Hello and welcome back for part 2 of my little veganuary guide.
This post discusses
- Building a meal
- Focus on some individual nutrients: iron and calcium
- Further resources
Click here for part 1 which contains
- How to go plant-based and stay plant-based
- Common concerns
- Common mistakes
- Meal tips for (almost) every occasion
- My fave restaurants and supermarkets
- Best of… dairy alternatives, meat alternatives
- Other aspects of being vegan
A little list of things to clear up before we plunge into it (oh, and all links will open in new tabs so click away as you read!):
- Let us define “vegan” again. Veganism is not a diet. a plantbased diet is a diet. The Vegan Society’s definition of veganism is that it “is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose” (emphasis mine)
- In this post, I am going to focus mainly on how to transition to a plant-based diet (and not so much veganism). Do keep in mind the distinction between vegan/plant-based I have just made, though!
- I am not a certified dietician or a doctor. I am a medical student but not yet qualified, so you may want to double check any advice I give with an *actual* healthcare professional. Having said that, nutrition is a special area of interest of mine, and I have recently completed an online course in plant-based nutrition with the University of Winchester, which was brilliant. As such, I do have some knowledge on the topic, but please remember that I am not yet qualified.
- I have been vegan since June 2017, and some of what I say may be more anecdotal, which I hope is of just as much value to you.
A little bit about your motivation
It is helpful to remember why you are embarking on this “journey”. I will not spend any time telling you about how veganism is beneficial to animal welfare, our suffering planet (click here for an infographic) or your health (British Dietetic Association statement). You already know those things – yay!
I would encourage you to check out one of the great documentaries about the impact of a plant-based diet, just to motivate you and keep you on track. My favourites are: Forks over Knives, Cowspiracy, Land of Hope and Glory or The Gamechangers.
If you are only doing 30 days of “Veganuary” (sign up here!) you need not worry about nutritional deficiencies to be honest. But I would start as I mean to go on, and that includes being conscious of your nutritional intake. I do not mean track everything you eat, just know what nutrients you need to plan a bit more carefully for and build up habits to ensure you get ’em.
People are often worried about nutrient deficiencies when starting a plant-based diet. Yes, it is true that you may be more at risk of lacking some nutrients on such a diet. However, you will be getting so many nutrients a traditional diet is lacking in (while still getting everything you need with some extra considerations)! As a bonus, you will no longer be consuming cholesterol, lower amounts of saturated fat, and fewer pro-inflammatory and pro-oxidative stress stimulating compounds.
You will most likely also be “healthier” than someone on an average diet who does not pay any mind to the nutrients they are obtaining through food.
These are the supplements I absolutely recommend you take:
- vitamin B12 – you can get this fairly cheaply online or in health food shops. Do not rely on fortified foods and take a supplement of 50 micrograms daily or 2000 micrograms once per week. Source/more info at nutritionfacts.org. This is made from bacteria in the soil; unfortunately, modern farming methods has all but obliterated such sources and even farm animals are now given B12 supplements. Avoid the middle-man and just take a supplement yourself.
- vitamin D – unless you live in a super sunny place, in which case you can get it from wandering outside in the sunshine for a little while every day (I think ~15 minutes) as humans can make their own from UV radiation on the skin (cool huh?!). If you want to do the vegan thing fully, make sure you get a vitamin D supplement labelled vegan, as many are made from sheep’s wool.
- iodine – many countries have iodised salt, but the UK does not. Seaweed is a source of iodine but not all that reliable, so I just supplement with a 150 microgram pill from Holland & Barrett every day (this is what I take currently). Iodine is important for maintaining thyroid health, which is involved in regulating your metabolism. Source/more info at nutritionfacts.org.
I supplement with all three mentioned above. I also take some other supplements which are not as essential, but I do recommend them:
- omega-3 – dietary sources of omega-3 which I try to consume every day (key word is try lol, and hence why I supplement) are 1 tablespoon chia seeds or ground flax seeds or hemp seeds, or 6 walnut halves. These contain omega-3 in the form of ALA, which the body converts to a more “superior” form of omega-3 fatty acid called EPA, as well as DHA. It is recommended to supplement with EPA/DHA directly as the body’s conversion rate from ALA is not certain (although it is believed some vegans may adapt and have a higher conversion rate). Appropriate amounts of omega-3 fatty acids is crucial for brain function and preserving cognitive function in aging, so do supplement! Vegan omega-3 supplements are based on algae (where fish gets their omega-3s from). I have previously used Nothing Fishy, and currently use MyProtein. You want to get 450 micrograms of EPA + DHA combined in your daily supplement. Also mind your omega-6 intake from oils, as a high omega-6 to omega-3 ratio clogs up the conversion pathway too.
- iron – you can get iron from your diet! But as many people with uteruses of “childbearing age” have periods and lose blood, they more easily become iron deficient. I have been iron deficient in every single blood test I have taken for years (even pre-vegan when still eating meat), and I have been lazy with watching my iron intake. Since last summer, I have been taking high-strength supplements from my GP. Other than dietary intake, you can take supplements from health food shops, such as Floradix. More about iron below!
Building a meal with macronutrients
An excellent guide to check out is put together by Plant-based health professionals UK and can be found here. It’s not very long and gives you all the basics you need, really! It also includes the Eatwell guide which is really helpful for helping with constructing your meals.
This is how I think when I create a meal for myself:
- Carbohydrates. You need carbohydrates, and they are not an evil. Repeat after me: CARBS ARE GOOD. Okay? PBHP recommends basing your meal around starchy carbohydrates, as does the NHS. Listen to the science! Some carbohydrates are better sources than others, so focus on consuming those regularly. //// EXAMPLE “CARBS”; brown rice, quinoa, wholewheat bread, wholewheat pasta, bulgur, sweet potato, potato, other starchy veg such as butternut squash.
- Protein. There are primary and secondary sources. All plant foods contain some degree of protein, it’s just a question of how much. Mix and match throughout the day. As long as you eat a variety of foods through the day and eat enough to meet your caloric needs – you will be 100% fine and should easily meet your recommended daily 0.8g protein per kg of body weight. //// EXAMPLE “PROTEIN” FOODS; tofu, tempeh, seitan, supermarket “meat” alternatives e.g. Vivera, This, Quorn, beans, lentils, peas, quinoa.
- Healthy fats. Opt for whole food sources such as nuts and seeds (also good sources of protein), avocado, olives. The best oils to use for cooking and salad dressings are rapeseed oil and extra virgin cold pressed olive oil. Coconut oil is not a health food.
- Fill your plate with a variety of colourful veggies and leafy greens. Eat fruits and berries. Enjoy eating the rainbow 🌈
People with uteruses of childbearing age need more than post-menopausal persons and men. Plant sources of iron are less readily absorbed than heme from animal products, so aim for as much as you can get! The plant-based Eatwell guide has a sample meal plan within it which covers your daily iron (and calcium). Other things to keep in mind with regards to iron:
- Vitamin C enhances absorption. Consume your iron-rich foods with foods high in vitamin C such as citrus fruits (a squeeze of lime 🍋)
- Calcium and tannins in tea and coffee inhibit absorption. If possible, consume such foods and beverages 1-2h either side of an iron-rich meal.
- I think the most important thing is to consistently include iron-rich foods in your diet. If you are really struggling, adding a supplement may be useful.
Foods rich in iron:
- Leafy greens.
- Spirulina, some herbs.
- my super iron power smoothie/juice I make with orange juice, 1 tablespoon spirulina, spinach, water (or unfortified mylk), and a banana or half of one 🌱
Aim for ~700 milligrams daily, more for elderly. The most reliable sources are fortified dairy alternatives, tofu, low-oxalate greens (kale, broccoli, cavolo Nero, Brussels sprouts) and sesame products and almonds. You can google a more comprehensive list, but essentially consume 1-2 portions of fortified dairy alternatives (soy milk is great for reaching protein requirements too!) and lots of greens in general.
SOME OTHER NUTRIENTS
Those listed above are the main ones people tend to be concerned about. You may want to eat a daily Brazil nut or two for your selenium, and some plant sources of zinc. Your best bet is just to eat an abundance of different plant foods, while basing your meals around the Eatwell plate, and to supplement with the essentials I recommend above. Definitely check out this or this for more information. And do not forget to enjoy all the tasty vegan treats on offer, and to make your own!
NutritionFacts.org and Dr Michael Greger’s book How not to Die