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How to stay healthy on a vegan diet: 5 not-so-obvious tips

Ever heard of a raw food diet? A gluten-free diet? Paleo? Sure, I think by now nearly all of us have.  

It’s become a trend. Don’t get me wrong – I personally think a lot of these are positive trends. If it wasn’t for the internet, I’d find out about plant-based diets a lot later than I did. We hear about vegetarianism and veganism non-stop. And I think it’s incredible. People are finding out the truth about the meat industry and becoming aware.

But today I’ll be talking about the health aspect, not ethics, of a plant-based diet.

How do we avoid nutrient deficiencies when we decide not to eat meat?

Now you may be thinking…if a plant-based diet is so healthy, why should we worry about all this?  Isn’t it better if we just stick to meat?
Well, meat may provide us with all the nutrients I mentioned, but it’s also high in saturated fat. Numerous studies have shown that processed meats increase our risk of cancer.

 

Getting enough calcium or protein – yes, it’s important. But there’s so much more to it. That’s why I wanted to share with you a few tips to stay healthy when being vegetarian or vegan. Especially as winter has just begun and we don’t have much access to good quality fruit and veg. I will not be going into too much detail as I want to make separate posts on the topics in the future.

(Disclaimer! I am not a certified dietician (yet) or a doctor, so don’t treat this as medical advice. I am still studying nutrition. I’ve been on a plant-based diet for 6 years now. Since then, I’ve learned a lot and done tons of research that I hope will be useful to you. This is just the start…)

Here are habits to implement into your daily routine…

Supplement vitamin B12 and D daily

This might be an obvious one but it’s SO IMPORTANT. Vitamin D is found in some animal products like fatty fish (mackerel, salmon) or beef liver. Sunlight is an even better source of this vitamin.

Even so, deficiencies are way too common. That’s why no matter if you eat animal products or not, taking a vitamin d3 supplement is necessary. The minimum should be 1000 IU.

Vitamin D supports immune function, reduces the risk of developing autoimmune diseases such as Hashimoto’s disease (affecting thyroid function) and even some cancers.

 

Vitamin B12 is essential for energy production, the formation of red blood cells and proper brain function. It is actually produced by bacteria found in soil; farm animals simply receive this vitamin as a supplement. That’s why we can only obtain B12 from animal products (meat, dairy, eggs). Or by taking a supplement, of course.

So as you can see, vegans are more likely to be B12 deficient. To my surprise, it turns out that it’s also a problem among those who consume meat.

Anyway, supplementing it is extremely important for our overall health and wellbeing. Vitamin B12 deficiency can lead to a severe type of anemia and neurological complications.

Watch your omega 3:6 ratio

When becoming vegan, people often turn to fried foods to compensate for the lack of meat they’re experiencing.

As you probably already know, omega-6 and omega-3 are essential fatty acids. Getting enough of both is just as important. The problem is that it’s so easy to consume too many omega-6s and not enough omega-3s.

Omega-3-rich foodsOmega-6-rich foodsOmega-6-rich products
Flax seedsTofuSunflower oil
WalnutsWalnutsTortilla/potato chips
Chia seedsPeanut butterFast food in general
SoybeansPumpkin seedsCakes

So it’s not like omega-6s are bad and they shouldn’t be consumed. Quite the contrary.

In foods like cakes, fatty snacks and fast food, omega-6 dominates and that’s what disrupts the balance between the two essential fatty acids. The issue is that most of the omega-6s we consume come from vegetable oils in one form or another.

If we eat out, we’ll find that these oils are most often repeatedly heated. This process changes the oil’s chemical composition and makes it one of the unhealthiest products we might be putting into our bodies.

The average ratio we consume today is on average from 12:1 to 25: 1. That’s a huge difference! However, the ideal ratio should be 4:1 to even 1:1 according to experts. Excessive amounts of omega-6 fatty acids compared to 3s may increase the risk of cardiovascular and inflammatory diseases.

So even without meat and dairy, we can be putting ourselves in danger of developing serious illnesses. The less unprocessed food, the better!

Don’t replace meat with cheese

That’s what I did 6 years ago when I decided to stop eating meat. I was craving fatty foods and not feeling truly satisfied after a meal ( that was before I discovered the magic of beans and lentils).

So I switched to cheese. HUGE AMOUNTS. Why isn’t this a good idea?

Meat (especially the red kind) is a good source of iron, a mineral essential for blood production. Cheese, on the other hand, contains nearly none.

So if we’re getting our calories from dairy, what about the iron? Nuts, seeds and beans are the answer. Cheese definitely shouldn’t be an alternative to meat. 

Soak your beans to help with the absorption of minerals

Lentils too, to be precise. With up to 36 % protein content and plenty of fibre, this superfood should be consumed daily. Lentils and beans are extremely nutrient dense, containing nearly all the B vitamins as well as antioxidants.

 

There’s one antioxidant we should remember about – phytic acid. This chemical compound protects us against some inflammatory diseases or cancer. The problem is, phytates also bind to minerals like zinc and iron, making it difficult for the body to absorb them.

So how do we boost the absorption of minerals already found in beans? Soaking them for 12 hours in water significantly lowers the amount of phytic acid. Remember to drain and rinse the beans/ lentils before cooking! (nuts and seeds too, if you want to go hardcore on the soaking 🙂 )

In truth, it’s harder to meet the sufficient daily intake of zinc and iron when being on a plant-based diet. Not impossible, of course. It just requires a bit of attention and care. That’s why us plant eaters need to ensure we’re actually absorbing the nutrients.

Lemon juice or ginger before meals

You might have heard of this..but what’s the reason? It’s all about boosting stomach acid production – this is a point I’d love to expand on in another post. For now, let me explain why it’s so relevant.

Gastric acid, which our stomach secretes to digest food, is also necessary for us to absorb certain nutrients. B vitamins, zinc, iron, calcium and magnesium are a few examples. Their proper absorption all depends on the presence of gastric acid. We should especially pay attention to our iron intake to avoid anemia.

Vegans may be at a bigger risk of having lower stomach acid production. That’s because plant-based diets are generally lower in protein (which isn’t actually a bad thing, in general). However, the causes of it extend to much more than whether you eat meat or not.

So, how do we increase our nutrient absorption?

 

Before meals, try drinking ginger tea – it doesn’t even have to be a whole cup. Simply boil a few pieces of ginger root, as you would do with a tea. If the taste is too strong, add some honey.
If ginger isn’t your thing, drink a small amount of lemon juice instead ( you can add water but the more you add, the less effective it will be).

There are more ways of boosting gastric acid production such as simply getting enough vitamin C into your meal in the form of:

  • tomatoes, broccoli, peppers or any other vegetables
  • fermented veggies – sauerkraut, pickles, tempeh (fermented soy product – SO good in burgers!)

So that’s all for now 🙂 . I personally try my best to do all of the above on a daily basis. What about you? Are these tips new to you? What are some of your ways to look after your health? I’d love to find out!

Or maybe you’re on a plant-based diet yourself? Have you noticed any changes in your health and wellbeing? Feel free to share your story below.

Till next time,
Zuza Xx

 

 

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