Plant based diets continue to grow in popularity & I am all for people making specific lifestyle choices & changes based on their beliefs, indeed the necessity for us all to be increasingly conscious of our impact on the world is not something we can deny. Personally I don’t choose to follow an entirely plant based diet, however I am incredibly aware of limiting my footprint by choosing to consume small quantities of high quality, grass fed (AKA pasture raised), organic animal products (eggs, occasional poultry & wild fish with red meat once every couple of months. I am allergic to dairy products so these don’t feature). This ensures the highest possible welfare standards for the animals in question & as few negative consequences on the planet as can be. I am also incredibly mindful when it comes to my waste, both food, & outside the kitchen.
As an overarching point I would highlight a general theme within my advice here; if you do not want to completely remove animal products you don’t need to, look at where you can add things into your routine as opposed to chopping things out.
One thing that does concern me hugely with the Veganuary drive is the potential for some to go down this path & end up doing themselves a health disservice because they aren’t aware of the potential pitfalls if you choose to remove aforementioned animal products from your diet. And second to that, where clever marketing can come into play & label something as vegan but really be hiding a multitude of unhealthful sins.
So what are these?
Well the fundamental consideration of a plant based diet tends to be about protein intake & ensuring that you’re getting enough of certain nutrients (Vitamins D & B12, omega 3 fats, Iron & Calcium). And that’s where the title of this post comes in – we aren’t anatomically similar to plants & so we need to be more aware of what we are putting in as a lone leaf (or 1 type of plant food) will not a liver or lung cell make! Similarly a singular stem cannot transform into skin or support your skeleton however when we put different types together our clever bodies can do all these wonderful things.
Now this sounds like it’s all going to be pretty complicated, I promise it’s not.
To begin with those nutrients I list;
- Vitamin B12 is only available in animal foods, chlorella, spirulina, nutritional yeast, all those plant foods touted as B12 sources are not, they are B12 analogues which means their structure is similar but cannot have the same actions. Therefore a true vegan must supplement their B12.
- Similarly Vitamin D but that is a general point for most people especially in countries like the UK where our sun exposure is insufficient to keep our levels optimal.
- Omega 3 fats are also essential for our health & the plant based forms (found in chia, hemp & flaxseeds as well as certain algae) aren’t the same as those we get in oily fish. Their conversion can be poor & so I would tend to suggest a supplement to top up dietary intake.
- Calcium is actually wonderfully abundant in edamame beans, tahini, green vegetables & cauliflower so the issue with removing dairy isn’t one to be hugely scared by, but again the levels are lower & the forms are different so inclusion of those foods needs to be regular & bountiful.
- And Iron. This will depend on the individual as some will struggle to utilise the form of iron found in plant foods (this is one of the primary reasons I cannot be entirely vegan). I would never suggest you supplement iron without having a blood test however, & definitely seek the advice of someone who knows what they’re talking about before taking anything containing it.
Then when it comes to the protein question it’s actually pretty easy, I include the following very simple equation to follow below:
LEGUMES/BEANS/PULSES + NUTS/SEEDS OR WHOLE GRAINS
(Yep that’s it).
The crucial point here refers to what we term our ‘essential amino acids’. All proteins are made up of amino acids (imagine the protein is a necklace – the amino acids would be the individual links) & they fall into 2 categories – essential & non-essential. The non-essential your body can make, the essential we have to gain through our diet. Now originally it was thought if you relied solely on plant based protein you had to ensure you were having all of those essential amino acids through the above combinations at every meal, however now we know that we all have an amino acid pool & that we will store any amino acids we have in excess to be dipped into as & when we need.
So that’s a basic consideration – if you choose to exclude animal products which are naturally complete proteins (you are eating what you will then re-make in your body) you must make sure that you are consciously combining a selection of plant based protein sources every day.
The next consideration here is the actual quantity of protein within these foods – plant based protein sources are naturally less rich than animal products so someone would need to look at their portion sizes, plus there is the secondary element here that these foods are naturally richer in fibre so tend to make you feel fuller more quickly, & they are also generally lower in fat.
Again these things can be hugely beneficial – fibre encourages effective digestion & elimination, balances cholesterol, supports our mood, & for some decreasing their fat intake may be necessary for health concerns but many end up with too much fibre & not enough protein, & even more end up with insufficient fats to nourish their skin, support their hormones, the list goes on.
So what do we do?
NUTS & SEEDS
Well as I said I entirely support this dietary choice as long as there are no significant clinical indications against it, & one of the simplest ways to ensure you’re not falling into these traps is to finish your dishes with what I term my ‘Super Sprinkle’. This is basically a varying selection of nuts, seeds &/or dressings which both add divine texture but also very importantly gives your meal a real nutritious boost.
The following quantities make ~3-4 portions, of course just increase the quantities to make a larger batch. Use for a week then pick a different combo & go again.
- 2 tablespoons hulled hemp or chia seeds (always as these provide essential omega 3’s too)
- 2.5 tablespoons pumpkin, sunflower, sesame, poppy seeds or a mixture
- 2.5 tablespoons chopped pistachios, walnuts, almonds, cashews, pecans, macadamias, brazil nuts
Another thought is to swap to a legume based pasta (red lentil, edamame, green pea etc) as these will then offer a lovely protein rich boost to a quick & simple meal. I use edamame fettuccine in this recipe, of course omit the cod should you not be including fish in your routine, or this creamy cashew & tomato red lentil pasta which is already entirely vegan.
Dips are also fantastic, they are endlessly variable in terms of what you include, can be frozen & are brilliant to turn to in times where speed is of the essence. By altering the amount of liquid you can also use purées of root vegetables & pulses as mash replacements, a quick & simple way of boosting that protein content without you even noticing.
Why not try the following to start:
A NOTE ON SOY
Because I couldn’t not talk about this. Soy in its natural form as edamame beans is brilliant. They’re rich in protein, non-dairy calcium & many other things but we love to process soy into yoghurts, milks, desserts etc & these aren’t useful to us. Stick to organic tofu, tempeh, miso & edamame, ditch anything with soy protein & avoid those bits I mention above. (Please). I personally think my vegan quiche is absolutely dreamy & it’s a great way to test tofu out on non-believers.
ANOTHER NOTE ON MEAT REPLACEMENTS
Because again I couldn’t not.
This is 1 area where I get a tad upset as the market is now being flooded with vegan products that bear little resemblance to actual food. And when someone has decided to put huge efforts into swapping to a more plant rich way of eating but fallen foul of such a creative campaign, well I don’t like it at all.
As a general point go to the naturally vegan foods – the pulses, lentils, beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains & abundantly colourful vegetables. Don’t look at the things that are meant to ‘resemble meat’ because they will be full of nonsense to try & get them to emanate textures & flavours they’re never going to have. If you’re swapping over do it gently, start by adding lentils to your usual bolognese sauce & use half the quantity of mince (or make my lentil bolognese rather than going for a mince replacement). Or just try out a new meat free meal once or twice a week, my lentil loaf perhaps, or this lovely Moroccan squash & chickpea stew.
If you are buying products then its time to have a good look at the label. Something like the Heck Veg Range would get the thumbs up, as would the Bol, Strong Roots, Gosh! & Deliciously Ella products. The Quorn, Meatless Farm & Fry’s ranges however would not, see if you can spot the difference.
And with that I’ll sign off here, please do be in touch with any questions & if nothing else I would get onto the sprinkle, I don’t think there’s any meal that isn’t improved by it!
With healthy wishes,