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Is it healthy?

There is no nutrient that the human body needs that can't be obtained from non-animal sources. A varied plant-based diet is regarded as one of the healthiest. It contains no cholesterol, is typically low in saturated fat, is high in fibre (animal foods contain none) and is high in protective, anti-disease antioxidants (animal foods contain negligible amounts) and phytochemicals (animal foods contain none). Many of the diseases affecting the western world, such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease and some cancers, are linked to our terrible diets of excess that revolve around animal products.

However, becoming vegan does mean that you have to work a bit harder to ensure that you get all the nutrients that your body needs. This might be the first time you've considered nutrition in any detail, and people often worry about the availability of certain key nutrients in a plant-based diet. Most of us have been raised to believe meat, fish and milk are essential for health, but that's not the case.

A little nutritional awareness and a varied diet will have you in better health than you've ever been, avoiding various ailments and increasing life expectancy.

What your body needs and where to get it

Protein

Let me get this out of the way: it is very hard not to get enough protein if you eat food.

As kids we were told that we need meat to grow up big and strong; that it's the source of protein and that you need plenty of it. Parents worry about their vegetarian or vegan children not developing properly, and concerned friends have asked me where I get mine from, but the truth is that protein is found in many common plant foods and we need far less than we've been led to believe. Protein, as a product, is a deeply entrenched bit of marketing crap, rivalled only by milk, that was born in a time when we didn't know any better.

Protein is a molecule made up of animo acids. Meat is known as a 'complete protein' food because it contains all eight amino acids, and in sufficient quantity, that the human body needs for energy, muscle growth and repair. These eight amino acids are required from food because the human body can't manufacture them. Few plant sources are complete protein foods but you can easily meet your protein needs by eating a varied diet. The human body helpfully takes amino acids from different foods to get the complete mix and you don't have to worry about achieving some perfect ratio at mealtimes, as was once thought.

I've been vegan for over two years and regularly run 5k, as well as walk or cycle everywhere. I'm as strong - and the same size - as when I ate meat. I'm not a scientist, but I know I feel fit and healthy and that my body has only changed in positive and healthy ways. Simply, it works better now. Also, vegan athletes and bodybuilders exist! Before major elective surgery last year I was given the all-clear on all counts and my recovery was speedy and painless.

There are no recorded cases of protein deficient vegans, so don't worry needlessly. It's common among meat eaters in western countries to consume more protein than they need, whereas a vegan diet facilitates the consumption of healthy amounts.

Good protein sources are nuts, seeds, beans and pulses, soy products like tofu, tempeh and soy milk, cereals like oats and quinoa - but most common plant foods contain useful amounts (though fruit is generally a poor source). Try to include protein rich foods in every meal:

  • Ditch the sugary breakfast cereals and start the day with muesli. It's an excellent protein mix because it contains seeds, nuts and grains, boosted further by serving with soy or oat milk. I use chocolate Oatly milk on my breakfast and it feels like a real treat. Porridge is a good alternative breakfast, especially with some added flax, shelled hemp or quinoa flakes. Such breakfasts are also an excellent source of complex carboydrates, for steady energy levels. They're high in fibre too
  • Add beans and seeds to salads
  • Sprinkle sprouted beans and seeds on many cooked dishes. I've always got a packet of these in the fridge and prinkle on lasagne, stir-frys, pizzas and in sandwiches
  • Include tofu or tempeh in your meals
  • Drink soy and other plant milks and use them in cooking
  • Use lentils or a soy based mince (I often do a half-half mix for a meaty texture) in bolognaise, lasagne, soups and stews
  • Add oats to smoothies. They break up and help to create a thick, creamy smoothie
  • Add flaxseed or shelled hemp to smoothies, porridge, and many cooked dishes and baked goods. I add a few tablespoons to homemade bread and cakes too
  • If you're a snacker, seeds and nuts are a must. If you don't like plain nuts and seeds, muesli bars are a good option. Watch out for honey and high sugar content in some brands. Or try roasted nuts and seeds in various flavours
  • Make bean burgers! Depending on the recipe they can be absolute protein bombs and come packed with lots of other good things too

Tofu, soy milk, quinoa and shelled hemp seed are complete protein foods. Like meat, they contain all eight essential amino acids that our bodies need and, like many plant foods, come packed with other useful nutrients and none of the nasty stuff found in animal products. For example, tofu is a useful calcium source and flaxseed is a great source of omega 3, iron and fibre. You do not need to eat complete protein foods to get all the essential amino acids since your body can assemble them from different sources, but they are useful foods to include in your diet. Flaxseed and shelled hemp may seem expensive - typically £5-6 per bag - but they're nutritionally rich and last for ages, well worth having in any animal-free fridge. Tofu, soy milk and quinoa are very affordable staples. Besides, think of the cash you save from not buying meat!

Calcium

Calcium is synonymous with cow milk, but studies show that the higher the dairy intake of a country the higher the incidence of osteoporosis (low bone density, meaning fragile bones). Here in the UK, where we eat large amounts of dairy, we have nearly three million people suffering from osteoporosis, but why? We are given free milk in nursery schools and shown endless advertisements, fronted by clueless celebs, selling yoghurt and kid-friendly cheese products that you can tie in knots and make load-bearing structures out of. Surely a nation of milk guzzlers should have strong and healthy bones?

The truth is that animal protein creates an acidic environment in the body that leeches calcium from bones. Your body uses existing calcium in your bones to neutralise acid in the blood. In the long term this can mean low bone density and fractures. Therefore, contrary to popular belief, osteoporosis is not caused by calcium deficiency, but by having an acid-alkali imbalance in the body. Plant sources of calcium, such as tofu, fortified soy and other plant milks, green leafy veg and almonds, do not have a negative acidifying effect, meaning the calcium from them is more readily available to the body. There are many plant sources of calcium, and no scientific evidence of calcium deficiency in vegans.

Human beings do not need dairy products to meet calcium needs. You have only to look to countries that use few or none - e.g. China, India, Nigeria - to see that their osteoporosis rates are far lower than ours.

Good plant sources of calcium
Green leafy vegetables like kale and spinach, brocolli, tahini (sesame seed paste used to make hummus), sesame and other seeds, beans and lentils, tofu (calcium levels vary between brands and the manufacturing process used), swede, almonds, brazil nuts, cinnamon, fennel and olives.

Vitamin D is vital for the absorption of calcium. The human body produces vitamin D when skin is exposed to sunlight. Try to get outside for twenty minutes a day with your face and arms uncovered. It's not always possible if the weather is rotten and if you live in parts of the world where the sun is sometimes elusive (i.e. here in the UK) so top up on vitamin D, especially in autumn and winter, by eating fortified cereals, spreads, and soy and other plant milks. A vegan supplement can be useful, such as the Vegan Society's chewable fruit flavoured Veg1.

There are two forms of vitamin D: D3 is animal derived and therefore not vegan. D2 is from plants and fine for vegans. Not all products, such as fortified plant milks, list what type of vitamin D is used so you may need to do some research. Often you'll find that someone has asked already and posted somewhere online about it. If not, contact the manufacturer yourself. In my experience you often get prompt and helpful replies. I've even been sent money-off vouchers simply by emailing a company with an enquiry about its products and ingredients. When Oatly changed their ingredients to use a non-animal source of vitamin D I wrote to thank them. Let these companies know that you're out there and that there's a demand for vegan products.

Exercise is also important as it stimulates bone growth and reduces bone loss. Bones adapt to the weight and pressure applied to them, so it follows that someone who spends all day sitting around and never lifting anything heavier than a mug of tea won't have optimum bone health. As with muscle strength you don't have to spend five nights a week pumping iron to be in good shape, but weight-bearing exercise like walking, running, dancing and yoga are perfect.

Iron

Think iron, think blood, think meat, but people who eat animals actually get less than 20% of their iron from flesh. Iron is important for red blood cell production and various other functions. Red blood cells carry oxygen around the body. It's easy to meet iron requirements via a varied plant-based diet. Good sources include dried fruit, wholegrain foods, spinach and other green leafy vegetables, beans and lentils.

Vitamin C plays an important role in the absorption of iron. A varied vegan diet can easily meets Vitamin C requirements because it's naturally high in fresh vegetables and fruit, and typically far higher in these foods than a meat eater's diet. Don't worry if you're not a big fruit fan - I'm not - since vitamin C is found in many veggies and isn't exclusive to oranges!

Vitamin C is a water soluble vitamin and easily lost through processing and cooking. Retain the nutrient by steaming your vegetables or briefly stir-frying; they're best slightly crunchy and brightly coloured instead of soggy and pale. If you do boil your veggies, use the water to make a sauce, gravy, or as a stock base for a future meal, instead of washing all that leached vitamin C down the sink.

Both tea and coffee contain substances that inhibit iron absorption. Avoid drinking these around mealtimes, add lemon to green tea as a counter measure, or switch to herbal and fruit teas.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is important for various functions in the body. Deficiency symptoms include poor memory and balance, lack of energy and blurred vision, and can take many years to manifest. Deficiency is more common in vegans than meat eaters, and it's important to ensure a regular source of vitamin B12 in the diet.

There are no direct sources of vitamin B12 in plant foods, but although it is found in animal products it isn't actually made by animals. Vitamin B12 is produced by bacteria, and via fermentation for use in fortified foods and supplements.

It's thought that before the highly mechanised and sanitised age we live in now, we would have got small amounts of B12 from soil left on vegetables, bacteria in stream water, and even - not very vegan, this - from small insects on fruits and vegetables.

We only need a small amount of B12: 2.5 micrograms - more for pregnant and breastfeeding women. You can easily meet this requirement by regularly using fortified foods or taking a daily supplement such as the Vegan Society's Veg1. B12 fortified foods include:

  • Vegan margarines like Pure, Vitalite and some supermarket 'Free From' brands
  • Soy and other plant milks
  • Yeast extract. Marmite springs to mind, but there are several other brands in health food shops and local groceries to try
  • Some breakfast cereals such as Sainsbury's own Malties, but watch out for high sugar content
  • Yeast flakes. Find tubs in health food shops and add to white sauces in pie fillings and pasta dishes to create a rich, cheesy flavour

I regularly use Oatly chocolate oat milk and Vitalite spread which are both fortified with B12, but I also take a daily supplement for peace of mind.

Holland & Barrett do their own vegan multivitamin and mineral supplement that meets the RDA for B12. Veganicity is another brand I use that does the same. Another option is to take a weekly B12 supplement instead, supplying at least 2,000 micrograms. It's no good, though, eating rubbish and attempting to prop yourself up with supplements. Nutrients don't work in isolation; it's the complex interaction between foods that create beneficial effects in the body and allow nutrients to be properly absorbed. Supplements support a healthy diet - they don't replace it.

Carbohydrates

Faddy diets and silly celebs might have told you to avoid it, but carbohydrate is the body's primary energy source, above fat and protein, and an important part of the diet. That's why people who avoid carbs can experience lack of energy and digestive problems from eating too much protein and little fibre; we've not evolved to eat that way. Any diet plan that suggests you drastically reduce or omit important nutrients should be avoided. The prats who come up with this nonsense just want to sell books to a public that doesn't know what to eat anymore. And don't even get me started on the bloody Atkins!

All weight loss diets, no matter what their angle, work by reducing calories (the energy value of food). The key to losing weight is a varied, balanced diet like you'd usually eat, but reducing calorie intake and introducing regular exercise. I lost a lot of weight a few years back and discuss how I did it on my blog, 'Another ex fatty'.

There are three types of carbohydrate: fast releasing, slow releasing, and fibre. Fast releasing carbs (simple sugars) are found in processed foods like fizzy drinks, cakes, and white bread. Refined foods like these will give you a quick energy boost but soon leave you feeling sluggish. If you can't burn this energy it gets stored as fat. Eating lots of fast release carb sources will see your blood sugar levels going bonkers all day, and make you fat. Slow releasing (or complex) carbs release energy slowly, meaning consistent energy levels throughout the day. They're vital for good health and should comprise 55-75% of our diet - easy on a vegan diet. Good sources of complex carbohydrates are wholefoods like oats, wholemeal bread, wholemeal pasta, wholegrain rice, potatoes, beans and lentils.

Fibre helps us to feel full and keeps bowels healthy. Animal foods contain no fibre. There are two types of fibre: insolube, important for a healthy digestive system, and soluble, helps reduce bad cholesterol and keep diseases like colon cancer at bay. Fibre is found in wholefoods so you'll get plenty on a varied vegan diet, typically far more than meat-eaters.

Wholegrain
The term 'wholegrain' refers to foods made from cereal grains that haven't had their bran, endosperm and germ removed. Wholemeal bread is made from whole wheat grains, whereas white bread is made from refined grains, their fibre - the most common victim of processing - and healthy oils lost.
Wholefood
'Wholefood' encompasses wholegrain, but is a broader term referring to foods that haven't been refined or processed. Unprocessed foods contain more nutrients and are much better for you than processed foods.

Fat

We've been made paranoid about fat in this country and encouraged to latch on to 'low fat' labelling as if it's the only attribute that matters when deciding whether something is good to eat. It's clever marketing and a way to get people to buy processed crap they don't need: a low fat ready meal is still a nutritional vacuum and worth sprinting away from. But 'fat' as a blanket term is misleading since there are several types and, despite the confusion and nurtured aversion, we need a little fat in the diet to be healthy.

Saturated fat is the bad stuff that raises the body's level of bad cholesterol - the liver turns fat into cholesterol - and increases heart disease risk. You'll find saturated fat in most animal products. Plant sources are few, but the biggies are coconut oil and palm oil. You don't need to eat saturated fat because the human body can manufacture it, and it's best to limit intake.

Polyunsaturated fatty acids (omega 3 and 6) are the good guys and play various important roles in the body such as strengthening blood vessels and maintaining brain health. The human body can't manufacture these fatty acids so you need to get them from food. That doesn't mean that you need to chomp on oily fish to get your omega 3, though be prepared for absolutely everyone to suggest that you do! Instead eat flaxseed (linseed), walnuts, grains and green leafy vegetables, and use oils made from rapeseed (usually your bog standard and cheap 'vegetable oil' in most supermarkets), flaxseed and hemp (both a bit pricey, but go a long way if used sparingly in salads, dips, bread making and other baking). I use hemp oil to make bread rolls, along with flax, sunflower and pumpkin seeds for a great, daily omega boost. Find omega 6 in fruit, veg, nuts, seeds and grains, and in oils like sunflower and corn.

Olive oil
Olive oil is a monounsaturated fat. The human body can manufacture monounsaturated fat so it's not vital to get it from food, but olive oil has favourable cholesterol regulating effects i.e. it lowers bad cholesterol levels and raises good. It's also a good source of antioxidants, and research shows it's a useful ally in the fight against cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, and arthritis. Like any fat, olive oil is high in calories, but used sparingly is a versatile, healthful ingredient to have in your kitchen. I use it to make hummus, salad dressing and in bread making. I've also found that a mild olive oil works well in cake making.

While I think we've all become a bit paranoid about it, it's absolutely a good idea to be mindful of how much fat you're eating. Fat is energy dense and contains a lot of calories. If you're not using that energy then you'll gain weight. A balanced vegan diet facilitates a healthy fat intake. It's typically lower in saturated fat when compared to a meat eater's and contains an ample supply of the good polyunsaturated stuff. Of course you get fat vegans because cake exists, but it's a lot easier to maintain a sensible waistline on a plant-based diet.

Cholesterol
Cholesterol is vital for good health, but food marketing has programmed us to shudder at the mention of it. The liver makes all the cholesterol we need, so we don't need to eat foods that contain it. Cholesterol is only found in animal foods; plant foods contain none. Fat and cholesterol are different things, but saturated fat and high cholesterol are linked. There are two different kinds of cholesterol: Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or 'bad cholesterol' carries cholesterol to cells that need it, but excess can build up on the artery walls. This leads to arterial narrowing, restricted blood flow, and increased heart disease and stroke risk. High-density lipoprotein (HDL) or 'good cholesterol' does the opposite, carrying cholesterol away from the arteries and back to the liver to be broken down or removed as waste. Keep your cholesterol levels healthy by avoiding saturated fat and eating foods containing good fats. In other words: quit the meat and eat your nuts! Smoking and lack of regular exercise are also significant contributory factors in high cholesterol.

Iodine

Important for metabolism and healthy functioning of the thyroid gland, iodine can be found in plant foods but levels depend on the iodine in the soil used to grow them. As usual, a varied range of foods in the diet is key. Some salt has added iodine but since most of us could do with reducing our salt intake it's best to sprinkle your iodised salt sparingly.

A good source of iodine is seaweed. I use a little dried kelp (kombu) - known for its consistent iodine levels - in bread making, which means I eat a little every day. You don't need much so you won't notice any difference in taste. Or use dried kelp in other cooking, like soups, pie fillings, sauces and stews. Or you could take a supplement that contains iodine or a dedicated kelp tablet.

Selenium

Selenium is important for a healthy immune system and other processes in the body. Again, its richness in plant foods depends on the soil used to grow them, so be sure to eat a varied range of foods. Brazil nuts are the richest source. If you eat muesli or muesli/nut bars you may already eat Brazil nuts regularly (check the ingredients) or just have a handful as a snack a few times per week. Selenium is also sometimes included in supplements.

A little exercise

You don't have to go anywhere near a gym, but us humans were never designed to sit around all day; we were meant to move around. Exercise improves strength, stamina, and flexibility, and strengthens the heart and lungs. Physical activity is also effective in managing depression and anxiety. I run regularly and know how amazing I feel when I'm on top of it and how sluggish and crappy I feel when I miss it for a while. To benefit from exercise you need to do a pulse-raising activity for thirty minutes, three or more times a week.

If the 'e' word scares you beyond all reason try thinking creatively around the need for it: games console fitness programs and dance games, get a bike, play frisbee with the dog, kick the ball around with friends, try alternating the sweatier activities with something slower and more relaxed like yoga or pilates - just do something. Inject additional light exercise into your normal day by walking instead of getting the bus, and taking the stairs instead of using the lift. I found that exercise soon became a habit. It gets its own momentum and I think a healthy body asks for it... that might sound odd but I sometimes feel myself itching for a run on evenings when I may have planned to veg out.

Eating right means you're halfway there but to get the most out of your body and make it as efficient and vibrant as possible, throw a little exercise into your life.

Going vegan and exercising regularly will give your sex drive a boost. I've er... heard <blush>

Conclusion

Just in case you haven't got bored of me saying it: a varied diet is key! A good range of foods means you needn't worry about individual nutrients. Many foods have more than one nutritional characteristic of merit and it's the interplay between different foods that is important. Eating well soon becomes habit and not a constant fret about individual nutrients.

It's in the animal industries' interests to keep us disproportionately concerned over protein and calcium but it's not hard to get what you need from plants, while avoiding the nasty stuff that comes with animal products.

Nutritional advice is meant for general guidance only. I am not a nutritionist or medical professional. I studied nutrition in sixth form college and have a keen interest in the topic. More recently I have hungrily devoured any information about plant-based nutrition that I could get my hands on. I plan to study nutrition again once finances allow. I have been a very healthy vegan for two years and friends regularly ask me for advice on nutrition, diet and weight loss.