NUTRITIONAL FOODS FOR VEGANS
- January 31, 2017
A vegan diet – defined by one that, in addition to being vegetarian, eliminates all animal by-products (like dairy) – comes with a host of health benefits, mainly because of just how extraordinarily healthy plant foods are. Clinical data supports this as well; studies constantly demonstrate the way plant-based diets reduce the risk of heart disease, type-2 diabetes, cancer, and other lifestyle-related diseases.1-4
Having said this, though, eliminating a list of foods can also make it more challenging to obtain adequate amounts of all the nutrients we need from our diet. This can, however, be easily overcome by including or increasing one’s consumption of certain foods that do provide the nutrients otherwise less frequently seen in a vegan diet.
Here’s a list!
1] Soy and Tofu
Serving as the structural units that make up proteins, amino acids are required for a number of processes in the body, with muscle-building being only one of many. It’s important for anyone, and not just fitness enthusiasts (as many believe), to focus on getting enough amino acid through their diet.
Soybeans are regarded as a complete source of protein, which means that they have all nine ‘essential’ amino acids (the amino acids that are imperative to get from our diet, because they can’t be produced by our body). Soy in all its forms (including tofu, edemame and tempeh) even offers decent amounts of iron, calcium, manganese, selenium, phosphorous, magnesium, potassium, and several vitamins. It also comes with the health benefits of a legume (expanded on in the next point).5
If you’ve previously heard of soy within a negative context, that’s because it contains a high amount of compounds called ‘phytoestrogens’. Structurally similar to the female hormone estrogen, phytoestrogens could potentially cause hormone-related issues in women and men alike, if consumed in excess – but the risk here is commonly overstated, and consuming 2-3 servings of soy daily is believed to be perfectly safe.5
[Anyone consuming large amounts of soy daily is better off avoiding processed soy products, and should opt for soy in its whole food form instead. Also, individuals undergoing any hormonal treatments should consult their physicians before consuming large amounts of soy and soy based products.]
Legumes like beans, lentils, chickpeas, peas and soybeans are a great source of multiple nutrients.6
Most of the protein consumed in a vegetarian diet actually comes from legumes, with one cooked cup containing at least 10 g protein.
They’re also rich in minerals like folate, magnesium, potassium and iron, insomuch that they’re the biggest source of iron in a vegetarian diet. To demonstrate: a cup of cooked lentils (198 grams) contains about 6.6 mg of iron – that’s 37% of the recommended daily intake, and twice as much found in a serving of beef!
[While eating legumes, it’s a good idea to combine them with foods rich in vitamin C (tomatoes, broccoli, dark leafy greens, peas and lemon juice), which increases the absorption of iron in the body.]7
Another great advantage of legumes is their high amount of soluble fibre. Soluble fibre is a form of dietary fibre with numerous, far-reaching benefits: it can help lower levels of bad cholesterol, promote the growth of good bacteria in our gut, help reduce our calorie-intake (by increasing our sense of satiety/fullness) and even help regulate our blood sugar. It’s unsurprising that countless studies have indicated a legume-rich diet’s ability to lower cholesterol and blood pressure, help stabilise blood sugar levels and even help reduce belly fat!
3] Protein-rich vegetables
A cooked cup of vegetables like spinach, broccoli, asparagus, artichokes, potatoes, sweet potatoes or Brussels sprouts delivers about 4–5 grams of protein, making all of these excellent additions to a vegan diet.
Beyond protein, they also contain several vitamins, minerals and other healthy plant compounds called phytonutrients. Spinach, for instance, is a great source of iron as well as carotenoids, which are a group of nutrients that fall under the broad category of phytonutrients.
Broccoli is also a very good source of choline, a vitamin that’s otherwise mainly found in animal foods, and plays a role in significant processes within the body (especially related to the nervous system and the liver) as well as on a cellular level (like building DNA and other cell structures).8,9
4] Nuts and nut butters
Nuts and nut butters offer an easy way to get a concentrated mix of protein, healthy fats and iron. They’re also good sources of the essential omega-3 and omega-6 fats, along with fibre, zinc, magnesium, selenium, phytonutrients and fat-soluble vitamins like vitamin E.
[Some store-bought nut butters may contain trans-fats, which makes them best avoided (take a look at a product’s label to identify the presence of trans-fats). If possible, try having homemade varieties.]
5] Leafy greens
Although calcium is quite easily available in a vegan diet, vegans seem to have lower levels of this mineral, possibly because dairy products are the main source of calcium in the Indian diet.10,11
Increasing the amount of dark leafy greens (like spinach, kale, turnips, and collard greens) in a diet would help fix this, since these are rich sources of calcium (and iron, with plenty of other phytonutrients).
Leafy greens also have a generous amount of vitamin K, an essential nutrient that helps absorb calcium into our bones.
[Having these foods along with a fat helps the body absorb nutrients like carotenoids, so try mixing them with a healthy fat like olive oil.]
6] Millets and ‘pseudograins’
Millets found in the Indian diet include jowar, bajra and ragi (naachni), and come packed with nutrients. For instance jowar contains more protein than other grains, while ragi has the highest calcium content among all cereals (344 mg/100 g).12
‘Pseudograins’ (seeds and grasses that we normally categorise as grains) like amaranth and quinoa provide 8-9 grams of complete protein per cooked cup (240 ml) – a great alternative to other cereals. Like broccoli, quinoa is also considered to be rich source of choline.13
Both millets and pseudograins are also full of dietary fibre as well as phytonutrients.12
7] Iodised salt
Iodine plays important roles in our metabolism and in the functioning of the thyroid gland. Low levels of iodine can lead to dry skin, low energy levels, tingling in the extremities, forgetfulness, depression and even weight gain. This mineral is so crucial that a deficiency during pregnancy and early infancy can result in mental development issues.
The recommended intake of iodine is 150 mcg per day for adults, which can be met by half a teaspoon (2.5 ml) of iodised salt.14
8] Flax, Chia and Hemp seeds
These seeds are a great source of protein and iron, and, more notably, are even rich in certain essential fats. An omega-3 fat found in these seeds, alpha linolenic acid (ALA) is converted by our body into different forms of omega-3 fats called eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), both of which are primarily found in non-vegetarian dietary sources like fish.15,16
DHA, while also anti-inflammatory in nature, is absolutely critical for specific functions of the body: it forms part of the retina’s structure in our eyes as well as a major part of our brain and nervous system. An inadequate amount of DHA can lead to all sorts of issues like higher levels of inflammation and even mood disorders.17,18
Although ALA eventually converts to DHA in our body, this process is highly inefficient (only a very small amount of DHA gets made), making it important to get pre-formed DHA through our diet. Since vegan sources of DHA, like marine algae, are not a staple in our diet, supplementation offers a good solution.
Edible seaweeds accumulate iodine from seawater, which could make them a really good source of iodine for vegans – but the levels of iodine in seaweed tend to vary a lot, so it’s worth taking a look at the iodine content to understand how much is to be consumed.14
Seaweed also contains B-vitamins, vitamin A, iron, zinc, magnesium and a bit of protein, and is even a useful alternative to iodised salt (for those who need to restrict their salt consumption because of other medical conditions like high blood pressure or kidney disease).
Examples include spirulina, kombu, wakame, and dulse.
[It’s important to be certain of the seaweed’s quality, because just as it collects iodine, it can also accumulate heavy metals from the water it resides in – except these are decidedly not good for our health.]14
10] Vitamin B12 fortified foods
Several studies show that while anyone can have low vitamin B12 levels, vegetarians and vegans have a higher risk of deficiency. This seems especially true for vegans who don’t take supplements, possibly because this vitamin is found only in small quantities in a limited number of vegan foods. Some of these foods, like spirulina, even contain a form of vitamin B12 that’s not very effective in humans.
Vitamin B12 is absolutely imperative for a number of processes in our body, including the formation of red blood cells, and the production of energy from food. It’s also vital for the proper functioning of the nervous system, since B12 plays a role in producing neurotransmitters, hormones and the insulating sheath around nerves.19
A deficiency of vitamin B12 can, over time, lead to anaemia and nervous system damage, amongst other problems like fatigue, skin/hair issues and bone problems. Low vitamin B12 levels have also been linked to mental health issues.
Vitamin B12-fortified foods commonly include plant milks, soy products, breakfast cereals and nutritional yeast (the packaging generally mentions whether these are fortified or not).
If you found this helpful and would like any other evidence-based information when it comes to vegan nutrition, your suggestions are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org!
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19. Pall ML. J Chronic Fatigue Syndr 2000, 8(2): 39-44.
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