Hardly a day goes by without another celebrity announcing they have decided to go vegan. More restaurants and pubs are offering vegan menus, and vegan alternatives are appearing in supermarkets. In the USA, one of the largest medical management companies, Kaiser Permanente, has started to recommend plant based diets to their patients across the many hospitals under their wing. Doctor N. Barnard has just opened a fully vegan Medical Centre in Washington. In the UK, successful bloggers and cook-book authors are flying the plant based flag.
Recent research conducted by the Vegan Society has shown a 350% increase in the number of people eating a vegan diet. What is behind the plant based revolution? The world is waking up to the impact that over-production of meat has on our planet, and the over-consumption of animal products has on our health.
A whole food plant based diet has been shown to reduce cancer risk, and to help with the management and even reversal of some of our most common chronic diseases like Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. In the USA, Medicare offers Dr Dean Ornish’s low fat plant based lifestyle program as an alternative to surgical intervention for patients with heart disease. His program has been proven to alter the expression of around 500 genes, proving we are not slaves to our genes.
It has to be stressed that not every vegan diet is healthy; chips, soya mince, and many fizzy drinks or biscuits are vegan but not healthy. As with any diet, basing your meals around processed nutrient-void foods cannot result in a healthy body and mind.
The secret to a healthy vegan diet is eating an abundance of unprocessed, nutrient-dense foods in the most natural state possible. Half of the plate should be filled with vegetables, eating all the colours of the rainbow every day, both raw and cooked.
One quarter of your plate should consist of complex carbohydrates and the last quarter should include a rich plant protein source such as beans, nuts or quinoa. Fats should come from whole foods sources such a nuts or avocados rather than processed oils.
There are few nutrients that need extra attention when you decide to go on a plant based diet:
Omega 3 fatty acids can be obtained from plant based sources such as flaxseeds, chia seeds and walnuts, but the body has to convert these to the beneficial DHA and EPA. Vegans have been shown to be more efficient at this conversion, however, vegan EPA/DHA supplements from algae are advisable for children, pregnant women, and anyone who is not getting enough omega 3s from their diet.
Vitamin B12 can be deficient in vegan diets as nowadays our main supply comes from animal products. In nature, this vitamin is synthesised by bacteria. Unlike animals, we rarely eat anything unwashed and therefore we are not getting any vitamin B12 from plant based foods.
It has been shown that our intestinal bacteria produce vitamin B12 but unfortunately this happens too low down in our digestive tract, which results in the vitamin B12 being excreted from our body rather than absorbed. Luckily, many vegan foods are fortified with B12. Vegans need to be mindful to include foods that are fortified with vitamin B12 in their diets, or to be sure to take a good quality B12 supplement.
Vitamin A is also only available from animal sources. However, our bodies convert beta carotene (a red-orange pigment found in many fresh fruits and vegetables) into Vitamin A. To maximise this conversion it is important to eat beta carotene-rich foods with healthy fats.
Iron deficiency is as frequent in vegans as it is in omnivores. The non-haem iron from plant sources is more difficult for the body to absorb but adding Vitamin C rich foods and avoiding foods that interfere with iron absorption will increase the availability of plant based iron.
Zinc is also less bioavailable from plant sources. Lightly toasting nuts and seeds, soaking grains and cooking them with a couple of slices of onions increases the absorption of zinc. Vitamin C is also helpful alongside zinc rich foods.
Calcium has always been associated with dairy products, but there are many highly bioavailable plant based sources of this mineral such as green leafy vegetables, dried, figs, tahini, nuts and seeds.
Vitamin D is essential for calcium absorption and sunshine is the best source. Spending 15 minutes with sunshine hitting your bare skin will provide your daily need in summer. In the UK, supplementation can be advisable in the winter months, for everybody, not just vegans.
By CNM Graduate and Nutritional Therapist, Linda Sims
A well planned, preferably organic, whole foods plant based diet can do wonders for your health, whilst improving the chances of the long term health of our planet. If you decide to adopt a plant based style of eating, why not enrol onto our New Vegan Natural Chef Diploma Course to help you on your journey to optimal nutrition through Vegan Cooking.