September 18, 2012

Hey Vegans! (& those who love them): 5 Important Nutrition Pointers.

Anybody who knows me (or reads me) knows that I’m not too keen on preaching about being vegan.

It’s something that’s very dear to me in terms of my life decisions, but I’m also well aware that people don’t like being told what to eat or how to eat it, and ranting about it is about as likely to get someone on one’s side as beating them over the head with a butternut squash.

What I’m struggling increasingly to keep quiet about is how vegans too often eat because:

  1. they personally don’t understand how important nutrition is;
  2. they trip over themselves incessantly in an effort to appease omnivores (a subject about which I intend to write very soon); and/or
  3. they fall victim to a lack of available foodstuffs that can keep them healthy.

Being vegan is not rocket science.

I have found time and again that the basic menus of many agricultural, indigenous groups lean toward vegan, particularly where meat is scarce and pricey. But sometimes being spoiled for choice isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. London, for example, is one of the most vegan-friendly places in the world. Le Puy-en-Velay is arguably on the other end of the spectrum. And yet I’ve been eating better in France than I have at perhaps any point in my life, while in London my health faltered dramatically.

Yes—I have done the poor eating thing. As a young person I was blessed with that limitless energy with which so many young people are blessed, and I could go ages without a nutritious plate of food. Many, many times a bag of chips or peanuts comprised a meal for me. I suppose I knew it wasn’t good for me, but then I was a smoker who slept about three hours a night on average, so health wasn’t top of my list.

Bad eating habits are the norm for the 16 to 25 group. But we get a bit older and realize that ain’t gonna cut it anymore. This applies to every person eating any diet at all. Wholesome eating takes time and energy (and is not necessarily expensive, but that’s another article entirely)—two things young people are likely to reserve for almost anything before preparing a meal.

Putting all this aside, as well as any and all judgment, the bottom line is this: a nutritious vegan diet is not something most of us are accustomed to accommodating—for ourselves or  anyone else—and it can be tricky to make it work. If you (or a loved one) are trying to figure out how to address the desire to eat ethically, here are a few strictly nutritional pointers:

1. Yes, vegans must have protein. Ahem. Yes, they must.

This has done my head in for years, not least because at the tender age of 19, on one of the loveliest islands of the world, surrounded by sun, crystal waters, sand, and staying in the poshest resort I’ll quite likely ever experience, I got sick. Like, really, really sick. Like, the medic on the island almost called a doctor out by helicopter because she was certain that I had malaria. Until she found out what I’d been eating.

Medic (looking at her notepad as she writes): What have you been eating?

Me:  Well, mostly vegetables and rice…erm…actually—yeah—that’s all I’ve had since I’ve been here.

Medic (looking up at me with wide eyes): How long have you been here?

Me:  Two weeks.

Medic (after a long pause, and with a look of blatant exasperation): You don’t have malaria. You’re malnourished. You need protein.

Me: But I’m vegan.

The medic didn’t know what vegan meant, and she didn’t care. Now much older and wiser, I can see her point. At the time, I went on being pretty damn sick out of some sort of stubborn resolve to remain true to my principles. Today, under similar circumstances, I would eat a fish.

Vegans need protein. At nearly every meal. Just like omnivores. We don’t eat nearly as much protein as most omnivores, because, frankly, most omnivores are protein poisoned. What are sometimes called high-quality proteins can be found in beans, nuts, and seeds. Low-quality protein is found in dark green vegetables and most other whole grains. Matching two proteins of these types is important, but it’s not as strange or difficult as it might seem. Beans and (brown) rice? Nuts or seeds on that (dark leafy green) salad?

Go on. Re-fry me. You know you want to. (Photo: Nourishing Cook)

Three superstar protein sources are tempeh, quinoa and soy. None of them need a compliment—they’re complete all by themselves. Soy’s gotten a bad rap over the last several years—like red wine, there are those who swear by it and those who swear it’s poison. I’ve been eating several servings of soy per day for all of my adult life—as have most Chinese people—and I’m doing okay. But it’s about whatever works for person behind the plate, really.

If we don’t have enough protein, here’s what happens: We get irritable. We get shaky. We get kinda dumb, like, Huh? What? We get headaches. And it only gets worse from there.

2. Vitamin B (and Zinc)

Oh, had I known how very, very important these nutritious friends really were!

Most of us know that B’s come in all shapes and sizes (B1, B2, B3, B6, B12). These are not impossible to find in the world of fruit, vegetables and grain!

B1: whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans and nutritional yeast (640 percent)

B2: whole grains, asparagus, brocolli, spinach, mushrooms and nutritional yeast (570 percent)

B3: sesame seeds, peas and nutritional yeast (280 percent)

B6: whole grains (including oatmeal), soy, peanuts, raisins, bananas and nutritional yeast (480 percent)

B12: fortified stuff and nutritional yeast (130 percent)

I’ll be the first one to admit that B12 is a tricky one. But I’m also gonna come out and say—hooray for nutritional yeast! Some people think it tastes nice…I think it tastes like nutritional yeast. But I swear by this stuff. Those figures in percentages above are the percentage of one’s daily recommended values just one serving of it provides. Magical stuff, indeed.

Now, could all the nay-saying omnivores please stop telling potential vegans and already-vegans that they can’t get their B vitamins from a vegan diet?

Lacking B vitamins? Since these all perform different roles in our bodies, they also produce different symptoms when we’re deficient in them. Wikipedia’s got an excellent page listing all of these, but suffice it to say that symptoms range from emotional breakdowns to memory loss and cognitive disturbances to acne and dermatitis to insomnia and just plain old feeling worn out all the time.

Incidentally, zinc is a really important one, too, and a serving of nutritional yeast gives you 20 percent. But sourdough bread, pumpkin seeds, beans and green veggies are all great sources, too.

Not enough zinc will lead to acne and cognitive deficiencies, and will also kill your appetite. One thing a healthy vegan needs is an appetite.

3. Calcium, Magnesium and Vitamin D

These guys are mates. They need each other. They’re like points on a perfect triangle. Which is why they’re so often mashed together into a vitamin. But the best source of D is not in any food source or pill—we need to go outside. Even if it’s cloudy and raining. That sun is pretty tough. It won’t let some silly clouds get in its way of keeping us well.

Calcium’s both super easy and tricky—dark, leafy greens, almonds, dried fruit and tofu are all great sources, but certain foods cancel it out. Spinach and chard (although ostensibly both leafy and green) are among those, so if one’s endeavoring to get a nice chunk of calcium out of a meal, best to nix these two lovelies. Magnesium, quite conveniently, is also found in leafy greens, as well as peanuts.

Going without calcium for long enough can lead to osteoporosis, among other horrors, but I’ve been told that really bad PMS can also be an indicator that calcium levels are low. When I went vegan, my mom said she was just afraid all my hair would fall out and I’d be a hunchback by the time I was thirty. Look ma: 33 now and still standing upright!

4. Iron

Iron supplements are one of the first things vegans are advised to take. The thing is, too much iron and prunes become a dietary requirement. But this is just plain silliness. I don’t believe a healthy vegan needs any supplements, but iron perhaps least of all. It’s everywhere, and most of the vegetarian foods in which it’s present are jam-packed with fiber, as well—no prunes necessary.

The Vegan Society advises to find your iron in seeds, beans, dried fruits, nuts, leafy greens (there they are again!), seaweeds, molasses and soya.

When we don’t have enough iron, our bodies shout it from the hilltops. Cold weather brings about numb fingertips and blue lips; the slightest bump can become a massive bruise. Our legs often cramp up unexpectedly, as well. When I let my iron levels drop as a young person, I used to wake up in the night crying out in pain.

5. Omega-3 Fatty Acids

We hear about these everywhere lately. One of the reasons they’re so darned important is because of the need to balance them against much-easier-to-find omega-6 fatty acids.

But here’s the thing—good ol’ Mama Nature has done all the hard work for us. Vegans can find omega-3’s in loads of great sources of omega-6’s!  Sorted!

These include:

  • Seeds:  Flax seeds (also called linseeds), hemp seeds and sesame seeds No fishies were harmed in the making of this delicious source of omega-3 fatty acids. (Photo: rubyran)
  • Nuts:  Walnuts and brazil nuts
  • Oils:  Soybean oil, canola oil (also called rape seed or colza), and wheat germ oil
  • Spirulina (very green…throw it in a smoothie and pretend it’s not there)
  • Vegetables:  (Wait for it) Leafy greens (!!) and cruciferous veggies (like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and bok choy)

Neglect your omega-3’s and you’ll feel fatigued, stupid (see #1), and irritable, your skin will go dry and flaky and your hair will lose its sheen, and over a longer period, it can get so severe you’re suffering from eczema or reproductive problems.

There are so many benefits to being vegan, and it really isn’t so difficult (you’ll note that there’s all sorts of stuff on those lists that repeat again and again…ahem…can anybody say leafy greens?). But it seems that so often we approach it from a place of frustration and irritation, rather than joy and intrigue.

Finding the time to eat properly hasn’t always taken center stage in my life, and I’ve no doubt that my emotional and psychological well-being suffered tremendously as a result. Live and learn—it simply is worth the time and energy. Ultimately, time and energy is precisely what we gain when we eat well.

For tons and tons more delicious information, go here and here—excellent resources all around.

Editor: Lynn Hasselberger

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