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Vegan Nutrition: The Essential Starter Guide

“Yeah, but where do you get your protein from??”

Eyeroll. We’ve all heard it, from the well-intentioned but uninformed to the downright doubters and haters.

Pssst! Veganism has probably existed for 2000 years and more, with proponents alive and thriving well into old age. Take Loreen Dinwiddie for example, who died at 109 years old after 90 years of vegan living (there are some other seriously cool veegs listed in that link btw, it’s worth a nose!). With millions of plant-powered humans now happily inhabiting the earth, it should be perfectly obvious that a plant-based diet needn’t mean a nutritionally deficient one.

Nevertheless, we know you know that sometimes it’s good to be fully armed with the facts. First and foremost, you want to make doubly sure you’re getting everything you need to be healthy and happy. If you can finally silence your sceptical uncle, well that’s a bonus.

So, let us begin.

What Is a Vegan Diet?

Okay, so we’re assuming you know this, but it’s worth repeating for the guys at the back: NO ANIMAL PRODUCTS. Animal flesh, by-products or foods from animal origin are avoided. Got it? Okay, let’s continue.

Essential Nutrients Not Found in Plant Foods

Vitamin B12

This vitamin is found in meat, fish, eggs and dairy, but not in fruits and vegetables. We need it to keep our vascular and nervous systems healthy: B12 deficiency can be serious, causing anaemia and sometimes irreversible nerve damage, so you definitely don’t want to mess about with it.

Get some: Stock up on ‘nooch’: nutritional yeast (being sure to select a product which is gown on a B12 rich medium – some aren’t) and get a teaspoon or two into your food daily. It’s great for making foods ‘cheesy’. If you like yeast extract, you can also use this for B12, spread on toast or added to vegan stock for flavour. Alternatively, you can buy vegan B12 supplements.

Vitamin D

We make our own Vitamin D when the sun hits our skin. For many of us (especially here in the UK) this doesn’t happen nearly often enough! While it is present in eggs and some fish, Vitamin D doesn’t appear in quantities sufficient to meet our needs in plant foods.

Get some: Make a special effort to (safely!) expose your skin to sunlight when you can, and consider investing in vegan D2 or D3 supplements. Certain fortified spreads and plant-milks have added Vitamin D, too.

P.S. Non vegans are often deficient in these nutrients, too!

Other Nutrients of Special Interest to Vegans

Okay, here it comes…

Protein

It is a straight up myth that vegans are protein deprived. Protein is an absolutely essential nutrient, key to the body’s ability to build and repair tissue, synthesise hormones, provide energy and much more besides. Fortunately, it’s found in many plant foods. Plus, it’s easy to get enough, because we don’t actually need as much as you might think! The recommended daily allowance of protein for adults is 0.6g per kg of body weight.

Protein is made up of amino acids. There are 20 of these, 11 of which can be made by the body but 9 which must be derived from food. The thing to remember as a vegan is that not all sources of plant protein will contain all nine essential amino acids (although some do! Here’s lookin’ at you, quinoa, chia seeds, spinach and my boy: soy). However, it’s totally fine to combine amino acids from here and there to make up your full complement. Protein variety is the spice of life!

The one amino acid you want to keep a close eye on is lysine. It isn’t found abundantly in plants, except for legumes.

Get some: Go green – leafy greens, broccoli and peas are packed with protein. Legumes, such as chickpeas, beans, lentils and peanuts are must haves – this doesn’t need to mean eating a five-bean salad with every meal! Just get a peanut butter sandwich in or some veggies dipped in hummus and you’re away. Chia and hemp seeds, quinoa, nuts and buckwheat are protein winners and soya beans and their derivatives (such as tofu and tempeh) score you all the amino acids you need.

Calcium

A nutrient many associate with dairy products, calcium is necessary for strong bones and teeth. It is in fact found in greater concentrations in many plant than dairy sources, gram for gram.

Get some: Green veg, such as broccoli, cabbage and okra are big calcium hitters. Seeds, particularly chia and sesame, pack a calcium punch and pulses and dried fruits are tasty sources, too.

Iron

Key to red blood cell production, iron is found in abundance in plant foods. Absorption can be the problem, with caffeine and even calcium inhibiting the body’s uptake!

Get some: Good old legumes (such as lentils, soya beans and chickpeas) as well as potatoes, swiss chard, nuts, seeds and spirulina are all high in iron. To aid absorption, avoid caffeine around mealtimes. Opt for fruit for dessert, or a lemon dressing as Vitamin C increases absorption of iron.

Omega 3 Fatty Acids

These fats are thought to keep your ticker in tip top shape. Non-vegans often get them from oily fish, but plant-powered peeps can get their fair share, too.

Get some: flax seed, avocado, linseed oil, walnuts, avocado and that superstar, chia seeds.

PS the high quantity and variety of fruits and veggies in a vegan diet are also thought to keep you heart healthy.

Iodine

We don’t need much of it, but this nutrient is essential for proper functioning of out thyroid glands. It is present in cow’s milk, but this is actually from supplements and iodine containing disinfectants used to clean milking equipment! Vegans can get it from more natural sources quite easily.

Get some: plants such as whole grains, courgettes, kale and strawberries do contain iodine, but the quantity varies massively depending on the quality of the soil these were grown in. More reliable sources are sea vegetables such as seaweed, and iodised salt. Use sparingly, some wakame in a vegan ramen once a week or a little powdered kelp added to stews and stocks now and again should be plenty.

The Lowdown

If you’re eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables and not going too heavy on the processed foods, you’re probably already scoring most of the nutrients you need without even thinking about it. Have a peep at the Eatwell Guide to see how your diet currently stacks up against the graphic, and make some tweaks accordingly if you need to.

You’ll have noticed that tofu is a big winner for lots of the nutrients vegans need to look out for. Our organic Kofu is tofu’s more cultured (literally! It’s made with kombucha) cousin and packed with all the benefits mentioned relating to soya here. Stock up, study up and stay healthy!

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