Vitamin A - Zinc!
Protein is made up of substances called amino acids and most plant foods contain some but not all of them. By eating a range of foods, however, you get all the different essential amino acids necessary to make up ‘complete’ protein.
A vegan diet, rich in a variety of plant foods, provides all the high quality vegetable protein necessary, which is needed for the body’s growth and repair but also for protection against infection. Good sources are pulses (peas, beans, lentils, peanuts and soya products), the whole range of nuts (Brazils, hazelnuts, almonds and cashews etc), and seeds (sunflower, pumpkin, sesame and so on), wholegrain foods (brown rice, wholewheat bread and pasta, oatmeal, barley, millet, buckwheat) and vegetables.
Tofu and soya products are different to other plant foods as they provide all the essential amino acids in one food. Unlike vegetable protein, animal protein from meat, eggs, dairy foods and fish can increase the risk of osteoporosis and some cancers.
Carbohydrates include sugars, fibre and starch and are the most important source of energy - how much depending on how processed they are. Wholegrains include all the grain - bran, germ and endosperm - whereas refined grains are effectively stripped of their nutrients and are made up solely of endosperm.
Refined foods such as sweets, syrups, table sugar, white rice, white bread and white pasta provide fast-releasing carbohydrates which lack fibre, vitamins and minerals. Wholegrain brown rice, oatmeal, wheat, buckwheat, millet, quinoa, corn meal and rye contain superior, complex carbohydrates which release their energy slowly and contain fibre, vitamins and minerals.
The World Health Organisation recommends that 55-75 per cent of our calories should come from slow-releasing carbohydrates – that’s how vital to good health they are. Meat eaters often go short of these vital nutrients whilst vegetarians and vegans tend to eat plenty.
Fibre - dietary fibre - is the indigestible part of vegetable foods and is essential for the digestive system to work properly. It acts like a broom, sweeping away toxins and helping to prevent diseases such as colon cancer.
The American Cancer Society says that regularly eating red and processed meats increases your chances of colon cancer by between 30 and 40 per cent! In the UK it is the third most common cancer in men, and the second most common cancer in women. The complete absence of fibre from meat plays an important part. A vegan diet rich in carbohydrates from plant foods contains plenty of fibre and the more unrefined they are the more fibre, vitamins and minerals they contain, making them the healthiest possible choice. Avoidance of meat itself is also vital. Red meat forms N-nitrosocompounds which cause genetic mutations in the large bowel (Cancer Research 2006).
There are two types of fat: saturated ‘bad’ fat and unsaturated ‘good’ fat. We don’t need saturated fat at all and yet it is in a vast range of foods, increasing the risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other serious health problems. We do need some unsaturated fats, particularly those called essential fatty acids - omega-3 and omega-6.
Scientific research suggests that omega-3 fatty acids can help keep your heart healthy. Vegans obtain their omega-3 from nuts, seeds and green leafy vegetables and by adding 1–2 tsp of flax seed oil to their food each day. Flax seed oil is on sale in many natural food and grocery stores and should be kept refrigerated and not used for cooking as heat destroys the omega-3 oils.
Foods often referred to as high fat such as nuts and seeds and their butters (eg almond butter, Brazil nut butter, peanut butter), avocados and small amounts of organic vegetable oils, especially canola (rape) and virgin olive, all go to make up a healthy diet.
Veggie vitamins for va va voom!:
Vegetarians and vegans get plenty of vitamin A from foods containing beta-carotene which our bodies convert to vitamin A. It is found in green vegetables such as spinach, kale, broccoli and watercress, as well as red and orange vegetables such as carrots, yams and sweet potatoes. Vitamin A has antioxidant properties and so protects against many diseases including cancers and heart disease. It is needed for many things eg healthy vision, cells to reproduce, our nerves to form and function, reproduction and for our immune system.
B Group Vitamins
The B group vitamins help us obtain energy from the food we eat. Essential for normal growth and development, they help keep the heart, nervous and digestive systems functioning properly. They are essential for a healthy liver. Good sources include green leafy vegetables, nuts, peas, beans, lentils, whole grain products, mushrooms and savoury yeast flakes, which most health food stores stock. An increasing number of breakfast cereals are fortified with B vitamins.
Vitamins B6, B12 and folic acid (folate) deserve a special mention as they play a crucial role in controlling levels of an amino acid called homocysteine, which can cause serious health problems at high levels. Folate and B6 are found in savory yeast flakes, green leafy vegetables, pulses, wholegrains, nuts and fortified breakfast cereals. Vitamin B12 is found in fortified foods, including savoury yeast flakes, soya milks, breakfast cereals and margarines (it will be listed on the Ingredients).
Vitamin C is an important antioxidant that helps protect against many diseases. It is needed to form collagen to hold our cells together and for healthy teeth, gums and blood vessels; it improves iron absorption and helps us resist infections. As with most other vitamins, vegetarians and vegans tend to get more vitamin C than meat-eaters simply because they eat more plant foods which are the sources. Particularly rich in vitamin C are green vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, green bell peppers, collard greens) and fresh fruit (oranges, lemons, grapefruit, kiwis, blackcurrants, strawberries) but vitamin C is also present in many other fruits and vegetables.
This important vitamin helps us absorb calcium, crucial for healthy bones and teeth. Vitamin D can be made in the skin (synthesised) in response to sunlight’s UV rays and for most light-skinned adults, exposing their hands and face to sunlight for 10-15 minutes, two to three times a week will provide enough. Elderly people may need up to four times this exposure and dark-skinned people six times if sunshine is their only source of vitamin D. Above the 42nd latitude, which runs through Denver, Indianapolis and Philadelphia, vitamin D is not made this way during winter.
Vegans who don’t get much exposure to sunlight need to supplement with vitamin D, especially during the winter or cloudy months. Good dietary sources include fortified soya, almond or rice milks, breakfast cereals and margarines.
Along with vitamins A and C, vitamin E is an important antioxidant involved in fighting off disease and blood clotting. Good sources include vegetables oils, whole grains, nuts, seeds and avocados.
Iron is vital for healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen to all parts of the body. Everyone should ensure a good supply of iron in their diet and women in particular, who lose iron each month during menstruation. The world’s leading health advisory bodies agree that vegetarians are no more likely to suffer from iron-deficiency anaemia than meat eaters and some research shows that vegans have the highest intake of iron of anyone.
Good sources include pulses, wholegrain products, molasses, green leafy vegetables, dried fruit, particularly apricots and figs, cocoa and pumpkin seeds. Vitamin C increases your absorption of iron (by four times) and is another reason why fresh vegetables and fruit are so important.
Calcium is vital for healthy bones, teeth and for good muscle function and there is virtually none in meat. Even though cow’s milk contains calcium it also contains animal protein and animal protein from meat, dairy, fish and eggs can actually lead to calcium being lost from the bones. This is because they cause acidity in our blood and calcium is pulled out of our bones to neutralize this effect, weakening them and increasing the risk of the debilitating disease osteoporosis, where the bones become brittle and break easily.
It’s one important reason why getting your calcium from plant foods rather than dairy foods is healthier - dark green leafy vegetables, pulses, dried fruits, root veg (parsnips, swede, turnips), olives, some fruits eg dried figs and nuts and seeds, particularly almonds and sesame seeds (try tahini - sesame seed paste – used in hummus). The calcium in most green leafy vegetables such as kale, broccoli and collard greens is easily absorbed as is the calcium in fortified soya milk. Spinach, Swiss chard, and beet greens, on the other hand, contain a substance called oxalate which reduces absorption.
Many soya milks are fortified with calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12 and many orange juices also have calcium added (listed on the label).
This mineral is present in all tissues, including bone, and helps to release energy from food, assists bone and tooth formation and muscle function. It is found in chlorophyll (the green pigment in plants), and so it follows that green leafy vegetables contain plenty. Grains and nuts are also a rich source and so eating a variety of foods, including at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day and plenty of whole grains, ensures you get all you need.
Iodine is needed for metabolism and thyroid function but too much can have the opposite effect and disrupt thyroid function. In the US, iodised salt is widely available and some green leafy vegetables contain it, how much depending upon how much iodine was present in the soil where they were grown.
Sea vegetables can also contain iodine but again the quantity can be variable so it’s best to use seaweeds that are known to have a fairly consistent content, such as kelp (kombu) or hijiki. Adding small amounts of powdered or crumbled seaweed to soups and stews is a great way to get the iodine you need. Some products such as Vecon Vegetable Stock contain kelp (and so iodine); or, if concerned, you can buy kelp tablets from health stores.
This essential element is a vital component of all body cells which, along with calcium, is needed for strong bones and teeth and muscle function. Deficiency is rare as phosphate is plentiful in all plant foods.
Potassium is vital for maintaining fluid balance in the body. It’s needed in many ways eg for muscle and nerve cell function, to produce energy, regulate blood pressure, maintaining proper calcium balance, keeping bones strong and for minimising the pressure-raising effects of a high sodium intake.
It is found in many plant foods, especially root vegetables and wholegrain cereals. Other good sources include orange juice, bananas, avocados and apricots.
Zinc is involved in a range of important functions including metabolism, wound healing and maintaining a healthy immune system. Good sources include legumes, savory yeast flakes, nuts, seeds and wholegrain cereals. Pumpkin seeds provide an excellent source.
A mineral important for red blood cell and liver function, it also acts as an antioxidant. Good sources include nuts, especially Brazil nuts, wholegrain foods (eg wholewheat bread, oats, brown rice), garlic and vegetables. Like iodine, selenium content in foods depends upon how much was in the soil where they were grown.
So, now you know what you need and all that’s left is to tell you just how much your body and mind will benefit from switching from meat and dairy to a healthy vegetarian or vegan diet.