The new year brings in new health habits, like dry January, but have you heard of ‘Veganuary’? ‘Veganuary’ encourages the ‘vegan-curious’ to completely give up all animal and animal-derived products such as meat, poultry, fish, seafood, dairy, gelatine, eggs and honey in January. Eating only plant-based foods may be fashionable but vegans mainly follow such as diet for ethical, environmental and health reasons. Whilst a vegan diet may have some health benefits if carefully planned, it can also be unhealthy if not undertaken properly. Here are my tips to help you to get started as well as a few key nutrients to not overlook.
A vegan diet does not necessarily mean a healthy one. Do you fancy living on bread, margarine, jam and chips? Rushing to your supermarket’s vegan aisle and replacing your meat, cheese and milk with manufactured alternatives may be very tempting but try and avoid processed fake vegan foods by always checking labels for non-food ingredients (e.g. stabilisers, gums, thickeners, processed protein extract). If you cannot recognise the ingredients, revert to unprocessed whole foods such as beans, pulses, nuts, seeds and, fresh, local and seasonal fruits and vegetables. Cook from scratch as much as you can, experiment with vegan recipes (e.g. ‘Oh She Glows’ or ‘The Colourful Kitchen’ cookbooks and websites) and change only one meal at a time to start with.
Pay special attention to:
-Vitamin B12. B12 is found primarily in animal foods. In vegan diets, B12 is available from some fortified foods, seaweeds and fermented foods. It may be harder to get optimal levels of B12 on a vegan diet and therefore supplementation with natural forms of vitamin B12 (not cheap, synthetic and poorly absorbed forms) may need to be considered.
-Iron. Contrary to iron from animal sources, plant-based iron found in green leafy vegetables (e.g. kale, spinach), lentils, almonds, sesame seeds is poorly absorbed and utilised by the body. Absorption is limited by a plant molecule called phytate, which can be neutralised if you soak nuts, legumes and grains overnight (or sprout them). Another way to boost iron absorption is to eat foods rich in vitamin C at the same time (e.g. peppers, broccoli, citrus fruits).
-Omega-3. Omega-3 fats as EPA and DHA (the types needed for brain health) are mainly found in oily fish (e.g. salmon, mackerel, sardines). Omega-3s in plants (e.g. flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts) only contain ALA (the other type of omega-3) which needs to be converted to EPA and DHA. Unfortunately, ALA conversion by the body is quite poor and therefore omega-3 vegan supplements (marine algae providing EPA+DHA) may need to be considered.
-Protein. Animal proteins are complete proteins as they provide all the essential amino acids (building blocks) the body needs to perform various functions. Vegan sources of protein such as pulses (beans, lentils, chickpeas, peas), grains (wheat, oats, rice) or nuts and seeds are not complete proteins (except soy). You will need to combine two different vegan protein sources for them to be complete (e.g. peas and rice, beans and toast, chickpeas and tahini).
-Other nutrients which may be deficient in a vegan diet include vitamin A, vitamin D, calcium, zinc and iodine.
Christelle is a local Registered Nutritionist and Health Coach. (www.keepcalmnutrition.co.uk). Find out more about her 21-day (non-vegan) online group programme ‘New Year, Healthier You’ starting on 18 January 2021 at https://p.bttr.to/3hvhCjH