As plant-based diets have gained popularity, many people find themselves taking the next step and becoming Vegan. Ahead of World Vegan Day on November 1st, we spoke to our Naturopath and Ethnobotanist Jennifer Derham to discuss the benefits and how to avoid the common pit-falls of making the switch.
Whilst all vegans adopt the same basic plant-based eating principles, if not born into an environment where this lifestyle is embodied, the reasons one makes the switch in later life often comes down to a variety of dietary, ethical and environmental based motives that we have deciphered below;
- Original Vegan: Based on the opposition of ‘speciesism’, this branch of veganism, commonly known as ethical veganism is rooted in a philosophy that favours animal rights over all else. Most who adhere to this branch of veganism avoid all animal products, including leather goods and silk.
- Planet Vegan: Rooted in conservation rather than animal rights, this branch of environmental veganism rejects the use of animal products based on the premise that farming, especially factory farming is environmentally unsustainable. a study conducted by the Food and Agriculture Organization stated that livestock production is one of the major causes of the world's most pressing environmental problems, including global warming, land degradation, air and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity.*
- Fridge Vegan: The motivation behind making the switch to veganism for dietary reasons can stem from a number of areas, from disease prevention to allergy alleviation, dietary vegans may still buy and use animal derived non-food products such as leather goods and silk.
Whether you decide to make the switch for animal welfare, environmental conservation or simply due to the nutritional benefits reducing meat intake and upping fruit and veg has on your health, it's good to know there have been a range of studies conducted that favour this eating ethos for its positive effect on both our bodies and the planet.
However the easy road of switching out meat for 'meat substitutes' poses a whole new discussion on the production of soy and corn, often the main constituent of these products. According to Jennifer, soy contains large amounts of phytic acid - a substance that reduces our assimilation of minerals incuding calcium, magneium, copper, iron and zinc: "Containing the highest amount of phytic acid of any grain or legume, phytic acid in soy is not neutralised through soaking, sprouting or even long slow cooking. In addition, soy increases the bodys need for vitamin B12 and vitamin D, contains trypsin inhibitors that interfere with protein digestion, phytoestrogens that can affect and interupt thyroid and endocrine function and causes the release of monosodium glutamate (MSG), a potent neurotoxin formed during soy food processing." Contrary to popular belief soy, particularly tofu, soya milk, soy protein isolate and vegetable textured protein is one of the newest additions to the human diet. Soy was traditionally considered unfit for human consumption until the advent of chemical processing methods and was used to feed livestock. Interestingly, soy has never been given the 'Generally Recognised As Safe Status' (GRAS) by the FDA in the US.
So how can we ensure we're receiving all the nutrients when consuming a purely vegan diet? Below Jennifer has decoded the foods and supplements to include into your day:
- Raw fats: Fat soluble nutrients are essential for brain and nervous system functioning. Fat soluble vitamins, and many nutrients in vegetables such as carotenoids need dietary fat for proper assimilation and to normalise leptins, the lord and master of hormones. Leptin, found in fat cells, influences all other hormones and primarily co-ordinates the endocrine, metabolic and behavourial responses to starvation. It impacts on our behaviour, emotions and cravings! An important source and one of the few sources of saturated fats for vegans is coconut butter or oil. Use for cooking, eat a tablespoon or two daily by adding to foods such as porridges, smoothies, curries and even off the spoon!
- Protein: Vegan diets tend to struggle with protein. Comprised of incomplete protein sources including nuts, seeds, quinoa, brown rice, tempeh, beans, coconut milk etc; it is necessary to combine these correctly to ensure you are getting the full range or amino acids which are critical for repair and maintenance in the body. One trap is to become overly reliant on nuts and seeds for protein and cake making. We were never meant to to eat so many nuts and seeds in one sitting, just think about how long it takes to crack open a nut and consider how many you eat each day - eat what you would have time to crack. Ideally these would then be soaked to 'activate' them and release their nutrients whilst also making them easier to digest. Other sources of proteins such as legumes and beans need to be soaked or sprouted to reduce their phytic acid content, release the nutrients and allow them to be more easily digested. In order to up protein intake use protein powders such as those derived simply from hemp or pea and add to soups, casseroles, smoothies and stews.
- Seaweeds: contain more vitamins, minerals and proteins than any land vegetable. They also contain vitamin B complex (particularly useful for vegetarians and vegans), iodine, antioxidants and many essential amino-acids (proteins) and fatty acids.
- Mushrooms: contain about twice the amount of protein as other vegetables and a powerhouse of nutrients. They also contain a wide range of enzymes including digestive and antioxidant enzymes.
- DHA - marine algae: derived to boost the all important omega 3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are found largely in fish and seafood. Although flaxseed and walnuts contain the omega 3 fatty acids ALA or alpha linolenic acid, you do need to eat a lot of them to obtain any significant amount of omega 3's (flaxseed is best consumed freshly ground or milled to extract the oils). In addition, certain enzymes and nutritional co-factors such as zinc and vitmain B6 are necessary for the conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA which can be a challenge as it has been increasingly found that the body is not always capable of making this conversion. The vegan diet tends to lean more toward an omega 6 overload due to a higher consumption of vegetable oils, nuts and seeds, however, obtaining a balance in the ratio between omega 3 and omega 6 is very important for health and mood.
- B12: plant foods do not contain vitamin B12 in appreciable amounts. B12 is found in much higher amounts in animal and dairy products. Klamath blue green Algae has been shown to be a reliable and adequate source of biologically active B12.
- Iron: Food state iron supplements including co-factors for its absorption such as vitamin C, bioflavonoids and manganese are essential to a vegan diet. Vegan eaters often consume more iron than omnivores however they also consume more anti-nutrients such as phytates which can reduce iron absorption by 50%.
While some of us may not choose to be completely vegan (in which case we advocate the ethos that cites organic, free range and grass fed 'meat as a treat' - try your local farmers market), the arguments for reducing your meat intake and upping your plant food are strong. According to Jennifer, for those following a strict vegan protocol, it is important to ensure adequate protein and beneficial fat requirements are being met and to be wary of becoming largely carbohydrate based which is easily done: "Studies have shown that diets consisting of carbohydrates lead to rapid degeneration and accelerated aging. Food sensitivities and deficiencies and blood sugar dysregulation and imbalance are most prevalent in people with a carbohydrate based diet."
So whether you choose to make the switch to 100% vegan or predominantly plant-based, the key point here is increasing vegetables, buying wisely and incorporating the necessary nutrients and supplements into your every day to ensure your nutritional needs are being met. If you've recently made the switch and would like to find out if your current diet is supplying you with all you need to function optimally, give us a call and book yourself in for a Food Diary Analysis with one of our Nutritional therapists.
Notes on Meat production:
For those tempted to lower their consumption, these statistics make for interesting reading. Last month, cattle slaughtering in the UK alone produced 68 thousand tonnes of beef and veal, 1.8% higher than the previous year; mutton and lamb production equated to 25 thousand tonnes, 1.3% more than the previous year; whilst pig meat production came to a whopping 70 thousand tonnes, 5.7% higher than the previous year***. This clearly demonstrates that demand for meat is on the rise which not only impacts the number of animals reared for human consumption, but includes an increase in the disposal of those animals not of feasible use to industrial agriculture such as male calves and chicks. In addition, due to the elevated demand for grain that feeds factory farmed animals (on average 40-70% of global grain production is used in livestock feed****), the destruction of woodlands and forests to make room for such cultivation is destroying the habitats of innumerable animals and organisms, with habitat destruction presently ranked as the most significant cause of species extinction.*****
*Livestock impact on the environment; Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations; Agriculture & Consumer Protection Department; www.fao.com; 2006
** GCN2 and FGF21 are likely mediators of the protection from cancer, autoimmunity, obesity, and diabetes afforded by vegan diets; McCarty MF; Med Hypotheses. 2014 Sep;83(3):365-71. doi: 10.1016/j.mehy.2014.06.014. Epub 2014 Jun 24.
***Department for Environmental Food & Rural Affairs; United Kingdom Slaughter Statistics; September 2014; www.gov.uk
**** Lundqvist, J., de Fraiture, C., Molden, D., 2008. Saving Water: From Field to Fork – Curbing Losses and Wastage in the Food Chain. SIWI Policy Brief. SIWI.
***** Stuart L.Pimm and Peter Raven. 2000. Biodiversity: Extinction by numbers. Nature 403: 843-845