Plant-based Nutrition – Easy as (vegan) pie!

It’s 2019, and veganism is more popular than ever! Yet, there is still the misconception that getting all the nutrients we need on a vegan diet is a difficult task. It may require some education initially, but for the most part, it requires the same amount of effort as any other lifestyle choice. To get you on the right track of your vegan journey, here are the typical nutrients of concern on a vegan diet and how to get the most from them.

Protein
As a vegan, being asked, “but where do you get your protein?” is pretty much a rite of passage. Many people are still concerned that a vegan diet won’t provide them with an adequate amount of protein. But did you know that it is impossible to be protein deficient without being calorie deficient? That means, if you’re eating enough food to fuel and sustain you, you cannot become protein deficient. That’s because every single plant food contains protein. Yes, that even includes carrots!

With that being said, incorporating plant-based proteins with your meals can have more benefits than just exceeding your protein requirements. This includes stabilising blood sugar levels, supporting muscle gain, improving satiation and helping to support your mood. The best plant-based protein options include tofu, tempeh, beans, lentils, chickpeas, quinoa and hemp seeds.

Fun fact: 200 grams of tofu provides more protein than 2 eggs!

Iron
Iron comes in two forms: heme iron, which comes from animals, and non-heme iron, which is from plants. It is often thought that heme iron is superior because it is more easily absorbed by the body. However, research has shown that heme iron intake can increase the risk of stroke, heart disease and Type 2 Diabetes.

Although non-heme iron has lower absorption, there are ways we can actually enhance it. The best and easiest way to do so is to pair your iron-rich foods with a source of Vitamin C, which can increase absorption by up to 3 times! This can be as easy as squeezing a lemon over your meals or incorporating other Vitamin C-rich foods such as broccoli, strawberries, red capsicum, tomato, cabbage, kale and parsley. Also, try keeping tea and coffee at least one hour away from meals as they can inhibit iron absorption.

Calcium
Got milk? There are so many great calcium-rich foods out there other than dairy. Dark leafy greens, tahini, tofu and broccoli are just a few amazing options. These foods should be emphasised in any diet as they are not only a great source of calcium, but also super high in fibre, folate, antioxidants and vitamin K – all of which you won’t find in cow’s milk. What you will find in cow’s milk and dairy products, however, is cholesterol, antibiotics, pesticides, pus and even manure. So next time you reach for some milk, try give almond or soy milk a go for a more nutrient-dense and hormone free source of calcium.

Omega-3
Omega-3 comes in the form of alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), which is another nutrient that is thought to be more difficult to obtain on a vegan diet. This is because ALA is converted into two other essential forms of omega-3, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). It is often believed that our body’s ability to make this conversion is quite poor. However, research has shown that vegans and vegetarians have higher conversion rates of ALA to EPA and DHA than those who consume fish, making plant sources of ALA a healthy and more sustainable source of omega-3. Flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds and walnuts are great options to include in your diet daily.

B12
B12 is the only nutrient that you will need to supplement with on a vegan diet. It is naturally derived from bacteria found in soil. Due to modern farming practices and over sanitation, our soils are now depleted of the B12 that was once naturally available. Unfortunately, plant foods do not contain an adequate amount of B12; therefore, avoiding supplementation can lead to serious nervous system issues and anaemia.

Changing your way of eating can be overwhelming in the beginning. If you’re ever in doubt, stick to whole foods – that is, foods that are in their whole unprocessed form and are as close to nature as possible. Also aim for colour; if your meals are looking like a rainbow, you’re on the right track. Remember, just like anything, becoming plant-based/vegan is a lifestyle change, not just a diet, so it takes time to adjust and adapt. Just stay open and mindful and the results will speak for themselves!

Written by Jessica Janevski (@jessjanenutrition) - Nutritional & Dietetic Medicine Student 

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