For many vegans, the choice to completely eliminate animal products has less to do with health and more to do with strong ethical convictions about the treatment and use of animals. Not to mention the effect that our current food system has on our environment.
In modern day cultures. food has become much more than a source of nourishment. For many people it can be about making a statement of who they are, what they stand for and a reflection of their overall belief system.
Here at The Hub, we believe that regardless of your ethical convictions, religion or belief system, that healthy eating applies to you. Whether you choose to become vegan, vegetarian or an omnivore, with smart planning and perhaps a little bit of help from an experienced professional, your diet can also help improve your overall health and well-being whilst still reflecting who you are and what you believe.
Research does indicate that well planned vegan diets do offer a range of health benefits. There’s a lot we can learn from a good vegan diet.
A well-balanced vegan diet
Vegan diets are typically higher in dietary fibre, vitamin C, vitamin E, folic acid, potassium, magnesium and phytochemicals (health promoting chemicals naturally occurring in fruit and vegetables). They’re also lower in saturated fats (typically thought to increase heart disease risk) and cholesterol. Population studies also show that compared to omnivores, vegans typically have lower BMIs (body mass index – a ratio of weight to height), are vernally thinner, and have lower rates of type 2 diabetes.
On the contrary, vegan diets can be lacking in a few key nutrients. Vegan diets may be deficient in vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, long chain omega 3 fatty acids, iron and zinc.
If you’ve recently decided that you’d like to follow a vegan diet, or you’re considering it, it’s important to carefully plan your food choices to ensure adequate nutrition.
Like any special diet that involves some kind of food avoidance, we would suggest to carefully consider why you’re avoiding the foods. If it’s for a good reason, the next step is to cover your dietary bases by becoming a smart eater. Smart vegans don’t just remove animal products form their diet and keep the rest of their food choices the same. No, smart vegans do this:
Ensure adequate protein
Protein is important for maintaining muscle mass, particularly in older individuals and those wanting to lose weight. It’s also great for appetite control by helping us feel fuller for longer after a meal. For omnivores, animal products are the major contributors of protein to the diet, so cutting out these foods means that you need to replace them with high protein plant based foods. These include whole grains, beans, lentils, chick peas, soy products, quorn products, nuts and seeds. It’s recommended that you eat at least 1-2 serves of different combinations of these foods at each of your meals.
It’s also important that your diet offers the full range of essential amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein.Your body can make some amino acids by itself, but there are some that it can’t. These are deemed essential in our diet because the body needs them but they must come from our food. Unlike animal sources of protein, most plant based foods do not contain all the essential amino acids. This means that you need to eat a good variety of plant based proteins to fill in the gaps.
For example, wheat contains amino acids that chick peas don’t contain and vice versa. A meal containing a bread roll and a chick pea salad would provide a larger range of amino acids than the bread roll on it’s own. A smart vegan diet will include serves of both legumes and whole grains at most of their meal times to ensure that their essential amino acid needs are met.
Ensure adequate calcium
Calcium is an important nutrient involved in a number of body systems, the most well know being the skeleton. Adequate calcium intake is an important aspect of long term bone health.
The major source of calcium in the Australian diet is dairy, however, there are plenty of other foods that can also contribute calcium to your diet that must be regularly included in a vegan diet. Calcium can be found in green leafy vegetables (kale, mustard greens), bok choy, broccoli, nuts (brazil nuts, almonds), seeds, soy milk, soy yoghurt, tofu, tahini, almond butter and fortified products.
Ensure adequate iron
Vegan and vegetarian diets are at risk of being iron deficient as meat is the highest and most bioavailable (easier to absorb) source of iron. Research has shown that even when iron intake is at similar levels, more is absorbed from an omnivores diet than a vegan or vegetarian diet.
The most at risk group of iron deficiency, besides children and teens, are women of childbearing age. Regular menstruation means that iron needs are almost three times that of a man’s. Even women who aren’t vegetarian or vegan can consume inadequate amounts of iron.
The smart vegan pays special attention to eating enough legumes, nuts, fortified cereals, dark green leafy vegetables and wholegrain cereals to ensure adequate iron. Dried fruit contains six times the amount of iron of fresh fruit, and tahini is a good source as well. If possible, include some major sources of vitamin C, such as citrus fruits, strawberries, capsicum and broccoli, on the side to increase iron absorption.
Ensure adequate vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is important for nerve function among other things. Deficiency develops over a long period of time, so ensure you’re getting enough of it from the start. It’s particularly important that children and teens are not put at risk f B12 deficiency as this can lead to apathy, failure to thrive and macro-cytic anaemia. The best sources of B12 for vegans are fortified products (soy & rice milk, breakfast cereals). No plant based foods are a reliable source of the essential vitamin and in most cases supplementation is necessary.
Zinc can be lacking in vegan diets, however not as much as the nutrients mentioned above. Zinc is mostly found in meat and shellfish, but vegans can obtain it from whole grains, nuts and legumes, especially pinto beans, kidney beans and black-eyed peas.
Ensure adequate omega 3 fatty acids
Diets that don’t include eggs, fish, seafood and also lack in long chain omega 3 fatty acids, EPA (eicosa- pentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid ). These fatty acids have been shown to play a significant role in cardiovascular health as well eye and brain functions.
Plant based sources of omega 3 fatty acids known as ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) can be converted to EPA and DHA by the body. This process is not very efficient however vegans can meet their needs for EPA and DHA by regularly consuming rich sources of ALA such as linseeds, walnuts, chia seeds, canola oil, soy products and hemp-seed based beverages. You can also use DHA-rich micro-algae supplements.
Foods to regularly feature in a vegan diet include:
- whole grains such as wheat products (bread, pasta, couscous), rice and rice products, oats, corn, rye, barley, millet and quinoa,
- legumes such as beans (kidney, butter, cannellini, broad), chick peas, lentils,
- nuts such as cashews, almonds, walnuts, pecans, brazil nuts, peanuts, etc – eat them whole or use their spreads and oils,
- seeds such as linseeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, chia seeds,
- soy based products such as soy milk, soy yoghurt, tofu and tempeh,
- quorn products,
- fruit that can be fresh, dried or frozen, and
- vegetables that can be fresh, canned or frozen.
Drink recommendations in vegan diet include:
- drinking plenty of water and/or tea,
- limiting sugary drinks like sodas and fruit juices,
- drinking smoothies that are easily sweetened with fruit,
- drinking coffee in moderation (less than 2-3 per day),
- ensuring that your alcohol choice is vegan.
Alcohol can contain animal products, or require them for its production. To be sure that the alcohol you choose to drink is vegan, it’s best to contact the company directly, or check the Barnivore list on www.barnivore.com. Always drink responsibly and in moderation.
It is recommended that all vegans take a vitamin B12 supplement; absorption from non-animal foods is not optimal and a daily supplement will prevent deficiency.
If you find it difficult to obtain fortified products with iron, calcium and vitamin D, make sure you take a supplement to make up for theses nutrients as well.
Please consult with a nutritionist and/or dietitian and your GP before starting a supplementation regime.
Meal ideas and snacks
Porridge with brown sugar, cinnamon and toppings such as sultanas, bananas, berries, chia seeds served with soy milk and rice malt
Fruit with soy yoghurt and sunflower seeds/mixed nuts
Cereal/muesli with soy/almond/quinoa/rice/oat milk
Fruit and vegetable smoothie with flaxseed oil (may add protein powder, but preferably a natural source of protein)
Toast with jam, nut spread, tahini sauce, olive oil or avocado, sprinkled with savoury yeast flakes
Scrambled tofu with spinach on toast
Lunch and dinner
Lentil/chickpea/soy patties (homemade or store-bought, check the label for milk products) with couscous/rice or served as a burger with sweet potato chips or salad
Salad wrap/sandwich with sunflower/avocado spread
Pizza with vegan cheese, vegetable toppings and tomato sauce
Beans and brown rice
Asian noodle stir-fry with coconut oil, tofu, carrot, coriander, mushrooms, green beans, broccoli, cashew nuts, basil and chilli
Vegetable/split pea curry with roti
Vegetable/pumpkin soup and brussels sprouts
Pesto pasta with pine nuts
Meat alternative with cauliflower rice and steamed vegetables
Quinoa salad with roast pumpkin, kale and sun-dried tomato
Trail/nut mix in small quantities
Vegetables with small amount of nut spread (optional)
Turkish bread with hummus
Many restaurants/cafes/takeaway shops now offer vegan options. You can ask for a modified vegetarian meal by removing the mayonnaise, cheese, egg, etc.
If going to a dinner party, you can use the helpful resources to find easy recipes for your host to prepare, or offer to bring your own meal and you can share it with the other guests.
Cauliflower rice is very simple to make and works as a light accompaniment to a meal. Place chopped up cauliflower in a food processor and process until very fine.
Heat a small amount of oil and sauté the cauliflower with garlic and onion for a couple of minutes. Serve hot.
Vegan chocolate cake
- 2 cups flour
- 2 cups sugar
- ¾ cup cocoa powder
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup water
- 1 cup vegetable oil
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius and grease a 20cm x 30cm baking sheet.
- In a large bowl mix all ingredients and blend well. Pour evenly into baking sheet.
- Bake for 25 to 30 minutes. Allow the cake to cool for at least 10 minutes before cutting.
Other helpful resources
International Vegetarian Union – www.ivu.org
Vegetarian Resource Group – www.vrg.org
Veg Source – www.vegsource.com
Vegan Action – www.vegan.org
Natural Health Society – www.health.org.au
Vegan Online – www.veganonline.com.au
The Cruelty Free Shop – www.crueltyfreeshop.com.au
Vegan Easy – www.veganeasy.org
Vegan Perfection – www.veganperfection.com.au
A big thank you to one of our interns, Mariana Davila, who helped with the initial research on this piece.
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