Are you ready to make the switch to a healthy, whole-food plant-based vegan diet?
If you really want to make a change to a more ethical, healthier diet, it is important to become educated in food and nutrition. This may include reading recipe books and magazines; books and articles on health and nutrition and online information. This information helps build your knowledge and confidence in following a healthy vegan lifestyle. Please refer to my ultimate plant-based resources guide, (if you haven’t already, please subscribe to get your free copy now!) and click on the links for further information.
You could also talk to a supportive doctor, or dietitian for advice and dietary guidelines. There are local or online vegetarian/vegan groups, societies and forums, where you can gather information, ask questions, and meet up with like-minded people.
Like me, I suspect that the more you find out about a healthy vegan diet, the more you’ll realise and appreciate why it’s so good for you, animals and the environment.
Plant-based Nutrition Q & A
“I can honestly say that being vegan is not only the most efficient way to be full-body strong, it’s also the most humane; everyone wins.” – David Carter, 300 pound NFL lineman
Before you get started on your plant-based journey, you may be wondering about getting enough good nutrition. This information is based on plant-based dietitian Julieanna Hever’s book The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Plant-Based Nutrition, and nutritional guidelines from vegan dietitian Amanda Benham’s website, the Human Herbivore .
I highly recommend that you consult with your doctor and a registered dietitian (as I have done) before making any significant changes to your diet.
There is so much conflicting information out there, and different, competing diets, that it’s sometimes hard to know the truth. Here are some frequently asked questions (and answers) that might help you decide:
1 How do you get enough protein on a plant-based diet?
“Protein is not the key to weight loss—in fact, animal protein is one of the biggest factors behind the obesity epidemic, and, in virtually every study, animal protein is correlated with weight gain.” – Dr Garth Davis, author of Proteinaholic
One of the most common questions vegans get is ‘where do you get your protein?’ Animal foods such as meat and eggs are viewed by many as the gold standard of this macronutrient. Plant foods, on the other hand, are often seen as deficient and lacking in ‘complete’ protein.
The truth is, if you consume enough calories from a variety of whole plant foods, you will get enough protein. Even mainly carbohydrate foods such as bananas, potatoes and rice have 5, 8 and 9 percent respectively of their calories as protein.
The real plant–food superstars of protein though are beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds. For example, lentils have 36 percent of their calories as protein, and leafy green vegetables have almost half their calories from protein. Soybeans and its by–products such as soybean curd, or tofu, are high in protein, which does have all essential amino acids.
To get enough protein, you should have at least 3–5 servings a day of vegetables, legumes, beans and whole grains. *If you want a free copy of my short E-book, the Top 5 Sources of Plant Protein, please enter your details below to subscribe!
If you’re skeptical that plant–based foods can provide you with enough protein think about the sheer bulk and muscle power of such plant—eaters as gorillas, elephants and rhinos.
In the human race, consider the ultra–fit vegan athletes that don’t rely on any animal products for their super–human achievements, such as herbivore strongman Patrik Baboumian, former professional Ironman triathlete and two-time Canadian 50km Ultra Marathon Champion Brendan Brazier, and American MMA (mixed martial arts) and UFC fighter Mac Danzig. Patrik Baboumian, an Armenian–German with 50–cm biceps, was quoted regarding his change to a vegetarian, then later vegan diet:
“I was amazed by the great gains in lean body-mass and strength I got with the meat-free diet,” says Patrik.
2 Don’t carbohydrates make you fat?
“High-fat, high-protein diets (like the low-carb diets) are consistently associated with higher, not lower, rates of several cancers, heart disease, and other diseases. (while studies show that) Plant-based diets show the opposite effect.” – T. Colin Campbell, PhD
Along with protein and fat, carbohydrate is one of the three key ‘macro–nutrients’. are our primary fuel source, responsible for managing your heart rate, digestion, breathing, exercising, walking, and thinking. Carbohydrates provide energy more quickly than any other fuel source, and are the only type of energy our brain can utilize. So why have carbohydrates, or ‘carbs’ received such a bad rap from trendy high–protein diets?
There are two main sources of carbs — simple and complex. Simple carbs have simple sugars. These include table sugar, molasses, honey, alcohol, white bread, white pasta, white rice, cakes, doughnuts, fried chips, sugary cereals, fruit juices, candy, chocolate, and milk.
The problem with most simple, or refined (‘bad’) carbs is that they are nutritionally empty because they have been stripped of their fibre, minerals, and vitamins. They are digested quickly by the body and cause a sharp spike in your blood sugar levels. A diet high in refined carbs (and which often are mixed with animal products, fat and oils) leads to increased risk of chronic disease and weight gain.
You want to base your diet on complex, or ‘good’ carbs from whole food sources, including vegetables, whole grain breads and pastas, beans, peas, brown rice, sweet potatoes, oats, fruits, and whole grain cereals. These complex carbs in their natural state come with large amounts and varieties of vitamins, minerals, fibre and phytochemicals.
We all know vegetables and fruit are good for us — and so are whole grains, derived from rice, oats, rye, wheat, wild rice, quinoa, barley, buckwheat, bulgur, corn, millet, amaranth and sorghum.
Whole grains are filled with fibre, protein, vitamins and minerals. They have zero cholesterol and are naturally low in fat. They’ve been shown to decrease cholesterol and blood sugar levels, as well as reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as colon cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Don’t be misled by the ‘no or low-carbs’ lobby. A diet based on vegetables, fruit, legumes and whole grains improves health and is ideal for weight control. It’s not that carbs that are bad for you — in fact the opposite is true. It’s the type or source of carbs that really matters most.
A diet high in unrefined carbohydrates is best for weight loss. Vegetables, whole fruits, beans, and whole grains provide a huge variety of tastes, textures, and natural fibre packed with life-sustaining nutrients. Studies show that reducing fat and eating whole plant foods is better for boosting your metabolism and losing weight than cutting carbs.
The American Dietetic Association’s 2009 Position Paper on Vegetarian Diets summed it up:
“Incidence of iron deficiency anemia among vegetarians is similar to that of non–vegetarians.”
Plant based diets tend to be higher in iron that other diets.
There are two dietary forms of iron: heme and nonheme. Heme iron is found in animal flesh, and nonheme iron is supplied by plants, including leafy greens, legumes (beans, lentils, and peas), soy foods (especially tempeh and tofu), quinoa, brown rice, tahini, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, blackstrap molasses, and dried fruit, such as raisins, prunes, and apricots.
Heme sources of iron are absorbed better than nonheme, however this can backfire if blood levels of iron are too high. High iron blood levels have been associated with increased insulin resistance and heart disease. Also, iron from animal products comes with saturated fat and dietary cholesterol.
To enhance iron absorption, include a source of vitamin C with your nonheme iron-rich plant food. For example, eat tomatoes with your spinach salad or strawberries in your green smoothie to maximize absorption. Also, avoid coffee or tea, especially when consuming iron-rich foods, as they inhibit absorption.
4 If you don’t have dairy products, where do you get calcium?
“An important fact to remember is that all natural diets, including purely vegetarian diets without a hint of dairy products, contain amounts of calcium that are above the threshold for meeting your nutritional needs….In fact, calcium deficiency caused by an insufficient amount if calcium in the diet is not known to occur in humans.” – Dr John McDougall
Calcium is plentiful in plants. The most healthful calcium sources are green leafy vegetables and legumes, or “greens and beans”. Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, mustard greens, collard greens, turnip greens, bok choy, dried figs, sesame seeds, tahini, beans, soybeans, soy-nuts and tofu are all good plant sources of calcium.
Calcium absorption is determined not only by how much calcium you consume, but also intake of vitamin D.
If you eat your leafy greens and get plenty of fresh air, sunshine and exercise you will have strong bones to last a lifetime.
5 Where do you get omega 3 fatty acids if you don’t have fish?
“Omega-3 fatty acids are important in the normal functioning of all tissues of the body, but they are best obtained through a plant-based diet, not fish oil supplements.” – Dr Neal Barnard
The principal omega-3 fat is alpha–linolenic acid (ALA), can be found in many vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, and fruits. This is then converted into eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenonic acid (DHA) by the body. This makes ALA the only essential omega-3 fatty acid, and the best source of ALA is ground flaxseeds. Fish oil, while a source of EPA and DHA omega–3s, can include unstable molecules that may oxidise and unleash dangerous free radicals. Fish only get their omega–3 fatty acids from a plant-based source: algae, so I recommend focusing on this clean, green vegan source of EPA & DHA omega–3 (as I do).
6 What about Vitamin B12?
“Make no mistake: vitamin B12 is important. But so is keeping our perspective, given the millions who are crippled and die from the onslaught of chronic disease that could be prevented, stopped, and reversed with a B12-fortified, plant-based diet.” – Dr Michael Greger
Vitamin B12 is important for the nervous system and brain, as well as for the formation of healthy red blood cells. Vitamin B12 deficiency, though rare, can have dire consequences including anaemia, nerve damage, depression, psychiatric disorders and even death, and even low levels of the vitamin can have negative health consequences.
Although Vitamin B12 does not naturally occur in plants, there are many vegan foods such as some meat alternatives and soymilks that are fortified with B12. The most reliable way that I have found to ensure adequate levels is to simply take a daily supplement.
Extend your cooking repertoire
If you’re not sure how to cook plant–based dishes, why not buy or borrow some popular cooking books on the subject? There are literally thousands of vegetarian and vegan recipes online that you could try out; most of them free (see resources guide). You might be able to join a local cooking class in healthy vegetarian cooking (such as Indian food), at a local adult learning centre or community house.
If you find completely vegan recipes a little daunting, you could start with recipes that you know and like well, and simply replace the animal food with a plant food alternative. For example, for chili con carne or casseroles you could replace beef mince or chunks with veggie mince, or with beans or lentils. Instead of chicken pieces in a stir–fry or curry you could add strips of marinated tofu; and instead of cream, milk or cheese in a soup or sauce you could try silken tofu, soymilk or soy cheese.
“Eating vegan doesn’t have to be boring. In fact, it is the most exciting way to eat! Fresh and organically grown plant-based foods are among nature’s most healthful and delicious gifts.” – Lynn Bennett, The Vegan Chef
There is vast range of healthy, tasty plant–based dishes, recipes and cooking lessons out there. So there is no excuse to get started on your healthy veganic journey today. Enjoy the ride!