After talking about what it means to be vegan, why it’s such an important dietary and humane change, about the wonderful side effects you’ll experience and about what a vegan plate looks like, it’s time to talk about nutrition. Here’s the golden question: Can I get all of the nutrients my body needs through eating a plant based diet? The answer is a BIG FAT JUICY YES! Not only can you get the nutrients your body needs, but you’ll be getting the cleanest, purest and most direct source of those nutrients, without the added chemicals, hormones, pollutants and of course without harming your health, the planet or the animals in the process.
The nutrient side of the vegan issue is sometimes a difficult one to address and here’s why, we’ve been bombarded with misinformation for years. We’ve been told repeatedly that we need cow’s milk because it’s the highest source of calcium on the planet, we gobble up salmon like there’s no tomorrow for its omega 3s, we eat meat because “where else am I going to get my protein?!”. We’ve heard it again and again, and unless we dig deep we never find the other side of this information. The other side of the information is that cow’s milk contains calcium because the cow is eating it from the grass (or because its feed is supplemented), fish are getting their omega 3 fatty acids because they’re eating algae, and every single edible plant contains amino acids which are the building blocks of protein. In fact, some plants, like quinoa are even complete proteins in and of themselves. That’s right, the animals we’ve been eating have these nutrients because they’re eating them from plant sources, and we’re going through the animal because that’s what we’ve always heard has to be done. Not anymore! If you’re reading this, the veil is about to come off!
As you know, I’m not a nutritionist, so what I want to do through this post, is open the window a little bit to some of the main concerns people have, mainly protein and calcium, and then guide you to the actual experts in this field in the form of videos you can watch, podcasts you can listen to on your way to work, articles you can read online and amazing books and movies. I also want to give you a glimpse into the little steps I take on a day to day basis to ensure I’m getting all my nutrients. Now that you’re embarking on a healthier way of eating, it’s important that you know what nutrients we need and where to get them as a vegan, so that you can approach this amazing dietary change responsibly and with ease.
‘What about my protein?!’
One of the main concerns for people thinking about going vegan is protein. If we had a nickel for each time someone asked “but where do you get your protein?”, the world would be filled with some very rich vegans! This is such a common concern among people that I get asked this every single time someone learns I’m vegan. Why? Because we’ve been attacked from all corners with ads, commercials, packaging and signs that tell us we need to eat meat to get our precious protein. Here’s the truth, protein is abundant in almost everything we eat. All plant foods contain different levels of amino acids which when combined by our little bodies, form the protein we need. Here’s where the confusion arose many years ago. It was thought that our bodies needed to consume complete sources of protein (food items that contained all of the essential amino acids needed to form protein). We now know, through research study after study, that our bodies are great little builders and have their own little storage units as well. That’s right, our bodies can take the different amino acids from different sources (even from different meals and on different days!), store them, and assemble them all on their own. Here’s the beauty of nature, there are also plant foods like a precious, nutty and delicious whole grain called quinoa, which is a 100% complete protein. The absolute truth is that if you’re eating a varied whole foods plant based diet, you’re getting enough protein. Period. If you’re eating enough calories, you’re getting enough protein. Period! Here’s what you’re not getting: cholesterol (there is NO CHOLESTEROL in plant foods!), saturated fat, animal protein (which has now been linked to cancer), hormones, antibiotics, pollutants, dangerous bacteria and more. Sounds good right?
‘I need my cow’s milk cause I need my calcium’
Another common concern is calcium. Here’s the gist, cow’s milk has calcium because cow’s eat grass (or nowadays, feed that is supplemented with calcium). It also happens that we’re the only species in the world that drinks the milk of another species, even after that own species has stopped drinking their mother’s milk. Why is this even relevant? Because we simply have no dietary need for any other milk other than human milk until we’re weaned off it at an early age. Here’s another big issue, it’s making us terribly sick. The main protein found in milk (and in even higher concentrations in other dairy products such as cheese) is called casein. Casein has now been linked to cancer in an astonishing way, and the saturated fat found in milk can cause cardiovascular diseases such as heart attacks and strokes, it’s also a huge risk factor for getting both types of diabetes (even as children), as well as other chronic conditions. Not to mention the fact that the animals are treated in horrible ways in the industry. We don’t need cow’s milk to get our calcium, there are plenty of other foods which are direct sources of calcium and which will make our bodies much much happier. Green leafy vegetables like bok choy, collard greens, kale, mustard greens and watercress are great sources of calcium, and so are calcium set tofu and the amazing varieties of fortified plant based milks, as well as many other sources.
Minerals, Vitamins, Fiber, Essential Fatty Acids and the elusive Vitamin B12
What about other essential minerals like zinc, iron and magnesium, essential fatty acids like Omega 3 and 6, cancer fighting phytonutrients, fiber, vitamin D, vitamin B12 and others? Some of these are actually exclusively found in plant foods, in the case of phytonutrients and fiber. Phytonutrients have now been linked to cancer prevention and even help reverse the growth of certain tumors. Fiber, that magical little nutrient that helps you go to the bathroom regularly and prevents colon cancer and other types of cancers is also only found in plant foods. That’s right, there is no fiber, none-zero-zilch-nada, in animal products. Did you also know that the only nutrient that has been linked time and time again to sustained weight loss (the kind you lose and actually keep off for good) is a high consumption of fiber rich foods. All plant sources have enormous amounts of fiber so there you go!
Get a daily source of essential fatty acids by consuming fresh ground flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, or walnuts daily and your body does all the work in converting these ALA sources into Omega 3 and DHA. Some people have difficulties in converting ALA into DHA so sometimes a direct source of this fatty acid is recommended in the form of a supplement (more on this in the recommended materials below). Get some glorious vitamin D from a few minutes of sun exposure every day, and get your awesome minerals from a myriad of plant sources.
Vitamin B12 is a horse of a different color, and it is a vitamin vegans should supplement. Although many foods are fortified with this essential vitamin, it’s always good to make sure you’re getting enough (it’s a water soluble vitamin so any extra amounts aren’t harmful and leave your body through urine). Here’s the thing with B12, it’s a bacteria based vitamin, not an animal based vitamin, not a plant based vitamin. It lives in bacteria, which lives in the soil. It turns out that we’ve depleted our soils so much due to modern day farming methods, and in turn need to wash our veggies very well to get rid of pesticides, that we might not be getting enough of it through a plant based diet. Why is it prevalent in meat? It’s not very pretty, so don’t say I didn’t warn you! Meat is essentially the decomposing flesh of an animal even though we don’t like to think of it in that way, and bacteria are drawn to it. They also live in the gut of these animals since they’re eating directly from the soil. The only reason vegans and non vegans need to be making sure we’re getting enough B12 is because the consequences of B12 deficiency can be serious and irreversible. Here’s the great part, our bodies do a great job in storing B12 and we really need very little on a day to day basis. Simply get a B12 supplement, usually as a small tablet you stick under your tongue, and forget about it! If you’re eating a lot of fortified foods you might not need to supplement, but since we usually vary our diets quite a bit (and we should!), it’s better to be safe. Here are the B12 dietary guidelines so that you know what vitamin to get, or how much of the fortified foods you need to eat. If you’re taking a multivitamin, chances are you’re already getting everything you need when it comes to B12, but check the label.
What’s in MY plate?
I eat a very varied whole foods plant based diet, and that pretty much sums it up! I make sure I eat plenty of green leafy veggies every day, whole grains at every meal, I take my two teaspoons of ground flaxseeds daily, I eat plenty of iron rich foods like mushrooms, tempeh and beans. I also combine these iron rich foods with vitamin C rich foods (like citrus fruit or tomatoes) to increase absorption, and avoid eating them with tea or coffee because these can decrease absorption. I eat as many different colors of fruits and veggies as I can throughout the day to ensure I’m getting all the needed vitamins and phytonutrients (color is a huge indicator of the contents in each one). I take my B12 supplement twice a week, and I sit in the sun in the morning for a bit with our doggie Nala.
Here’s the deal with all this information folks…
Of course you can go nutty and jot down every calorie you take in and every gram of every nutrient and compare that to the dietary recommendations, but the truth is that if you’re eating a varied whole foods plant based diet, all you need for great health is to gobble up the goodies and take your B12. Your body takes care of everything else. If you would still like some extra insurance, you can always take a multivitamin suitable for vegans. Be careful with going crazy on the supplements though, some can be dangerous if taken in excess since a plant based diet is already full of these nutrients. Having your blood work done after a few months of starting your vegan diet will also give you an idea if things are running smoothly and if you need to add more of certain foods. What usually happens at this point is that your doctor will have a heart attack with the rocking blood levels you will have and how much they improved from those during your meat eating, cholesterol raising days. It’s total up to you if you prefer to take extra supplementation for vegans, but if you’re eating a varied diet and are in good health, your body will not only survive, it will THRIVE!
Remember to always make any dietary change responsibly and get informed, especially if you have a medical condition, or want to make sure that you’re able to absorb these nutrients without problems. Having said that, I now want to guide you to the actual experts and their awesome resources.
GREAT RESOURCES ON PLANT BASED NUTRITION
A must watch movie: Forks Over Knives
The China Study by Dr. T. Colin Campbell PhD with Thomas Campbell
Forks Over Knives by Dr. T. Colin Campbell PhD and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn JR MD
Becoming vegan: The Complete Guide to Adopting a Healthy Plant Based Diet by Brenda Davis RD and Vesanto Melina MS, RD
Vegan for Life by Jack Norris and Virginia Messina
Eat to Live by Dr. Joel Fuhrman MD
The Engine 2 Diet by Rip Esselstyn
Skinny Bitch by Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin
Crazy Sexy Diet by Kris Carr
PODCAST EPISODES YOU CAN ENJOY RIGHT NOW!
The amazing podcast of vegan educator, author and chef Colleen Patrick Gouddreau: Vegetarian Food for Thought (available on iTunes and most podcatchers). It’s a great resource you can start listening to right now or download from iTunes to your listening device of choice and enjoy it on your way to work! All of the episodes are superb, but here are the ones related to what we’ve been discussing today:
ONLINE VIDEOS YOU CAN WATCH RIGHT NOW!
The amazing Colleen Patrick Goudreau and her brilliant and funny talk: From Excusitarian to Vegan
Jack Norris in a great Q&A about where to get the main nutrients we need, and about supplementing when necessary.
A great list of the main nutrients we need and which plant sources offer the most of each.
A great website with daily recommendations and plant sources for all nutrients, by nutritionist Jack Norris.
Great information about plant based nutrition and a great source for shopping for vegan supplements, the website of Dr. Joel Fuhrman, one of the leading experts in plant based nutrition.