Kirsten has been talking nutrition for over a decade in workshops, on university and college courses, on retreats and to the hundreds of people who have come for one-to-one consultations. And then there are those she meets socially, who open with, “Oh, you’re a nutritionist? Can I just ask what you think about…?” So here’s your chance to ask…
“I’m thinking about going vegan. Is it possible to eat well enough? What are the pitfalls?”
Yes, it’s possible to eat exceptionally well on a vegan diet. There are health aspects you need to be aware of, but there are also some added bonuses.
Colourful roots to leafy greens
One advantage is that you are more likely to eat a greater quantity and variety of vegetables. The pigments that make them so colourful are lifesaving nutrients. They have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and sometimes anti-cancer properties. Vegetables also provide an amazing array of vitamins, minerals and other essential nutrients.
What about protein?
There is frequent concern about whether you can get enough protein from a vegan diet. The answer is: yes, you can! Meat, fish, eggs and dairy are all called complete proteins, which means they provide all the amino acids protein building blocks you need to make muscles, hormones, enzymes, cell structures and more. But you can easily get all of these amino acids in a vegan diet. Quinoa and soya, for example, are complete proteins. You can use different combinations of other pulses with nuts, seeds and grains.
Other excellent sources of protein are mushrooms, avocados, sea vegetables (kelp/kombu, wakame, arame, pulse etc.) and blue-green algae, such as spirulina.
A common misconception is that vegans lack calcium in their diet. However, green leafy vegetables, sea vegetables, nuts and seeds are a much more effective source of calcium (and magnesium) than milk, cheese and yoghurt.
To B12 or not to B12
B12 is essential for your energy levels, nervous system and much more, and there is no vegan form of B12 that we can effectively absorb and utilise. Most B12 supplements are not ideal either, often in a form we don’t work well with (cyanocobalamin), plus many of us struggle to digest B12 at the best of times. So my best recommendation is to look for methylcobalamin in liquid form (drops or spray) that you can use under your tongue (sublingually).
Fats, oils and omegas
It’s also difficult to get hold of enough EPA and DHA; forms of omega 3 that are important for cell function, brain health and countering inflammation. There is a different kind of omega 3 (ALA) in flax and chia seeds, and you can now get vegan DHA/EPA supplements extracted from algae, which seem to be the next best thing to eating oily fish. While we’re talking oils, please, please, PLEASE avoid margarine, and instead use coconut oil. Margarine is oil that has been damaged, as have so many cooking oils.
Finally, will being vegan make you a pale weakling? The good news here is that there is plenty of iron in dark leafy greens, nuts, seeds, pulse, dried fruit and molasses. It’s in a (non-haem) form that isn’t as easy to absorb as the (haem) form in meat, but you can still get adequate iron with just a little effort.
Five Tips for a Healthy Vegan Diet
- Include a variety of pulses, nuts and seeds
- Colour your plate with heaps of vegetables
- Supplement with B12 (methylcobalamin)
- Use coconut oil for cooking and spreading
- Get creative and make mouthwatering vegan dishes
GOT A NUTRITION QUESTION?
If you’ve got a question about food/health/nutrition – now’s your chance to ask the expert. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with ASK KIRSTEN in the subject line and Kirsten will pick one of your questions to answer in the next issue.
DON’T BLAME US!
The nutritional information in this feature is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your GP or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.