggs, meat, milk and dairy products), this can be the hardest nutrient to get in sufficient amounts from a vegan diet. Small amounts of B12 can be found in plant-based sources such as fortified plant-based milks, nutritional yeast and yeast spreads (e.g. Marmite), but ultimately supplementation is necessary to ensure requirements for vitamin B12 are able to be met.
Where to from here?
If you decide a vegan diet is for you, a great starting place to stay on top of your nutrient requirements is to speak to your GP about getting blood tests done to check your current levels of Iron and Vitamin B12.
If you would like more information on how to ensure your vegan diet is meeting YOUR nutrient requirements with personalised advice tailored to your own diet and lifestyle, click here to book an appointment with a NZ Registered Dietitian at Sanctuary Nutrition.
Until next time,