I was thrilled to see such statistics released for two reasons: 1. They called it a lifestyle, and not a trend as many refer to veganism as, and 2. It shows humans are becoming more conscious and starting to care about other living creatures.
Those are truly the sort of statistics I want to see on a daily basis but, in my mission as a vegan coach, I feel the need to keep on educating people about the difference between veganism and healthy veganism.
Naturally, people feel that a vegan diet is healthier… well…isn’t it? I always made that natural association between health and veganism too before I became vegan. Mostly as I always cherished the concept of a healthy diet anyway (though we can argue that actually eating chicken is not healthy – pre-vegan me thought it was)
But as I soon found out in: forums, social media, and trade shows, veganism is not a natural associate of health. It should be, but the food industry caught up on the statistics too, and the creation of products that are cruelty-free increased hugely in the last five years.
There is a huge selection if vegan biscuits, ice creams, “wonder” breads, sauces, meat-like products etc… that give people so many options to become vegans and not miss their “favorite” meals. But this is not veganism. Most companies creating vegan products are in fact not vegan, and vegan products are an add-on to their market share (Ben&Jerry and Nabisco, makers of Oreos, come to mind). Also products made in factories are never going to be good for the environment and to me, vegans’ care about all life, including our planet’s.
These products are bridges and they are part of the “fun part of town” as Joe Cross once said in an interview, but they are processed; they are junk.
When considering any diet, the first concept to align to, is health. The body needs nutrients and nourishment to be healthy and live a disease free life. Just because a product does not contain animals, it doesn’t mean it has the nutrients we need.
Sugar is vegan and yet it is a poison. White sugar has been compared to cocaine in the way it affects the brain, so no matter what, it is not something you want to have on a daily basis.
As Dr. Joel Fuhrman M.D. says, we need to become “Nutritarians”. I agree. I feel very strongly that a nutritionally sound vegan diet will make us healthy and happy! If your body gets all its nutrients, our DNA, cells, organs will be stronger and we will be much more in balance as beings.
Micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) and macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein and fats), are the key to health!
First and foremost, to get nutrients, we need wholesome foods; foods that come from nature and have not been tampered with. Of course, some products, like oats, are “processed”, in the sense that they have been milled and prepared for us. But that is only because in their original form they could not be consumed. It is easy to understand the difference between foods that have been prepared vs. processed, with a lot of added junk that make a product become a “frankenfood”. This is where we need to be careful.
So go back to nature for your answers. Buy foods that look like they are meant to (an apple is an apple) and have no labels with a list of ingredients. One ingredient is all you need and then by adding single ingredients together, naturally, you create meals.
Once you go back to basics, you just need to know how to be a healthy vegan by understanding what you need to eat to get your nutrients and make sure you balance them all out. There are things in a vegan diet that we struggle with, like vitamin B12, but it can be subsidized as needed and we will dive into this just now.
Before getting into the micronutrients to mostly pay attention to, I would like to share a little reflection on children on vegan diets. The media lately has tried to crucify parents who want their children to live a cruelty free life, almost making it sound cruel to deny them “the pleasure of the flesh” of other living beings.
Although I will not go into the psychology behind this, my opinion is that a kind diet for kids is not a bad choice, as long as done with mindfulness. By that I mean: kids need more support than adults as they are growing and forming every single part of their little beings so they need to get all the nutrients they need. A healthy and wholesome diet is a must for them.
For parents who are unsure, there is a lot of literature that can keep you informed. My suggestion is to also work with your physician/GP to make sure your child is growing healthily and if you can get access to a nutritionist (who is not biased by the industry) speak to them too and try and educate yourself as much as you can so your child can be the healthiest version of himself. To get started the PCRM is a great place to read about vegan diets.
I really urge parents to make that effort so we can avoid statements like the one made by that Italian MP who wants to punish parents if they choose a kind lifestyle for their kids.
In my opinion, the system should support healthy lifestyle choices by providing families nutritionists, but let’s face it, the system doesn’t want us to be educated and healthy, or who will be on medication and support big pharma? Yes, I said it and I believe it! But this is a subject for another article and that I cover in my book, The Live Lean Health Plan.
Now that we have the basics covered, we need to just pay attention to a few nutrients, which can slip under the radar and can cause problems if missing. Not that these are specifically lacking in vegan diets (any unhealthy diets would cause deficiencies) but for us vegans to show that we can be healthy and fit, those are good ones to pay attention to:
Omega 3 fatty acids
Those essential (the body does not produce them naturally) oils can be obtained from plant-based sources. The best are flaxseeds, chia seeds and walnuts. The body has to convert these to DHA and EPA to get the benefits of the fatty acids and fortunately vegans seem to be more efficient at this conversion than meat eaters. For pregnant women and children, EPA/DHA supplements are recommended and a great source of those are algae.
Bacteria produce Vitamin B12 and unless you eat meat or soil by not washing your vegetables, we as vegans. Struggle with it. Although we produce some in our intestines, we do so quite late in our digestive process, meaning we lose it through our waste. A good supplement is recommended. I was advised to use a “spray” B12 supplement. Also, a lot of vegan foods are fortified with B12. Of course most fortified foods are processed but there are exceptions, such as nutritional yeast, that also come with added B12 and it is so good for us!
Technically Vitamin A is also only available from animal sources. Thankfully, our bodies convert beta-carotene into Vitamin A. It is key to eat beta-carotene rich foods and most bright vegetable and fruit like carrots or bell peppers contain a great amount!
Vitamin C / Iron and Zinc
Vitamin C is quite rich in a vegan diet, if the diet is wholesome, and this is a huge pro as vitamin C helps absorb iron. Most people, whether they are vegans or omnivores struggle with iron deficiency so it is quite key to try and have iron rich food with vitamin C rich foods! Vitamin C also helps absorb zinc and this is a nutrient that is so vital for our health as it boosts the immune system and benefits the skin. I was deficient in zinc when I was eating meat, but even with zinc being less bioavailable in a vegan diet, I seem to be doing better with its absorption. Good sources of zinc are legumes, nuts and seeds (roasted mostly) , oatmeal, butternut squash (roasted) are great ways to get zinc.
Like me, you may have grown up hearing that without milk your bones would crumble, as you would not get enough calcium (and btw: calcium is not the only mineral making up your bones). Another example of “industry” lies! In fact, dairy is not the best way to get calcium. Nature offers amazing alternatives like: dried, figs, tahini, nuts and seeds and leafy green vegetables. Spinach is a little selfish in sharing calcium but the rest are generously giving us good amounts.
Whether you are vegan or not, Vitamin D is an issue for most people. If you don’t live in a sunny country, then a supplement is advisable! If you can however spend 15 to 30 minutes in the sun each day and allow your body to make some, then do so! And hey, you need to allow your skin to be kissed by the sun as clothing and sunscreen block the process! I am obviously not promoting careless sun exposure, but a short amount of time each day is so beneficial!
Your gut’s health is very important and that is no secret. Most people, however, whether vegans or omnivores, struggle with their digestive system. Caring for our colon and restoring a healthy flora is key to health. Mostly as the absorption of our nutrients happens in the gut. I suggest starting with a good dose of probiotics daily, and eating probiotics rich foods such as Sauerkraut, coconut kefir, un-pasturized apple cider vinegar etc… A wholesome diet, rich in real food, is also very beneficial to keeping your gut healthy too as good bacteria thrive on food! The bad ones love sugar and junk! Another practice i add in people’s regime, for a healthy gut, is de-worming using bentonite clay. We all have parasites, whether we like it or not, and so maintaining a good cleanse regime to get rid of them, is essential.
If you eat a healthy, wholesome, mostly organic (check the clean 15 and dirty dozens) vegan diet, you will have all nature can offer and not be deficient in anything. The micronutrients mentioned above are the ones most vegans are worried about but as you can see, if you pay attention, you will find it is easy to be a healthy and happy vegan!