A Balanced Vegan Diet in 3 Easy Steps
Veganism is increasingly on trend, just look at the number of vegan restaurants and shops opening their doors. This “extreme” version of vegetarianism forbids the consumption of any product containing animals or animal derivatives. That means no meat, gelatin, dairy, eggs, or honey. Some adepts don’t even wear animal products, so no wool or silk clothes, or leather accessories.
From a nutritional point of view, a vegan diet can certainly bring adequate nutrition, with all the important vitamins and minerals the body needs, but there is a risk of deficiencies. Planning is important when you embark on this type of diet, in order to ensure you’re eating the necessary nutrients for optimum health.
1. Eat Enough Protein
Vegans need to replace their animal sources of protein with vegetarian sources such as:
- Soya and soya products: tofu, tempeh, edamame, enriched soya milk
- Legumes: lentils, peas and beans, chickpeas, etc.
- Meat-free alternatives: vegetarian mince, or veggie ground, also known as “meat-free”, found in veggie-burgers and veggie-dogs.
- Wholegrain cereals: quinoa, buckwheat, spelt, barley.
- Nuts and seeds: almonds, walnuts, cashew nuts, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, flax seeds, etc.
People used to focus heavily on protein complementarity—the importance of having legumes and cereals in the same meal in order to obtain all the necessary amino acids. We now know that it’s easy to do, even if you eat cereals at a different time of day.
2. Make Sure You Get All the Necessary Vitamins and Minerals
The vegan diet contains plenty of fiber, vitamins, antioxidants and minerals, but it can result in some deficiencies if it isn’t well planned. The following nutrients are worth keeping an eye on:
It is only found in animal products or enriched foods like:
- Enriched soy, almond or rice milks
- Nutritional yeast
- Enriched meat-free products: vegetarian mince, vegetarian burgers (make sure your read the label)
Without enough enriched foods, vegans might need to take a B12 supplement.
There aren’t many vegetarian sources of Vitamin D, except the following two:
- Soft margarine
- Enriched soya, almond or rice milk
In practice vegans should take a Vitamin D supplement. The sun is also a source of Vitamin D, of course. However, for most of the year, the sun’s rays are not powerful enough to enable us to produce enough vitamin D for our needs. That’s why vitamin D supplements are recommended. Vegetarian vitamin D supplements also exist.
Often, vegans do not consume enough calcium. A good place to start is to include some of these foods:
- Enriched soy, almond or rice milk
- Tofu solidified with calcium
- Dried beans
- Almonds, almond butter
- Sesame seeds
- Blackstrap molasses
- Dark leafy greens: broccoli, kale, cabbage
Vegans need twice as much iron as people who eat meat, because the body doesn’t absorb vegetarian iron as well as iron from animal sources. Vegetarian sources of iron include:
- Legumes: kidney beans, black eye beans, red lentils
- Blackstrap molasses
- Soy products: tofu, enriched soy milk, vegetarian mince
- Enriched pasta and cereals
- Dried fruit: prunes, raisins, apricots
- Dark green vegetables: cabbage, kale, okra, bok choi
To help your body better absorb iron, eat foods containing vitamin C (like lemon juice or fruits). It is also best not to drink coffee or tea during meals because some of the compounds in these drinks impede iron absorption.
Vegetarian sources of zinc include:
- Legumes: lentils, beans, lima beans
- Soy products: tofu, tempeh, enriched soy milk
- Nuts and seeds: peanuts, peanut butter, sesame seeds, tahini, pumpkin seeds, cashew nuts
- Cereals: wild rice, wheat germ
3: Focus on Omega 3
Omega 3 fats are very important for heart and brain health. Non-animal sources of omega 3 include:
- Canola oil, flax seed oil, walnut oil, soy oil
- Soy beans and tofu
- Flax seeds and walnuts
Some foods like soa milk, bread and orange juice are sometimes enriched with omega 3. Marine sourced omega 3 supplements may be required to meet your needs. In fact, this type of omega 3, DHA, is directly absorbed by the body unlike the vegetarian omega 3 (ALA), which we need to convert into DHA. Vegan marine omega 3 supplements are available in most pharmacies.
Certain studies have shown that vegetarians and vegans suffer from fewer weight problems, are less prone to type 2 diabetes and are generally less affected by cardiovascular conditions. But we cannot attribute this solely to diet, as they are often more conscious about their health than the rest of the population: they smoke less, exercise more, and have a better lifestyle in general.
One thing’s for sure: this type of diet is lighter on your wallet. So why not give it a go from time to time?
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