Posted on 2020-02-13
We won’t go into the good reasons to go vegan, with the effects on the planet and animal welfare – we're far more concerned with the health implications of doing so.
First of all, if you’re making the switch because someone told you it was healthier, you may want to ask them to check their facts… and priorities. For a start, there is very little literature that says eating a vegan diet is healthier than eating a plant-based one with small amounts of organic, free-range, grass-fed beef and fish raised in unpolluted waterways.
It all says quite the opposite. However, the above is hard to source, often expensive, and unsustainable to provide for seven billion people. This results in those consuming meat often consuming too much of it and from poor quality sources. What the science does say is eating large amounts of antibiotic-stuffed, hormone-pumped, processed meat that is often deep-fried or charred when cooked is less healthy than removing all meat from your diet.
Still, most people that go and stay vegetarian or vegan are not so much concerned with whether it is healthier, but rather how to be as healthy as possible whilst keeping any harmful effect on the planet to a minimum. The point of this article is to help you along the process of ensuring your health isn’t suffering from making such a decision. One thing many people fail to consider is the change in the nutritional profile of the food one takes in when making the switch. Let’s start with what everyone gets caught up with (protein) and then move on from there:
Yes, it’s true; there are lower concentrations of protein in vegetables than in meat. It’s also true that vegetable protein has a lower bioavailability than meat. It’s also true that most vegetable sources of protein have incomplete EAA profiles (they don’t contain the full spectrum of different kinds of protein, referred to as amino acids). However, unless you’re a competitive bodybuilder who's hell-bent of achieving insane levels of muscle : fat ratios, the quantity you need is quite achievable as a veggie/vegan, particularly by throwing in a protein shake or two in your day. What you need to bear in mind is that the quality of your food just needs to be better. You can’t afford to eat food low in nutritional value and protein content and then compensate for it with a chicken breast. Provided you’re consuming a large amount of a wide range of vegetables, you’re going to hit your basic requirements of 1.1-1.5g of protein per pound of bodyweight.
When choosing your food sources and protein shakes, also prioritise variety and those with more complete EAA profiles. If you’re vegetarian and not lactose intolerant, eggs and whey protein shakes can provide all 9 essential amino acids (at the expense of the comfort of some chickens and cows respectively). Vegans have solid options in the miraculous quinoa, buckwheat, hemp seeds, chia seeds and spirulina. If your vegan protein shake can have a mixture of sources in its ingredients, that is ideal too.
We're not going to go into this again! If you missed the article on their importance, check out Omega 3's – The Best Way To Consume Them. What we should tip you off on is how to get sufficient DHA without consuming fish products. We mentioned in the article that you want to hack the system, bypass the fish and go straight to what the fish themselves are eating. Algal oil or vegan algae capsules are exactly how the fish get their DHA and are a great source. They are easily found online, just be sure to assess the DHA quantities against those recommended in our previous article.
Vegetarians can consume this through dairy products. So long have the dairy industry been pushing calcium as the key reason to consume their products, many of us now believe they’re the only source. It’s the only way to get strong bones, right? This isn’t the case, and needn’t be for vegans. There is also an argument to be made that not only are milk products not suitable for all of us, but the quality of milk being sold in big-chain supermarkets is nothing near what it used to be.
Soy products, edamame, almonds and dark green leafy vegetables are a vegan’s best bet. Swapping your glass of milk with your cooked breakfast for spinach or bok choy isn’t equivalent – it requires 8 cups of spinach to equal the calcium content of 1 cup of milk - however, there are only 55 calories in the equivalent spinach serving (and it contains iron, magnesium, potassium etc), whereas there are twice that in milk. Yes, that means if you like spinach, you now get to have a bigger, more nutritious breakfast, with more fibre to keep you full!
The key ingredient in ensuring your red blood cells can transport sufficient oxygen and nutrients around our bodies. As with many nutrients, where they are found in our bodies also correlates with animals. Thus, meat-eaters get strong, more easily accessed and absorbed sources in organs and red meat. Plant-based dieters have no reason to be concerned though – there are plenty of alternatives with only a slightly lower conversion rate. Dried apricots, peaches and prunes are a great source, but they’re very dense in calories and sugar, so they’re not ideal for high consumption by those less active.
Beans provide an equal iron : calorie ratio, with much higher fibre to ensure less of an impact on blood sugar. New consumers of them just need to be careful to not eat too much too early. The very high fibre content can wreak havoc on one’s digestive systems. Spinach, as with calcium, should be the king of the iron : calorie ratio, at over three times the density of anything else. Sadly, there are arguments made by some studies that the oxalic acid contained in spinach inhibits its absorption. Fret not though: not only is there a strong 2008 study showing oxalates have minimal impact on absorption, but you can reduce their inhibiting effect by cooking your spinach (which also makes it easier to eat more of it!). Just remember to pan fry or bake it, not cook it – you’ve got to keep those minerals in there to have any chance of absorbing them!
Stay tuned – in the next article, we explore the nutrients you may want to consider going as far as supplementing if you’re going veggie/vegan.