With so much dietary advice around, it’s hard to know who and what to believe. Here is our attempt to cut through the noise and look into a healthy balanced vegan diet and reduce your chances of getting a deficiency.
We’ll go through some of the main nutrients individually and see how much impact they may have on your health. And, where we can put some ideas down for how you need to get enough. It’s a great time to run through this as many people may have run into some concerns after trying out Veganuary.
Gaining weight and having a B12 deficiency may be the big scary headlines being pushed from media around the world. So let’s run through some science, try and focus on a few main points, and you’ll be on the right track to the optimal plant-based lifestyle.
Disclaimer: I am by no means a qualified dietician. I will be using the recommendations of dietitians, and quote the nutritional research.
Does the vegan diet give me all the nutrition you need?
With every diet there comes your own responsibility. For example, if you’re eating a range of processed foods on any diet you’ll probably run into some issues. Some severe and some just damn right annoying. The same applies to the vegan and plant-based diets and isn’t an inherent flaw of the vegan diet.
In some cases, vegans have been found to get more nutrition than other diets. This includes some of the heavy hitters when it comes to vitamins like A, C, and B6. If you’re really interested and quite concerned if you can get enough nutrients on a vegan diet, the largest group of nutritionists in the world reiterated in 2016 that a properly planned vegan diet is nutritionally adequate.
The most common concern: Protein
After a lifetime of being told that protein is super important. And literally the only thing you need to build muscle. So the idea that it’s, well, seemingly not that important is really interesting. On average, it also looks like vegans tend to have higher blood protein levels compared to omnivores.
Protein deficiency is a scary headline. And apparently, it’s only really possible when you’re on a super restrictive vegan diet, or you’re starving yourself. At this point, it’s a great idea to just use a tool to track what you eat over a few days just to get an idea of your intake.
You can see if you’re getting enough calories on your new plant diet. Especially if you’re just getting started as you’ve lived an entire life eating one way, so don’t be too hard on yourself if you’re not nailing it straight away. It takes time and effort to get it working for you in the best way.
It’s also good to know that in general, fruits and veggies don’t have as many calories as meat cheese and all the other wonderful animal treats. So consuming the same volume as you once did, will more than likely leave you pretty hungry. And, there is less protein per bite in these foods.
The confusing one: Vitamin B12
B12 is an important one, as according to all the nerds this is very important for maintaining healthy nerve and body cells, and helps in the production of the body’s genetic material.
The general consensus of plant-based doctors is to take a supplement for this vitamin. Or, eat fortified foods with added supplementation every day. It’s pretty confusing as your body can recirculate B12 for many years. However, this is the easiest insurance policy to keep everything ticking over with a supplement now and again.
The non-fishy one: DHA
If you want your brain to keep its full creative juices flowing then you’ve gotta keep your DHA going. It’s a long-chain omega fatty acid that your body can convert from ALA which is a plant-based source, or you can get DHA from fish, who get it from algae.
Your body can only convert a limited amount of ALA to DHA, so you need to make sure you’re getting enough ALA from plant sources, or take an algae-based DHA supplement two to three times per week as many plant-based doctors suggest.
Not really into supplementation? Grab yourself some chia seeds and throw them in your shake porridge or whatever you think wouldn’t taste mental. To make enough DHA from ALA (bear with me), you’ll need roughly 3-3.5 tablespoons to meet your 150-300mg recommended requirement.
The metallic one: Iron
There are a few theories around that plant-based iron isn’t as absorbable as animal-based, or heme iron available in possibly carcinogenic iron. One way to try and mitigate this theory is by making sure you eat vitamin C alongside irony foods.
This can increase the bioavailability of the plant iron such as a little squeeze of lemon on your dark leafy greens to get some extra iron. To give you some perspective, one cup of black beans on average is 50% of your daily requirements for Iron. And one cup of spinach is 80%.
The sunny one: Vitamin D
For some of us, this wonderful vitamin is less of an issue depending on where you live. If you get a lot of sunlight, you’re golden. If you’re like us here in Amsterdam, you might have to make more of an effort to get enough.
One way could be to get your hands on mushrooms that are exposed to UV light. As they could be as effective as vitamin D supplements. These are quite easy to spot as they do actually look like they’ve been in the sun with a nice tan. Just make sure you check the label when you’re shopping.
The boney one: Calcium
When ditching dairy products, this one can come up as a scary prospect that you’re not going to get enough in your plant-based diet. It’s quite confusing for how much you actually need, as some recommendations range from 300-800 mg of calcium is required to prevent osteoporosis.
The good news is that it’s relatively easy to get to 800 from foods. As an example, one cup of collard greens is around 250 mg. And with good news comes some not so good. As now it may actually be a negative to take a Calcium supplement as the can spike Calcium blood levels and clot your blood.
Testing the waters
Whatever your diet, it’s always good to get a blood test to see where you’re at. You may have a deficiency, you may not. At least by getting a test, you can see what you may need to focus on. Just make sure you eat enough calories, get a good source of B12, DHA and vitamin C, and get your face in the sun for some vitamin D.
Set aside your worries as a smart plant-based diet can clear your worries of eating cholesterol, eating heavy metals and plastic in fish, and hormones in dairy. Plus, you’ll enjoy a lower risk of diabetes, obesity, hypertension and all those self-mitigating diet-producing diseases. All while lowering your environmental footprint. Pretty dope.