Whether you’re trying veganuary for a new year health reset, following a plant-based diet full-time, or adding regular vegetarian meals as a ‘flexitarian’, understanding some veggie nutrition basics is essential to maintaining your health & energy.
Gym queen or not, you need protein
Main meals that are simply vegetables and grains won’t do the job – ignore the propaganda that says ‘broccoli contains as much protein as meat’! This is where newly-experimenting vegetarians get the wrong idea that veggie food is unsatisfying, as a dinner lacking protein means you get hungry soon afterwards.
Consider a typical omnivore meal, and replace the meat/fish with veggie protein sources: beans, lentils, tofu, tempeh (plus eggs & dairy for the vegetarians). For example, rather than vegetable curry and rice, add tofu or lentils.
Apply this to every meal, including snacks, and you’ll be fuller for longer and have more energy.
Struggling with beans?
Digesting animal proteins requires different levels of stomach acid, pH, and enzymes to a purely vegetarian diet. So if you switch to fully plant-based meals overnight, you may struggle with indigestion and gas! Take a little time to adjust to your new high fibre diet by introducing beans slowly, and include helpful herbs in your cooking or digestive teas – ginger, rosemary, cinnamon, fennel, peppermint and chamomile.
Minimise ultra-processed foods
Ultra-processed foods include ingredients extracted and modified from real food, such as refined fats, starches, protein isolates, hydrogenated fats, and artificial colours, flavours, stabilisers, emulsifiers. A diet high in UPFs is associated with chronic health problems.
I mention this because if you’re not used to cooking vegetarian food, it’s easy to fall back on meat replacements rather than traditional vegetarian ingredients.
For example, a vegan ‘meat’ that’s made of pure gluten and soy protein isolates, with various binding agents and flavourings is a UPF, whereas tofu is a natural food made from whole soybeans.
Fair enough, enjoy these meat replacements occasionally at BBQs and restaurants, but for daily meals avoid fake meat and cheese alternatives. It’s more fun, more nutritious, and more delicious to experiment with the world’s best traditional vegetarian dishes!
Look to traditionally vegetarian societies’ food: Indian cooking combines beans, lentils and rice with digestive herbs and spices.
Better quality oils
For cooking oils, use extra virgin olive oil and coconut oil primarily. Our modern diets contain a too high omega 6:omega 3 ratio as a result of the use of refined vegetable oils, and this imbalance is pro-inflammatory.
Also ensure you have a daily intake of flax, hemp, chia and their cold pressed oils (not to be used for cooking), as well as nuts. Note that a serving of nuts is a small palmful, not a whole bag.
Supplements are necessary on a pure veggie diet
B12 – always supplement B12 if you’re vegan, even if a blood test shows you currently have sufficient levels. We store this vitamin so you’ll test ok initially, but you really don’t want to get B12 deficient; it’s extremely harmful to your nervous system.
Omega 3s EPA & DHA – in food, these come mainly from fish (also from pasture-fed beef and dairy). They aren’t in plant foods, but you can buy algae EPA-DHA supplements.
Other omega 3s come from flax, hemp, chia, but not EPA & DHA. So eat plenty of seeds, but I also recommend supplementing the algae omega 3s to avoid dry skin and inflammation.
Iron – menstruating women may need a supplement. There’s a lot of iron in vegetarian foods, but their bioavailability isn’t great.
You can use a good multivitamin to cover basics that could be low – choline, zinc, B12, D3. Take iron separately (the amount in a multi will be too low), as well as the EPA & DHA.
I also recommend my Night Support formula as it provides the amino acid L-Taurine, which isn’t available from plant protein.
A no-diet mindset
Dietary labels can become harmful, potentially resulting in control and monitoring being imposed both internally and by outsiders.
I say this from experience, having spent 10 years identifying as a strict vegan from the age of 18. It’s no joke to have others monitor everything you eat (not out of malice, but out of interest or curiosity perhaps) and say ‘you can’t eat that, can you??’ if you feel like actually having a bit of birthday cake at work, or when a restaurant doesn’t have an adequate vegan option.
It can become a similar control mindset to a weight loss diet focussing on avoiding sugar or fat at all costs, or an obsession with clean eating leading to orthorexia.
I believe everyone should be able to choose flexibility in their own self-interest, both physical and mental.
You can eat an amazing range of nutritious, fresh, plant based foods and feel fantastic using my guidelines above. But don’t feel pressured to be 100% rigid in your adherence to it on occasions where that doesn’t serve your own physical or mental health.
About your author
Daisy Connor is a Nutritional Therapist of over 10 years and founder of City Survivor supplements. Daisy’s focus is nutrition and natural health for real life – wellbeing that works for normal, busy people.
You can find out more about Daisy and her business here.
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