The new year marks the inevitable resolutions, people determined to make this their healthiest and best year yet, with January being where many a battle is won and lost, especially in the kitchen. January also marks the start of Veganuary, a month of no animal products passing one's lips and a move towards a completely plant-based diet.
For some, this is just a brief foray into the world of veganism, but for others, it marks the start of a significant shift in their diet and for their bodies. Say what you like about veganism, for me people eating more veg and less meat is only a good thing. Being a vegan is not the only way to be healthy, but we could all do with a little more aubergine in our life (other vegetables are available).
But being strictly vegan does come with its challenges. While the meat-free market is rapidly expanding, it sometimes covers up some of the hidden issues. Our bodies have significant capacity to store various minerals, so developing deficiencies is pretty unlikely in a short period of time, i.e. for a month of Veganuary. However, for those that are looking to extend their meat-eating hiatus, there are some things to look out for and be aware of to avoid getting into trouble down the line.
Protein - Meat lovers will proclaim (and rightly so) that animal products contain all nine of the essential amino acids and therefore can be labelled 'complete' proteins. Plant-based protein sources in comparison rarely contain all nine and so are sometimes looked upon as inferior. But it's really not an issue as long as you mix up sources and get a good amount of variety. It can be easy to fall into the routine of the same old foods, regardless of your diet, so it's even more important as a vegan to get lots of diversity and lots of variety in where you're getting your protein from.
Top sources include:
- Pulses such as peas, beans, lentils and chickpeas (mix a load of these up for some homemade burgers or 'meatballs'.)
- Soya and Soya products e.g. soya dairy alternatives, tofu and soya mince.
- Seeds, nuts and nut butter (spread over your morning alternative yoghurt and berries).
- Vegan protein powders such as rice or pea (an easy way to top you up if you're struggling to hit your protein numbers, which can often be the case if you're trying to fill up on the above sources. My favourite source of vegan protein is this one).
Calcium - By the very nature of being vegan, you are eating no dairy. These foods are some of the richest, and most bio-available, sources of calcium around. However once again there are easy ways around this. Other sources of calcium include:
- Tofu - top tip, place your tofu in between some kitchen roll and place a heavy object on top. Leave it for 20 mins or so and it will remove a lot of the excess fluid, making it way easier to fry up and get real crispy!
- Calcium-fortified milk substitutes e.g. soya milk, yoghurts and puddings, rice/oat drinks and some fruit juices.
- Green leafy vegetables including kale and Pak Choi but not spinach. Although spinach contains calcium it is bound to a compound called oxalate. This greatly reduces its absorption making it a poor source of usable calcium. Note also that per gram of food, greens are relatively low in calcium so a very large amount would be needed in order to reach sufficiency if this was the primary source for a vegan.
- Some bread, keep an eye on labels they will say if they have been fortified.
- Sesame seeds/tahini (think a banging home-made hummus!)
- Nuts especially almonds.
- Dried fruit, apricots and figs.
Important one Vitamin D - The body needs Vitamin D to absorb calcium properly, without enough of it in the body that sweet, sweet calcium will go to waste. Especially in the winter, in the Northern Hemisphere, definitely worth taking a Vit D supplement, I'd recommend the 1000 IU tablets. I take this one.
Vitamin B12 - B12 is primarily found naturally in foods from animal sources so sources for vegans are limited and a B12 supplement is a good idea. Vitamin B12 deficiency can result in the development of abnormally large red blood cells, which can lead to anaemia. Long term B12 deficiency can result in nerve damage which may be permanent. If you're vegetarian and eating eggs and dairy foods, enough will probably be eaten, but plant-based sources are rare.
Iron - Red meat is the most easily absorbed source of iron however various plant foods also contain decent amounts. If we become deficient in iron it can lead to us feeling lethargic and tired a lot of the time. Iron is really important for our red blood cell's ability to carry sufficient oxygen around the body, without enough those that are low in it can feel short of breath and generally a bit crap! Worth pointing out is that plant-based iron may be less easily absorbed by the body. Good sources of iron include:
- Fortified breakfast cereals
- Dried fruit – apricots, prunes, figs
- Beans and lentils
- Leafy green vegetables
- Sesame seeds
- Wholemeal bread and flour
To help the body to absorb iron from plant foods you need enough Vitamin C. You can do this simply by eating foods high in Vitamin C at mealtimes like fruit and vegetables.
In summary, it is perfectly possible to maintain a healthy body while being vegan, but these are important things to be aware of. Variety is key with a plant-based diet, especially with your protein sources and ensuring you're not just relying purely on vegetables for your meals, and getting lots of legumes as well as fortified products where appropriate. For those doing Veganuary, I think it's awesome and good luck!
As an extra little goodie, I've included a vegan Thai Red Curry recipe for you to try below!
- 300g Brussel sprouts, shredded
- 1 carrot, roughly chopped
- 1 parsnip, roughly chopped
- 1/2 a butternut squash, peeled and cubed
- 1 red pepper, de-seeded & roughly chopped
- 1 tbsp soy sauce
- 400g chopped tomatoes
- 400g coconut milk
- 3 tbsp Thai Red Curry paste
- 3 dried chillis
- 4 Keffir lime leaves
- 3 Thai basil leaves
- Start by sauteing your carrot, parsnip, butternut squash and red pepper for about 10 mins, or until just soft.
- Add in your Thai Red Curry paste and cook out for 2 mins.
- Add in your chopped tomatoes, coconut milk, Keffir lime leaves, soy sauce, and dried chillis.
- Bring to the boil and then simmer for around 10 mins.
- Add in your Brussel sprouts and Thai basil leaves and cook for another 2 mins.
- Serve straight away with a big bowl of rice!