Vegan nutrition: A beginner's guide
Many people are concerned that giving up dairy products and eggs will make it much more difficult for them to obtain all the nutrients they need. The good everything the body requires can be found in a vegan diet - from Vitamin A to Zinc, from iron to Vitamin B12. The American Dietetic Association recently reviewed the available literature on vegetarianism and veganism and concluded that a vegan diet is both nutritionally-adequate and can even provide health benefits.
The basic human nutritional requirements are protein, carbohydrates, fibre, vitamins and minerals. A vegan diet will provide them all.
Protein is in practically every kind of food and it's almost impossible to eat less than you need. Vegetarians get their protein from a wide range of foodstuffs, such as soya products (milk, tofu [soya bean curd]), cereals (rice, pasta), pulses (baked beans, chick peas) and nuts and seeds. Simply by eating a normal range of foods, our bodies are getting all the protein needed and that protein doesn’t come laden with saturated fats, as it does when it comes from dairy products.
Just like a vegetarian diet, a vegan diet provides vitamins from fresh fruit and vegetables. Green leafy vegetables such as lettuce and other greens like broccoli and spinach supply Vitamins A, C and K as well as B vitamins. Vitamin E comes from staples like olive oil, tomatoes and nuts while fortified foods (like many soya milks and breakfast cereals) provide Vitamin B12 and Vitamin D. Vitamin B12, which is also found in yeast extracts like Marmite, is especially important for vegans as it is not available directly from plant sources and is vital for health. Some vegans take supplements of B12 but it is easily possible to supply the body’s needs from dietary sources alone.
Essential minerals like iron, magnesium and zinc are available from many, many sources including soya products such as tofu and from the likes of rice, dried apricots and almonds. Vitamin C aids iron absorption and is readily available in a vegan diet. Calcium is found in lots of non-dairy foods including beans, dark green leafy vegetables (eg broccoli, watercress), nuts (especially almonds), seeds (especially sesame) and dried fruits. Calcium is essential for healthy bones and studies looking at the role of cow’s milk and bone fractures have shown that people who derived more calcium from cow’s milk actually had more fractures than those who drank little or no milk. A vegan diet is also rich in fruits and vegetables which contribute to the maintenance of bone mineral density.
As for complex carbohydrates, pasta, cereals and bread supply all we need and fibre comes as standard in a vegan diet.
Vegan nutrition does require a little more thought than being vegetarian but being vegan doesn’t mean becoming obsessive about diet. Vegans, of course, can still eat chocolate, drink wine and heat up convenience food in the microwave just like everybody else – but unless that is all you eat, if you turn vegan you will almost certainly eat a healthier diet.