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going vegan
FoodNutrition

9 things to consider before going vegan

Did you do Veganuary? And was it a success? If you turned vegan for January and are now thinking about adopting your new way of life full-time, you might want to give some thought to your nutrition.

Obviously we all need to pay attention to what we eat, but if you adopt a plant-based diet it’s easy to miss out on daily nutrients you didn’t realise certain foodstuffs contained. Stuff like iodine, calcium and iron can often suffer, so we have nine things to remember if you’re turning Veganuary into Foreveruary. Does that work?

We know that following a plant-based diet can offer significant benefits to your health and to the health of the planet. But, a plant-based diet can potentially lack some important nutrients. So what are they, and how can we so we maximise nutrient intake as we reduce animal products from our diet? By paying attention to the following. 

Iron

There’s no doubt that iron plays an important role in our bodies. It makes haemoglobin, which carries oxygen in the blood. Iron is most abundant and absorbable in meat but, as a vegan, you’ll need to source other options.

Some plant-based sources include dried fruit, beans, seeds, vegetables, and whole grains. The recommended iron intake for vegans is about twice that of non-vegans.

However, absorption from plant sources is less than from animal products. It’s also worth noting that tea and coffee inhibit the absorption of plant iron. So if you’re a heavy hot drink fan, opt for iron-rich foods with a source of vitamin C (like peppers or citrus) to enhance iron absorption.

Calcium

Obtaining enough calcium in a vegan diet can be achieved by eating a balanced diet full of nutrient dense foods, and also by incorporating calcium fortified foods in to your diet. 

Plant sources of calcium include bok choy, figs, kale and mustard greens. Other options include turnip, watercress, broccoli, chickpeas, sesame seeds and fortified plant milks.

Iodine 

Mostly found in seafood, Iodine is vital for healthy thyroid function and is needed for metabolizing food into energy. A low iodine intake can lead to hypothyroidism, often resulting in low energy levels, dry skin, and forgetfulness. 

Vegans are considered at risk of iodine deficiency so need to make a conscious effort to consume enough. Kelp (Kombu) is very rich in iodine but should only be consumed on occasion. Alternatively, nori (sushi wraps) have more moderate levels and can be eaten regularly. 

Essential fats

Ideally, we should have a balance of Omega 6 to Omega 3 at a ratio of 1:1. However, the average Western diet has a ratio of anywhere from 15:1 to 50:1. A high Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratio is linked with many inflammatory diseases such as arthritis, diabetes, depression, heart disease and cancer.

For a vegan to achieve the ideal ratio, reduce the intake of processed foods and vegetable oils. Boost your intake of Omega 3 sources such as flaxseeds, chia seeds and walnuts. You can also supplement with algae oil if needed. If you eat a whole food plant-based diet and avoid processed food, your levels of these two fatty acids should be balanced at healthy levels.

Vitamin D

More and more research is being done on the importance of vitamin D for our health. Amongst other things, vitamin D helps enhance the absorption of calcium and influences many other bodily processes, such as immune function, mood, memory and muscle recovery.

The reference nutrient intake (RNI) for vitamin D for children and adults is 15 mcg per day. However, daily requirements are believed to be a lot higher than the current recommendations.

Unfortunately, there are not many foods containing vitamin D and vitamin D fortified foods are often unable to meet the daily requirements. This could partly explain the worldwide reports of vitamin D deficiency among vegans and omnivores alike. Besides the small amount you get from your diet, vitamin D can be made from sun exposure but, because of our climate, it is not advised to rely on sun exposure alone.

Have your blood levels tested. Those unable to get enough from fortified foods and sunshine should take a daily vegan Vitamin D supplement.

Zinc

It is important to have small amounts of zinc on a daily basis in order to perform important functions each day. Zinc offers many benefits, including helping with hormone production, growth and repair. It also improves immunity, supports digestion, and has the ability to act as an anti-inflammatory agent. Zinc may therefore have significant therapeutic benefits for several common, chronic diseases.

An insufficient intake of zinc can lead to developmental problems, infertility, loss of hair, diarrhea, hormonal problems and poor wound healing.

The RNI for zinc is 7–9 mg per day for adults but few plant foods actually contain zinc, and those that do are limited due to their phytate content. Based on this, it is recommended that vegans aim for 1.5 times the RNI.

To maximize your intake, eat an abundance of zinc-rich foods including whole grains, wheat germ, organic tofu, legumes, nuts and seeds. Soaking nuts and seeds overnight before eating them and eating fermented foods such as tempeh also appears to boost zinc absorption.

Vitamin A

Vitamin A is nly available from animal sources. However, our bodies convert beta carotene (a red-orange pigment found in many fresh fruits and vegetables) into vitamin A. To maximise this conversion it’s important to eat foods rich in beta carotene such as carrots and sweet potatoes.

B12 

Vitamin B12 is only available from animal sources, so as a vegan you will need to source B12 elsewhere. Along with including B12-fortified foods in your diet, try adding supplements to your routine. B12 keeps the body’s nerve and blood cells healthy and helps make DNA. A lack of B12 can result in low energy, feeling weak, constipation and appetite loss.

Protein

We all know how it goes. You mention you’re vegan and the first question is: “Where do you get your protein?” As tedious as these questions can be, the importance of adequate protein cannot be ignored.

You’ll find protein all throughout the body, in muscle and bone. It also makes up the enzymes that power many of the body’s chemical reactions, as well as the haemoglobin that carries oxygen in your blood.

There are 20 amino acids, or building blocks, which provide the raw material for all human proteins. Similar to the 26 letters of the alphabet forming millions of different words, these 20 amino acids form different proteins. At least 10,000 different proteins make you what you are and keep you that way.

Half of these 20 amino acids cannot be manufactured by the human body. These are known as the essential amino acids and can easily be provided by a balanced diet. However, because the body doesn’t store amino acids, it needs a daily supply. As babies, our mothers’ milk provides the protein we need to grow healthy and strong. Once we start eating solid foods, approximately 10-12% of our total calorie intake need be in the form of protein.

The RNI for protein is is set at 0.75 g per kilogram bodyweight per day in adults.

Vegetable sources of protein, such as beans, seeds, and whole grains, are excellent choices as they offer healthy fibre, vitamins and minerals. 

Successful transitioning

Remember you don’t have to change everything at once

Successfully transitioning into a healthy vegan takes consideration, planning and time. If you are just starting out, begin by including more plant-based foods in your diet. Make gradual changes and assess how you are feeling along the way.

If you would like personalised guidance, enlist the support of a naturopath or nutritional therapist. These are professionals who can help you achieve your personal health goals for now and the longer term. Plus you’ll learn how and what to cook to produce delicious and healthy vegan meals

 

Eva Killeen directs the CNM natural chef diploma course. For more information, visit naturopathy.ie