Whether you’re going vegan for the month of January, are flexibly vegan or have always followed a plant-based diet, then now is a great time to ensure your diet is delivering all the essential nutrients.
Protein is key
Protein is a key macro nutrient. It’s needed for maintaining healthy bones, joints and muscles, plays a key role in the immune system and is essential for hormone production, plus much more. Without sufficient protein, the body may become weaker.
Protein from animal sources contains all the essential amino acids the body can’t make. And whilst many vegetable sources also contain the essential aminos, some foods are low in certain ones. Therefore, it’s important to vamp up intake of those foods with more essential aminos. Great choices are soy foods (check they’re non-GMO) and rice and beans, which can be combined to deliver the full quota. The body doesn’t need to be having all nine essential aminos at every meal; there just needs to be an overall balance.
However, do make sure you’re eating some protein at every meal – there are loads of great choices. Any types of bean, quinoa, rice, buckwheat, lentils, chickpeas, nuts, peas, soy, huel, hemp and chia seeds are all great choices.
Certain fats ARE essential
Whilst it’s important not to overdo foods high in saturated fats such as butter and meat (good to remember if you’re a ‘flexi), the body absolutely needs the omega-3s and 6s. These are essential for many body functions including a healthy heart, skin, brain, muscles, eyes and hormones. Omega 6 fats are often easier to obtain because they’re found in a variety of vegetable oils (including soy), nuts and seeds.
However, it’s the omega-3s that are frequently deficient in so many western diets, partly because the best source is from oily fish which many people don’t like and obviously vegans don’t eat. The great news is that walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseeds and pumpkin seeds are all good sources of omega-3s, so make sure they’re on the menu every day in some way.
Keep an eye on Vitamin B12
This vitamin is the only one that can’t be found in any vegetable sources so ideally needs to be supplemented if you’re vegan. However, many soy products and cereals are fortified with vitamin B12 so do keep a watchful eye on labels, and the gut microbiome can also produce some.
Vitamin B12 is essential for preventing pernicious anaemia with certain symptoms not dissimilar to iron-deficient anaemia. The bottom line is that if you’re deficient in B12, energy levels will be noticeably low and your nervous system and brain won’t function optimally.
Keep a watch on iron intake
Unlike vitamin B12, iron is found in many vegetable sources including nuts, beans, green leafy vegetables, and fortified grain products. Whilst the most usable source of iron is from meat, vegetable sources are much better absorbed when eating alongside some vitamin C. For example, half a glass of orange juice with your morning fortified cereal is a great way of boosting iron levels.
The only way of knowing for sure if iron levels are low is to get the doctor to perform a serum ferritin blood test. It’s always worth having this checked, if you’re feeling unusually tired or you find you’re out of breath even doing light exercise. However, do include the above vegan sources of iron as much as possible in your diet.
Load up on orange and red veg
Why? Because these colourful fruits and vegetables have the highest amounts of beta-carotene which is turned into immune-boosting vitamin A as needed by the body. Just like vitamin B12, vitamin A is only found in animal sources. However, this doesn’t generally present any problems because the body produces vitamin A if enough beta-carotene is being consumed.
Many colourful fruits and vegetables contain pro-vitamin A beta carotene, with tomatoes, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, mango, apricots and carrots being some of the best choices.