If you aren’t familiar with veganism, essentially a vegan diet excludes meat, fish, dairy, eggs and any food ingredient from animal origin including yeast, honey and gelatine. The popularity of vegan diets is undoubtedly continuing to gain traction with the rise of social media influence. Once believed to be a very restrictive diet, not only nutrient wise but also food availability wise, the tables have turned. Vegan options are now flourishing from hemp to brown rice protein and green juice to raw treats, deprivation is no longer a word associated with veganism. Vegan cafes continue to pop up and most restaurants have cottoned on to this trend ensuring they have a scrumptious vegan options on hand.
There are reported health advantages of the vegan diet including protection again metabolic syndrome, including obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease as well as inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis. There is further emerging research that the vegan diet positively manipulates the gut microbiome by reducing the number of pathological microbes which in turn reduces inflammation and improves overall health.
Interestingly also, last week it was difficult to miss The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) recent findings suggesting the consumption of red meat and processed meat is probably carcinogenic to humans. This link was observed primarily for colorectal cancer but also pancreatic and prostate cancer. Overall WHO concluded these findings further support current public health recommendations to limit intake of meat. This report should not see red meat blacklisted from our diets, there is definite nutritional value in good quality red meat and it forms a healthy part of a balanced diet in moderation.
Despite the reported health benefits, due to the restrictive nature of vegan diets, if not balanced correctly and if close attention not paid to nutrient intake, deficiencies may result. The most common nutrient deficiencies associated with veganism are: protein, iron, calcium, vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids.
Protein contains amino acids, the building blocks required by the body. Unlike animal protein not all plant proteins are complete and therefore may need to be combined with other plant proteins. Sources of plant protein are grains, nuts, seeds and legumes. At each meal, it is important to include a source of each.
Healthy Protein-rich meal ideas:
- Coconut oil pan-fried tempeh with hummus, rice, avocado and sunflower seed salad
- Hemp/brown rice protein powder, soy milk, oats, tahini and banana smoothie
We all might picture red meat when talking iron, however it is possible to obtain iron from plant sources. The trick is combining a plant rich iron source such as legumes with a vitamin C rich food such as capsicum. Vitamin C assists the body to absorb iron. Other plant sources of iron include: lentils, spinach, grains, red kidney beans, molasses, oats, tempeh/tofu, prunes and dried apricots.
Healthy iron-rich meal ideas:
- Quinoa, lentil, spinach and roast capsicum salad
- Oat porridge with prunes, dried apricots and tahini paste
We are currently spoilt for choice when it comes to plant based milks, almond, soy, oat, rice, quinoa and coconut milk have hit the shelves with force. When talking calcium, almond and soy are the highest in calcium compared to other plant based milks. Tahini, made from sesame seeds is also rich in calcium and can be used in place of butter or cheese. Furthermore, green leafy’s including spinach and kale as well as Asian greens (Chinese broccoli and bok choy) are good sources of calcium.
Healthy calcium-rich meal ideas:
- Chia porridge with almond milk, chopped almonds and fresh fruit
- Multi-grain toast with tahini, tofu and sautéed spinach
It can be tricky to obtain adequate dietary vitamin B12 when consuming a vegan diets. Vitamin B12 is predominately found in animal products and very few plant-based foods. Small amounts of vitamin B12 are found within shiitake mushrooms but it’s not possible to eat the required amount daily. At present, research suggests nori (seaweed) is the most suitable source of Vitamin B12 available for vegans.
Healthy vitamin B12-rich meal ideas:
- Stir-fried mushrooms (including shiitake) and tofu with soba noodles
- Nori, quinoa and vegetable wraps
Fish contains two omega-3 fatty acids known as DHA and EPA whereas nuts, seeds and some vegetable oils contains ALA which the body converts to EHA and EPA. Unfortunately ALA does not accumulate in the body very well despite a high dietary intake; in fact very limited ALA is converted to EPA and DHA. Sole reliance on nuts and seeds for omega-3 intake makes it difficult to obtain adequate omega-3. In fact, supplementation of omega-3 may be required and select vegan forms are available.
Healthy omega-3-rich meal ideas:
- Sweet potato, kale and sunflower salad with flaxseed oil dressing
- Quinoa, red kidney bean and flaxmeal patties with avocado salad
When it comes to vegan meal planning, variety is key to ensure adequate nutrient intake. Try swapping around grains, type of nuts and seeds, oils, vegetables and legumes at each meal daily. This will not only keep dietary boredom at bay but will help to ensure an overall balanced dietary intake, necessary for good health.
And remember, vegan diets aren’t for everyone, some people thrive on this style of eating and others flounder. When embarking on any form of eating style continually reassess whether the diet is working for you and if you are feeling at your best, at the end of the day, your body knows best!
Thankfully, being vegan doesn’t have to mean missing out, it just takes a bit of preparation and creativity, try my vegan-friendly Cauliflower Pizza with Tomato, Basil and Olive Oil
Glick-Bauer, M et al 2014, ‘The Health Advantage of a Vegan Diet: Exploring the Gut Microbiota Connection,’ Nutrients, Vol. 6, No. 11, pp. 4822-4838.
Kaur, N et al 2014, ‘Essential fatty acids as functional components of foods: a review,’ J Food Sci Technol, Vol. 51, No. 10, pp. 2289-2303.
Le, L et al 2014, ‘Beyond Meatless, the Health effects of vegan diets: findings from Adventist cohorts,’ Nutrients, Vol. 6, No. 6, pp. 2131-2147.
Watanabe, F et al 2014, Vitamin B12 containing Plant Food Sources for Vegetarians,’ Nutrients, Vol. 6, No. 5, pp. 1861-1873.