Is it possible to follow a balanced and healthy diet if you choose veganism? How can you ensure your body gets an adequate amount of nutrition as many believe meat, poultry and dairy products are necessary for a complete meal? Here’s what you need to know about the vegan diet if you are new to the concept.
Think of a few healthy options for protein and calcium-rich foods. What comes to your mind first? Chicken, fish, eggs, milk? Most of us would relate to this because we have been taught that including them in the diet is the most ideal thing to do. So how to replace them when you choose to restrict your diet in certain ways? Could the replacements be better? Let us have a check in detail.
What is a vegan diet?
Vegans choose to avoid the consumption of all animal products and its derivatives. Meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs and honey are restricted in a vegan diet. Hence, the vegan staples would be whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, seeds and nuts. People choose to go vegan for ethical, environmental and health reasons. Even though a vegan diet is considered a healthier option as compared to eating meat and other non-vegetarian options, failing to include nutritious ingredients and depending on vegan fast-foods and other processed foods may lead to many health risks. More than perceiving the diet as a restriction of products you could consume, a vegan diet should be considered an opportunity to abundantly consume fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains etc. Studies show this diet aids in the betterment of heart health, it helps in weight loss, lowers the risk of cancer, type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure.
Hence, nutritional planning becomes significant when you turn into a vegan. A well-planned vegan diet will ensure a balance in food groups and their intake.
What to eat in a vegan diet?
- Fruits and vegetables: These include fresh fruits and vegetables, especially green leafy vegetables in the diet. About 5 portions of these in a day will ensure your diet is rich in vitamins, minerals, fibre, iron, calcium and antioxidants. Leafy vegetables like kale, spinach, bok, choy etc have high water content as well. As you start adapting to this new diet, it would be fantastic to test a few of your favourite recipes with these fruits and vegetables. Moreover, many ingredients can be replaced as a substitute to give a similar texture and consistency of non-vegan food items. For instance, jackfruit is used as a meat substitute for its texture, avocado and bananas can be used to make the mousse, ice- cream etc.
- Legumes: It is commonly believed a vegan diet is deficient in proteins due to the dietary restrictions. Nevertheless, replacing the animal proteins with lentils, chickpeas and beans make the diet rich in protein and iron. Ideally, you can include this in every meal. If you are not used to consuming legumes regularly, start with lesser portions as it could induce acidity and stomach bloating initially. Also, studies show lectin in legumes and whole grains as an anti-nutrient compound which blocks the absorption of calcium, iron, zinc and phosphorus. Anti-nutrients, as the name suggests, are natural compounds found in food that interfere in the absorption of the complete nutrient in the body. Hence, it is highly advised to have legumes with various other foods in different meals as compared to a larger quantity in one single meal.
- Whole grains: Whole grains like rolled oats, brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth etc are getting popular, especially since more people are turning vegan. They are better sources of fibre, complex carbs and other nutrients as their bran and germ are intact as compared to other processed grains like refined flour. Whole grains are not merely nutritious, but delicious too! Cook them with vegetables, legumes in soups, stews and get creative. They add an interesting texture and flavour to the dish. So bid adieu to the white bread and pasta and give a healthy switch to wholewheat pasta and multigrain bread.
- Dairy alternatives: Dairy products are an important part of most of the cuisine, hence it might not be practical to completely cut them out of your diet. Some of us cannot imagine a life of tea and coffee without milk, right? Fortunately, there are many alternatives available in the market that would meet the nutritional needs as well. Try to go for unsweetened vegan milk, soy or coconut yoghurt etc. However, contrary to what many believe, dairy products are not the only rich source of calcium. Green, leafy vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, soybeans and its by-products, and calcium-fortified foods and drinks are excellent sources of calcium as well.
- Nuts and seeds: As a vegan, consuming nuts, seeds and their by-products daily in your diet are highly beneficial as these are one of the best alternatives to the animal protein. Nuts and nut butter can be used to improve the flavour and texture of many dishes and are an excellent addition to your breakfast. Seeds like chia and flax are also rich in omega-3 fatty acids which are beneficial to the body in many ways.
Consider this before turning vegan…
- Vegans have a risk of developing vitamin B12 deficiency as animal products are the main sources of this vitamin. Hence, it is advised to monitor your Vitamin B12 levels and take supplements if necessary.
- Meal planning is a wonderful way to ensure your body’s nutritional needs are met, also it makes your diet more creative, manageable and less repetitive.
- A vegan diet can be nutrition deficient and unhealthy if you resort to packaged processed foods and fast food options high in sodium content and saturated fats. Hence, it is important to have the proper type of food to stay healthy. It isn’t safe to assume that all vegan products are healthy.
- You will learn many dos and don’ts about the vegan diet online. It is always a great idea to consult a certified nutritionist before making major changes to your diet.
- Any change takes time. Going vegan could be a process for most of us, so don’t stress about achieving your goals overnight. Keeping a food journal would help you through this journey.
In a nutshell, adapting to a new diet by letting go of your eating habits isn’t a cakewalk. You need answers to many mind-boggling questions, and unless you are convinced about the decision completely, following a vegan diet long term gets challenging. So do some personal research and find answers to your questions. More than anything, appreciate this new change in your lifestyle!