So you’ve decided to transition to a vegan diet, or you’re seriously considering it. It’s exciting, it’s empowering. But unless it’s done correctly, or in the right frame of mind, it can also lead you down a path of malnourishment and frustration.
By choosing this lifestyle it means you are committing to your health and what accompanies this is accepting the challenge to become informed about nutrition, your dietary requirements, and re-establishing your relationship with food.
With that in mind, here are 10 things to help you along the way
Everyone has an opinion and boy you can bet your bottom dollar that they are going to want to share them. It can be quite confronting sitting at a dinner table full of people and being put on the spot as to why you are vegan. You have your reasons, and whilst it really isn’t anyone else’s business what those reasons are you will still get asked. So, if it’s an option, don’t bring it up, at least not until you are comfortable with having a discussion about it. We are lucky now that a lot of restaurants offer at least one vegan option, so it is somewhat easier to slip under the radar until you’re ready.
It’s your journey
It’s easy to get caught up in what other people are doing and we are all guilty of it. Whether your choice to go vegan is ethical, environmental or spiritual; it’s your choice. Every small step to you take, and change you make, is contributing greatly to the bigger picture. If you slip up, that’s ok – there is no such thing as the vegan police. As mentioned earlier, going vegan is a pretty major transition so I recommend taking it slow, especially if it is a little overwhelming. You could start by eliminating 1 or two foods at a time until that is comfortable, then remove another. You could also start by consuming vegan based foods at home, and tackle eating out socially down the track, or work on replacing one meal in your day at a time. It’s entirely up to you, and however you get there is a great achievement!
Support your digestion through this transitional time
Going vegan is a huge change and you may find that you are consuming foods that you’ve either never consumed before, or not had much of in the past. Your vegetable consumption is likely to dramatically increase, as you will need to be consuming more food to keep your calories up. And what are vegetables full of? Fibre. Increasing your fibre intake means your bowel movements are going to happen regularly. It is normal to experience bloating and flatulence whilst your gut adjusts to this increased intake. Be mindful not to overdo the same food though, variety is key here. For example, It is easy to rely on tofu in place of where you would normally have had an animal protein, but too much of anything is never a good thing, so try to change it up as often as possible.
Consider digestive enzymes during this transition to support your digestion and ease bloating. Fresh lemon or 1 tsp apple cider vinegar in warm water before and after meals can assist, too. Probiotics are a wonderful thing to reduce inflammation within the gut and support digestion. Rocket is a great bitter green and very supportive in this time and adding a handful of rocket to each meal can dramatically help to reduce bloating. Aromatic spices can assist also, namely cinnamon and ginger as they are great carminatives which work on reducing bloating. Chew your food well, and eat slowly. When our digestion is weak we need to be gentle with it. This transition won’t last forever, but honour where you are at.
Basic Nutrition 101
Try not to fall in to the trap of consuming processed or packaged foods. There’s a lot of crap out there and it’s easy to simply swap out animal protein for vegan meat replacement products. Often these foods are deficient in nutrients, as well as being full of numbers and preservatives. Now more than ever it is important to consume a variety of vegetables, fruit, grains, legumes, nuts and seeds to give you access to as many nutrients as possible. By increasing your vegetable intake, you are increasing your nutrient status, antioxidant status, and promoting healthy bowel movements which, let’s face it, is a win-win situation.
- Nuts, seeds & legumes.
Treat these food groups as your diet blueprint; your daily must-have’s. This is a non-negotiable.
Be mindful of your protein intake
Protein is made up of amino acids which contribute to the growth and repair of muscles, bones and tissue. It plays a role in our immune function and energy production and will help regulate your blood sugar levels and give you a sense of satiety. Ensure you have protein at every meal, and protein rich snacks in between. Protein can be found in; tofu, legumes, nuts & seeds, wholegrains such as brown rice and quinoa, as well as dark leafy greens such as kale. Combining your protein sources ensures you get all your amino acids. You can always supplement with a plant based protein powder, too, which is a great and easy way to bump up your daily protein, especially if you are exercising. You won’t be getting as much protein as you once were when consuming animal products but as long as your intake of foods is of a wide variety, you will be fine. Remember there are vegan body builders out there who kick butt.
Some ideas for snacks:
- sweet potato chips and hummus
- 1-2 dates filled with peanut butter
- brown rice cakes with vegemite and avocado
- sprouted mung beans
- trail mix of activated or raw nuts and seeds
- protein smoothie
Essential fatty acids (the key word being ‘essential’)
Fats are a macronutrient and along with protein and carbohydrates, these are essential for life. Be mindful of your fat intake and make sure you are getting enough. Our brain is mainly comprised of fat, therefore we need adequate levels of good fats for memory and cognition. A layer of fat lines our spinal cord ensuring all messaging throughout the body happens effectively. Fat is essential for the health of our eyes, hair, skin and nails. Healthy fats are also essential for cardiovascular health.
Sources of healthy fats are; avocado, nuts and seeds (hemp and chia are particularly high in omega 3), extra virgin olive oil (uncooked), hemp oil.
Calcium is essential for maintaining bone health. Lucky for you, calcium is high in many foods OTHER than dairy products. Tofu, dark leafy greens, sesame seeds, broccoli, figs, blackstrap molasses are all very high in calcium.
Here is a good tip; sprinkle sesame seeds on everything. Tahini is made from sesame seeds, so making a tahini dressing for salads and veggies is another way to up your calcium intake.
The dirt on B12
Unfortunately, B12 can be somewhat of a tricky nutrient to get enough of. B12 is synthesized by micro-organisms (bacteria) and plants do not contain B12. So how do we get it you might ask? Dirt, that’s how! No, we are not suggesting going outside and eat a handful of dirt, but to simply choose organic or pesticide free veggies, and don’t wash them. Mushrooms are a great source of B12 because of their dirty layer. B12 is a really important nutrient for so many processes within the body and is essential for nervous system function, and deficiency can cause anaemia and nervous system damage.
You can choose foods fortified with B12, however try getting as much as you can from veggies. Have your levels checked regularly to ensure there is no deficiency.
Iron deficiency is a common deficiency whether you are vegan or not. This mineral is essential for the production of haemoglobin, which is responsible for the transfer of oxygen in your blood from the lungs to tissues. It plays a vital role in our immune system and is an important cofactor for the production of our thyroid hormones. It pays to be mindful of getting enough of this nutrient early on.
Iron rich foods; kale, broccoli (and all green vegetables), tomatoes, beetroot, cabbage, mushrooms etc. Also, vitamin C enhances the absorption of iron, so squeeze some lemon on you greens for a bigger hit of iron.
Iodine is essential to make thyroid hormones. These hormones control all metabolic processes and in a simplified way controls how fast our cells work. The amount of iodine found in plants is heavily dependent on how much is found in the soil in which it is grown in. Kelp (seaweed) is a great source of iodine, but the problem with kelp is the iodine content is variable and can sometimes be too high.
Include in your diet a wide variety of organic or pesticide free vegetables, iodized salt, and if you are concerned about your levels, have a regular check up with your doctor or health practitioner.
But most importantly, don’t let all of this information overwhelm you. If you are a little unsure about where to start, it might be in your best interest to seek support and book in and see a naturopath or nutritionist for guidance. There is also an abundance of vegan Facebook groups (with very supportive and informative members) that you can join for meal ideas and any questions you may have.