Protein? Iron? Calcium? Help!

lentils and spices

If you’re a new or transitioning vegan you might think your new diet is quite simple – only eat plants right? While this is technically correct, if you’re not careful you could end up not consuming enough of the right vitamins and minerals to keep you firing healthily on all cylinders.

So we DO need animal products?

Hell no! This seems to be the biggest concern of vegan naysayers by the way, with everyone happening to know someone who went vego once and then almost died – or something like that. The truth is no one ever got sick from eating too many vegetables, numerous studies have shown that vegans tend to live longer than omnivores, and you can get all your essential nutrients like protein, iron and calcium from plants. So Popeye was on the right track with his spinach. BUT eating only carrots all day long is not a good idea, and neither is a truckload of potato chips. You need to make sure you’re eating a balanced diet full of a range of different plant-based (and ideally wholefood) meals and snacks in order to nourish your body and stop you feeling permanently hungry.

And so how you do that?

Well first of all you need to know a) which foods give you the right health benefits and then b) how much of them you actually need. Once armed with the knowledge then you need to get ORGANISED. Plan your meals and snacks out for the week as much as possible because otherwise you’ll find yourself either starving, dipping back into animal foods out of laziness or necessity, or trying to fill up on piles of bread and sugary things like Oreos which can lead to other health problems.

There is a ton of information out there on the web around nutrition for vegans. We of course aren’t dieticians or doctors so please do your own research and only use credible sources like nutritionfacts.org and empowertotalhealth.com.au as there is a lot of misinformation out there. To get you started though here is a brief rundown of the key areas new vegans should be on top of:

Protein

Humans don’t need as much protein as we’ve been led to believe, in fact most people are actually consuming way too much (which probably explains why kids these days are growing like giants). You only need on average 42g of protein a day and it’s utter bulldust that the only way you can get this is from animals. What do you think cows eat? Grass. Protein deficiency is basically unheard of, anywhere – it’s fibre that people generally aren’t getting enough of (only found in plants). To put things in perspective: 100g of lentils will give you 26g of protein, and 100g of chicken will give you 25g of protein AND contribute to ill health issues. We know which protein we’d choose. Almost all plant-based foods have some form of protein in them, but the ones with the most are seitan (wheat protein), tofu, lentils, chickpeas, beans, whole grains like quinoa, nuts, seeds, soy products and vegan ‘meats’, so make sure you get into them.

Iron

Men need around 8g of iron a day while women need 18g (and even more if pregnant or breastfeeding). Many of the same plant-based foods that give you protein are also rich sources of iron – think beans, almonds, pumpkin seeds, tofu, green leafy vegetables, wholemeal bread and fortified breakfast cereals like Weetbix. The only problem is, plant sources of iron (non-haem) aren’t absorbed as efficiently as animal sources of iron (haem). Annoying, yet they also don’t increase your risk of cancer and other diseases – which is of course pretty darn appealing. Iron supplements can be problematic too so the best way to boost your iron absorption (by up to five times) is to mix iron-rich plants with those high in Vitamin C – e.g. hummus which is made from chickpeas and lemon juice, or plants naturally high in both elements such as broccoli. Other ways to increase your iron as a vegan are to eat smaller portions more often (iron absorbs better when in lower amounts), cook with cast-iron pots, and don’t drink tea and coffee with meals (the caffeine can hinder your iron uptake).

Calcium

Another huge myth is that we need to consume dairy or our bones and teeth will crumble like dust in the wind. It’s not true. In fact too much calcium can lead to poor bone health and many people have been consuming too much of it. Around 750mg a day is the correct amount so make sure you’re eating plenty of things like soy milk, bread, broccoli, fruit juice, tofu and beans which are all high in calcium.

Healthy fats & omega-3

You need a nice dose of healthy fats to give you energy, prevent disease and stay, umm healthy; and you can find them in things like avocado, peanut butter, nuts and seeds. For your brain you need omega-3 which traditionally people have gotten from eating fish or fish oil tablets, but for vegans the options are things like flaxseeds, canola oil, tofu and walnuts. Some experts also recommend vegans take a non-pollutant DHA supplement made from the algae where fish get their omega-3 from, which could be a good idea especially if you’re a transitioning vegan.

B12

While we’re talking vitamins, it’s very important that vegans get enough B12 which is the only essential vitamin you can’t get directly from plants. The reason for this is that it’s bacteria-based. Compared to years ago, humans now have a much higher practice of hygiene and cleanliness (plus we no longer use our own poo to fertilise crops); and so B12 is not something we tend to come by anymore unless we’re eating animal products. In fact even farmed animals now are manually given B12 – probably because they’re not eating their own poo anymore either (unlike say gorillas). Luckily a lot of fortified foods such as soy and other non-dairy milks, nutritional yeast and cereals contain B12; but to be safe make sure you take a good supplement regularly (just like cows and sheep do).

Sleep and other help

Finally don’t forget to get plenty of sleep and drink lots of water, as not enough of either could affect your energy levels and overall well-being, making the transition to a vegan diet much harder. And if you are struggling a bit in the early stages with eating the right stuff, you can of course give yourself a boost with things like vitamin supplements and protein powders. They aren’t necessary or recommended long term if you’re eating the right plant-based foods, but if you need them in the beginning then it could be worth talking to your doctor, nutritionist or pharmacist about the best ones to take.

How do you keep your vegan diet on track with the right nutrients?


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