Veronika Powell from Viva!Health reveals not just what you can eat, but what you should be eating.
No two vegans eat the same foods – we all have different diets, preferences and tastes. But there are certain guidelines that we should not ignore.
We all know someone who claims their diet is ‘the’ diet and that we should all follow their rules. As soon as you hear this, beware, because our bodies are as different as our needs and so no one diet is the absolute best for everyone. Variety and flexibility are the keys to a healthy vegan diet and good longterm health.
Within the guidelines below, there’s a lot of wiggle room for you to find what suits you best. There are various self-limiting versions of vegan diets – raw, paleo, macrobiotic etc – which many people try and fail, without actually trying a more balanced and sustainable diet of plant foods. That’s not to say, for example, that a raw vegan diet is not healthy, it just isn’t for everyone.
WHAT TO EAT, WHY AND HOW
Fruit and vegetables
Aim for at least eight portions a day. This may seem like a lot, but it’s just a matter of getting into the habit. Have some fruit or vegetables with your breakfast, lunch and dinner and that’s already three to six servings. Have some fresh or dried fruit as snacks, as a part of a dessert or blend them into a smoothie, soup or sauce and you get to eight portions in no time.
Fruit and vegetables are the most natural foods for us – we need them for energy, fibre, vitamins and minerals, antioxidants and some health-protective natural compounds. They all also contain small amounts of protein, especially those with seeds. Try to have at least one portion of cruciferous vegetables a day (kale, broccoli, cabbage, rocket, watercress, radishes), because those provide some powerful anti-cancer phytochemicals.
Fresh is best, but frozen come a close second. If you can buy local and organic, even better, but it’s not a must. As a rule of thumb, produce that has a thin skin will absorb more chemicals so is best bought organic. Fruit and veg with a thick skin or outer layers that you normally peel are fine to buy non-organic.
When it comes to cooking, aim for a short cooking time so veg doesn’t become mushy – and steam rather than boil. Stir-frying is also good and so is combining fresh vegetables with cooked, for example in a salad. Avoid tinned fruit and veg (apart from pulses) as these have only a fraction of the original nutritional value.
Beans, lentils, chickpeas, peas and soya – they are all very nutritious and provide protein, healthy carbohydrates for energy, fibre, many important minerals, vitamins and healthy fats. Make them a part of your routine, whether in traditional ways, such as beans on toast, soups, curries, chillies, falafels, houmous or bean burger; or more adventurous ways, for example blending them into a thick sauce for pasta, your own spreads or dips, or tossing them in with a salad. You can use flours made from pulses for baking, frittatas and pancakes. Beans, chickpeas and lentils lose little nutritional value in the canning process, so it’s fine to buy them tinned. Peas are pulses but more delicate, so are best cooked only briefly, from frozen. Soya beans – edamame – and products made from them, such as tofu, tempeh and mock meats, are now widely available frozen or chilled, so are a very convenient source of nutrition.
Nuts and seeds
Wholegrains are not just grains, such as oats, brown rice, barley or quinoa, but also products made from them – wholemeal bread, wholewheat pasta, buckwheat noodles, rice cakes or crispbread. They’re great sources of long-lasting energy, fibre, protein, some B vitamins and minerals.
Word of caution – just because it’s brown, doesn’t mean it’s wholegrain, so read the ingredients! If you simply love white bread, rice or pasta, try to alternate between the two or mix white and wholegrain versions together.
Omega-3 fats are essential and deserve special attention, because we don’t automatically get enough. For a good daily dose, sprinkle a spoonful of ground flaxseed, hemp seed or whole chia seeds on your cereal or include in a smoothie. Grab a few walnuts as a snack and use cold-pressed rapeseed oil for cooking and baking. You can also buy an omega-3 supplement made from algae, but with a good diet, it’s not necessary.
A reliable source of B12 is a must – fortified foods, such as plant milks, yoghurts, nutritional yeast or a supplement. If you’re over 50, it’s recommended you take a supplement, and that applies to everyone whatever their diet – vegans, vegetarians and ardent meat-eaters. You may not get enough from foods alone.
In Northern climates, everyone needs a little help from vitamin D in the form of a supplement from October to April (vegan or not). Your skin makes vitamin D when exposed to sunlight, but in winter, there’s simply not enough of it. If you always protect your skin from the sun or are housebound, you may need a supplement all year long.
We need a little bit of iodine for our thyroid to function well. It’s found in plant foods in varying levels, depending on the iodine levels in the soil where they grew, but seaweed is always a good source as it absorbs iodine from seawater. Kelp (kombu) can contain too much, so use only sparingly, but do enjoy vegan sushi wrapped in nori sheets, use nori sprinkles on savoury dishes or have miso soup. Aim to have seaweed a couple of times a week or you can get iodised salt. Alternatively, a kelp supplement is also a good solution, because in this form you can be certain of the quantity you’re taking – plus it’s cheap and reliable!
Not just sweet treats but also vegan junk foods, crisps, biscuits, ice cream, vegan cheese and so on – they can all be a part of a healthy diet as long as you have them in small amounts – a ‘treat’ in the true sense of the word.
The Vegan Eatwell Plate
The Vegan Eatwell Plate shows you how to be a healthy vegan, but it’s not an exact science. If you feel something doesn’t agree with you, avoid eating it for a few days and then try again – if you get the same reaction, then rule it out of your diet. With more serious health issues though, it’s always best to consult a medical professional rather than rely on self-diagnosis.
A wholesome, varied, vegan diet is the best there is and you don’t need to ‘detox’ or do juice fasts and similar, potentially dangerous, experiments. Being a healthy vegan makes you the best advocate for veganism, so find whatever suits you best, look after yourself and you’ll be a glowing vegan ambassador!
Veronika Powell MSc, Viva!Health
Viva!Health is part of vegan charity Viva! It monitors scientific research linking diet to health and provides accurate information on which to make informed choices about the food you eat. www.vivahealth.org.uk