VEGANUARY is a great time to experiment with a plant-based diet. A perfect tonic for the festive over-indulgence, it’s also the time for trying out something new.
Whilst for many Veganuary may be just that, one month eating fewer animal-based foods, overall, incorporating more plant-based wholefoods (vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts and seeds) into our diet is a good thing.
There is more to adapting to a plant-based diet long term than simply cutting out meat, fish, dairy, eggs and honey. The macro and micronutrients abundant in animal-based foods must be replaced in a diet based solely on plant-based foods. This can be done well, of course, but considering what it takes to create a healthy balanced diet as full of nutrients as an omnivorous diet is essential for ensuring our bodies stay resilient, strong and vigorous.
To find out how, I spoke to Majella O’Neill, a Nutritional Therapist based in Skibbereen. Majella, a qualified nurse, began her naturopathic clinic in 1986, and over the past decade has focused solely on nutrition with a particular interest in gut health: specifically, our microbiome — the vast colony of healthy bacteria that reside in the gut, aid digestion and absorption of micronutrients from food for optimum nutrition.
I started by asking Majella, what are the most common pitfalls people encounter when converting to a vegan diet from vegetarian and carnivore diets.
“When we sit down to a meal that has meat, there often isn’t as much thought gone into creating a balanced plate compared to a diet based on vegan philosophy.
Where the protein is coming from, and other micronutrients such as zinc, iron, sometimes calcium, iodine, vitamin D and Omega 3? They’re all a little bit more challenging on a vegan diet,” said Majella.
Getting enough B12 is the big one. A deficiency in Vitamin B12, known as Pernicious Anaemia, happens gradually and classic symptoms are fatigue, a lack of mental concentration and brain fog. If left undiagnosed and untreated, it can lead to irreversible neurological damage and a lifetime treatment of vitamin supplementation.
“I have rarely seen a vegan I would consider having adequate levels of B12 in their blood. The normal range for B12 in blood is 120-680 ng/L, but I like to see levels above 400 ng/L for maximum mental energy, mood and control of cardiovascular health.”
B12 is manufactured in the large intestine during digestion but is inefficient at absorbing those nutrients back into the body. It can be an issue whatever diet someone follows but is a known issue in vegan diets — not least because vegan B12 supplements can be hard to come by.
Of the three macronutrients essential to health — protein, carbohydrate and fat — the vegan diet can struggle with getting in enough protein.
What are good plant-based alternatives for high protein replacement foods?
“High on the nutrient dense foods for protein are seeds: hemp, flax and chia; even peanuts and almonds. Legumes: lentils, chickpeas and beans are also good sources of protein, as is Tempeh (a fermented soya product) and seaweeds,” says Majella.
Amino acids, the building blocks of life, are manufactured by our bodies during the digestion of proteins. Each amino acid has a specific function for the body and essential for optimal health.
“It’s important to consider what we need to eat to get the essential amino acids.
Certain legumes and grains complement each other in that some may be low in a certain amino acid, but if we eat a variety of grains, seeds and nuts at each meal there’s a good chance of getting all of the essential amino acids needed.
“A lot of people will find it astonishing how much beans, nuts and seeds one needs to achieve an adequate amount of protein in our diet. Depending on the level of activity, from sedentary to very active, 0.8kg – 2g of protein per KG of bodyweight is needed.
“Get into the habit of figuring out how much protein is in your food and track it for a week or two. Give it some concentrated effort to get to grips with what is enough protein for you. It isn’t just about building bulk with protein, they’re an essential part of our wellbeing.
“For someone beginning a vegan diet, give that some real focus for a while so when you sit down to eat and glance at your plate you can see there is sufficient protein,” says Majella.
“Add vegan-friendly powders to porridge, smoothies, soups and stews, etc: such as hemp powder or spirulina, particularly for people who are exercising a lot, for an easy boost of protein.”
Increasing the bioavailability of micronutrients of food is good practice for everyone, but especially vegans.
What foods and ways of eating can boost the bioavailability of food?
“Soaking and sprouting legumes, seeds and grains is a great way of increasing bioavailability. Some grains and seeds come with anti-nutrients called phytates — part of the plant’s protective system against nature so that the plant can perpetuate itself.
“Soaking and sprouting reduces the phytic acids and activates the enzymes that allow the proteins and minerals in the plants, seeds and grains to become more bioavailable, increasing the nutrient quantity of the food and making it infinitely more digestible,” Majella explains.
“Activating nuts and seeds by soaking them, draining, drying in a low heat oven and then storing. This greatly promotes the bioavailability of the nutrients. You can buy nuts and seeds already activated but it can be a little expensive.
“The big one is fermenting. It’s hard to beat something like sauerkraut or kimchi, again a great way of replenishing the good bugs in our gut. Making water kefir and kombucha and even Apple Cider Vinegar — there are so many ways of getting good bugs into your gut.
“You cannot have too many vegetables in the diet! A vegan diet includes eating a wide variety of vegetables, and there’s great research showing the more variety of colours and types of veg we eat, the more variety of microbes we have in our gut.
“If you think of the microbes in our gut being like a garden, we want as many varieties of plants and flowers; above the ground vegetables and below the ground vegetables — and the same is true of our gut. Each one has their own little job to do.”
Does eating organic help with increasing nutritional intake?
“Eating organically is a no-brainer! Research suggests that grains and legumes are amongst the mostly widely sprayed of all crops, and when a plant absorbs a high degree of these chemicals, they are detectable in the end product — what we end up eating.
“There is a discernible taste difference in some foods than others, too, but it’s more important to not ingest traces of chemicals; so if someone is aspiring to good health, avoiding those chemicals is an important factor.
“From an environmental perspective, when, over several years, the ground is repeatedly sprayed, the microbiome and mycorrhizae of the soil [good bacterial and fungal micro-organisms that bind carbon in the ground] dies.
“If considering a plant-based diet to help with the carbon footprint of food, then anything that can release carbon from the soil is completely counterproductive.
“The whole argument around plant-based diets being involved in preserving of our carbon neutrality, or at least keeping the carbon binding properties of the soil optimised, then it’s a no-brainer that we cannot consider spraying as part of this process.”
Key nutrients to get into every meal?
Omega 3, Zinc, B12 and Iron, says Majella.
Omega 3 and 6 compete with each other; but while Omega 6 is available in more foods, Omega 3 is the one to make an effort on.
“Omega 6 is important for hormones and energy but can be pro-inflammatory. Omega 3 is important for brain health and is part of our anti-inflammatory armoury. Flax and Chia seeds are high in Omega 3; and if adding oil to dressings use rapeseed, corn and sunflower oils which are high in Omega 3. Kidney beans, hemp seeds, spirulina and walnuts all contain a considerable amount of Omega 3 too.
“Zinc is abundant in pumpkin and sesame seeds, oats and aduki beans, but soaking and sprouting is essential as they are also high in phytates. Zinc is important for our neurotransmitters, serotonin, memory bank, immune system, hormones and digestive enzymes.
“Iodine, usually in fish and milk, can be found in seaweed and is easily incorporated into stews, salads or as seasoning. There are many delicious ways to incorporate seaweed into the diet.”
Your top tips for looking after dietary health for long term adherence to a plant-based diet?
“A major challenge in a vegan diet is that four letter word: Time! To be a healthy vegan, someone has to spend time in the kitchen. If you have time, that’s great; but often people buy processed vegan foods in the supermarket and much is often not very nutritionally balanced, having undesirable preservatives, even flavour-enhancing sugar,” she said.
“Time and planning are major factors in sticking to a vegan diet long term.
Spend a little more time thinking about, planning, shopping, cooking and eating food — for today, tomorrow, or two days in advance, to avoid relying on convenience food. Just because it says vegan on the label doesn’t mean it’s healthy — take the time to read labels on food and inform yourself of, for example, all the different ways sugar and fats can be listed.
“Slow cookers make a huge difference to the time factor. Batch cooking is useful for all healthy eating if you want to incorporate all your nutrients, but particularly on a vegan diet. Cook up a batch of legumes and grains and put them in the fridge; or a tray bake of roast vegetables that can be part of a salad today, a curry tomorrow and soup the day after that. You can pimp up the food to make it something different without having to start from scratch every single time.”
A plant-based diet provides our bodies with goodness: phytonutrients, micronutrients and fibre to feed our microbiome. Success lies in preparation and time: thinking about, planning, shopping, cooking and eating food.
Next week: Kate talks to Cork’s leading vegan foodies to find out their top tips for veganising your kitchen.