The balanced diet challenge
If you are a vegan, you will no doubt know how hard it can be to ensure that you are getting all of the vitamins, minerals and other essential nutrients that you need on a daily basis, as a result of the dietary restrictions involved in your chosen lifestyle.
Plant-based diets, while certainly capable of being fully balanced and (in many cases) healthier than the average meat-eater’s diet, can pose certain challenges that vegans should bear in mind – particularly if their aim is to achieve optimal health and nutrition.
For example, watching out for low intake of high quality protein, as well as deficiencies in vitamin B12, calcium, iron, zinc and Omega 3 oils (the so-called “healthy fats”). This is because these and certain other nutrients are found primarily in animal products, or are not absorbed as effectively in their plant form.
Vegan meal plan
So what is a health-conscious vegan to do? Well, recognising the potential pitfalls mentioned above is a great first step, because you can then take action to ensure that you have a healthy, well-balanced vegan diet.
To help achieve this, many people choose to follow a meal plan that is specifically designed to reflect both the benefits and challenges of a vegan lifestyle – particularly in the early stages, before this pattern of eating becomes second nature.
Coupled with exercising regularly, drinking plenty of pure water and watching your weight (something which should follow naturally from this type of diet in any case), vegan diets can be perfectly healthy – not to mention highly alkalising!
Some of the main nutrients for inclusion in such a meal plan have already been mentioned above, but you may wish to consult a nutritionist. Similarly, it is always advisable to consult your doctor before radically changing your diet (especially if you are pregnant, ill or on medication).
However, it is worth giving a brief mention to protein specifically, given the prominent role it plays in the everyone’s – not just vegans.
Protein for vegans
Nutritional guidelines recommend that between 10% and 15% of a person’s total calorie intake should come from protein. It is an essential nutrient, involved in almost every process in the body, but is particularly important for maintaining muscle and bone mass, for growth and recovery, for keeping the immune system strong and for preventing fatigue.
It can be a challenge for vegans to get enough protein, given the fact that animal products are the traditional high-protein food sources. And it’s also important to bear in mind that the quality of the protein is just as important as the quantity.
As such, even where vegan protein sources are identified, it is important to ensure that these are high-quality sources (or clever combinations), which provide the body with the correct profile of amino acids – the building blocks of protein.
While some amino acids can be manufactured by the body, some (known as essential amino acids) have to be obtained externally from the diet. Many plant-based protein foods contain only some of these acids, which could mean a potential deficiency over the long-term without a balanced diet.
It is therefore important to identify what are called “complete” plant-based protein sources, which contain all of the essential amino acids. Alternatively, you can plan your meals with different combinations of plant proteins, which together provide you with the full complement of amino acids.
Some excellent examples of plant-based proteins include: soy, legumes, nuts and seeds. Wheatgrass, quinoa, hemp and pea protein are also particularly good sources and are available in concentrated form as powders or food based supplements.
Plant protein powders and meal shakes
With the time constraints of the modern lifestyle, it can be easier said than done to prepare a fully balanced vegan meal three times a day, with the perfect amino acid profile and highest quality protein in the correct quantities.
Their element of convenience, along with reassurance about the level and type of protein being provided, is therefore one of the main reasons why so many vegans choose to supplement their diet with plant-based protein powders and/or meal shakes.
High quality supplements offer a quick and easy means of boosting the nutritional content of any vegan diet, not just in terms of complete protein, but also in terms of a broad spectrum of other essential vitamins, minerals and nutrients.
Don’t have the time to grow your own wheatgrass and then juice it three times a day? The powder form can supply you with concentrated levels of this first class protein source in moments, as and when you need it. And there are several different options available if wheatgrass is not to your liking!
Simply mix your vegan protein powder with the liquid of your choice and go, or if you’re not a fan of green drinks, disguise the taste by adding fruit, berries or vegetables for a healthy smoothie.
Of course, while they may be a little harder to source, the benefit of plant-based sources of protein over traditional animal-based sources is that they tend to be far lower in saturated fats and contaminants (such as hormones, antibiotics etc), while higher in other nutrients (such as fibre, antioxidants and phyto-nutrients). Better for the body, and the waistline too!
So do a little planning in advance, undertake a little research and eat smart. You’ll then soon be on your way to a healthy vegan diet in no time.