The lovely Maria Mekhael is back with part 2 of her healthy nutrition guide for vegans. Missed part 1? Then catch up here. Grab a cup of peppermint tea, get cosy and enjoy!
What are the best sources of protein for vegans?
Legumes and pulses are an obvious source of plant protein for vegans (peas, beans, lentils, chickpeas) but you can also get protein from nuts and seeds (almonds, chia, hempseed), and wholegrains (such as quinoa, buckwheat, wholewheat bread), as well as soy and products such as quorn and seitan. There are also lots of great vegan protein powders on the market now such as hemp, pea and rice which can be used to boost your intake in smoothies and baking. Just watch that you are not relying on lots of processed meat substitutes which often contain lots of salt, preservatives and additives at the expense of nutritious plant-based sources.
Vegan proteins can be extremely healthy; the one downside is that many aren’t “complete” protein sources (in that they don’t contain all the different essential amino acids that we can only obtain from food). Whilst many animal proteins contain all 9 essential amino acids (which we can’t make in our bodies), most plant foods tend to have high levels of some but not enough of all to be considered “complete”. It used to be thought that vegans had to combine foods in one meal (i.e. “complementary proteins”) in order to obtain “complete” proteins, (e.g. rice with lentils, beans crackers, pasta and peas), but we now know that this really isn’t necessary. As long as you are eating a range of grains, legumes, pulses and nuts and seeds across the day, you should be fine! Quinoa, soy/edamame, lentils and pinto beans are all vegan-friendly “complete” proteins containing all essential amino acids, so if you’re not already eating these – give them a try!
Is it safe to eat soy products?
Soy is such a controversial topic! And…as with most things in the sphere of nutrition, you’ll find people make very strong arguments for or against it – either as a nutrient-dense, helpful hero for vegans as a useful protein source….or a hormone-disrupting, GMO-ridden, cancer-causing villain!
Personally, I think that (as is common with nutritional science), people tend to cherry-pick quite complex clinical results to support what end up being fairly reductionist arguments. In sacrificing the complexity, we lose sight of what the evidence actually says and this makes this area really confusing for people! In fact, the science behind whether soy is a potential health hero or hazard is fairly contradictory. Some studies have shown it’s phytoestrogenic effect (due to isoflavones in soy that mimic oestrogen) can be very beneficial for hormone balance, particularly for menopausal women. Other research has shown that soy can help lower cholesterol levels, reduce the risk of hormone-related breast cancers and endometrial cancer and of osteoporosis. At the same time, there are some studies which have suggested that soy may be linked to impaired thyroid function, breast cancer risk, and sperm quality in men – but there is no real conclusive evidence to make me think that all vegans should definitely avoid soy.
The key to make sure that you don’t eat too much of it (especially at the expense of including other plant protein) and to watch out for highly refined forms.
Be aware that just like any food, the nutrient value and composition of soy depends greatly on whether it has been processed. Whole soya beans (e.g. roasted & dried as snacks or steamed edamame) can be a rich source of protein and fibre, and fermented soy products like miso, natto and tempeh can help you get dietary protein, vitamin K2 and probiotics.
Just avoid the heavily processed soy nuggets and fake “meats” and don’t overdo it. Buy organic where possible, check food labels and where you see ingredient lists containing “hydrolysed soy protein, textured vegetable protein, soy isoflavones, or soy protein isolate”…step away!
Do vegans need to worry about calories? There’s mixed information out there…
I agree…unfortunately, not only is there mixed information, there is a lot of misinformation, which makes it even harder for vegans to identify myths and truths.
As when you’re an omnivore, it is obviously possible to both eat too much and eat too little on a vegan diet. There’s a huge range of foods with varying calorie/nutrient density that are vegan…you could be eating white bread and margarine, white pasta with vegan cheese, chocolate and sweets, biscuits and chips all day and take in too many ‘empty’ calories, sugars, and saturated/hydrogenated fats. Or you could be eating an unnecessarily restrictive plant-based diet which excludes soy, grains and other lectin-containing foods (e.g. beans) and be consuming too little for health and weight maintenance.
One thing that I think has contributed to the confusing discourse in the press and on social media is the confusion of “vegan” with “plant-based.” I’m sure people reading this will agree that these are not the same thing…the former describes a socio-ethical lifestyle choice that encompasses diet and moral perspective, whereas the latter describes a certain diet based on whole, natural-state plant foods which eschews animal foods and their derivatives as well as highly-processed foods. Although different, the whole debate around (and backlash against) “clean-eating” has once again thrown the spotlight on the fact that what works for one person is not necessarily right for everyone.
If you are eating a lot of vegan “junk food” and too many refined carbs and sugar….you may well need to rebalance your intake – not necessarily counting calories, but consciously trying to incorporate more veg, pulses, legumes and wholegrains. Equally, some plant-based bloggers often post meals very high in fats (nuts, nut butters, oils, coconut oil, avocado), and energy dense desserts and snacks, which often contain quite a lot of calories. I’m not one for counting calories…but at the same time, just because something is made with plant-based wholefoods, it doesn’t necessarily mean you can eat as much as you want and disregard portion sizes…. if you eat a whole vegan cake made with nut flours, coconut oil, maple syrup and dates – you may be taking in more calories than you are expending which could lead to weight gain. Also, I find it’s common for people to eat too many nuts when they go vegan…nut flours, nut butters, nuts as snacks, nuts in smoothies….you get the picture. I love nuts and seeds and they have lots of beneficial health promoting properties, but they are also calorie dense and easy to overeat.
The one thing I would say is to remember that everybody is biochemically unique. What works well for one famous vegan diet guru may not be right for you! Depending on your age, activity level, individual metabolism, genetics and lots of other things (medical conditions, pregnancy), you may have different nutritional needs from other vegan friends. This means some people may be more prone to nutritional deficiencies and certain conditions, e.g. hypothyroidism (eating too little iodine), anemia (too little iron), or digestive issues from suddenly adding in lots of fibre and pulses. The key is to listen to your body. If you find yourself struggling with your diet or with certain symptoms, speak to your doctor and to a qualified nutritionist or dietitian who can help work with you and tweak your diet to support overall health.
What’s the best vegan-friendly diet for weight loss?
I would say a whole-food, plant-based diet with sensible portion sizes! It’s so basic, and so obvious – but anything in excess can be problematic, even if it’s plant-based. It’s far easier than people realize to think “oh, this is a healthy fat, I can have 6 tablespoons throughout the day” or to eat an entire bag of nuts, or extra portions of something because it’s made with “healthy” ingredients (the ‘health halo’ effect).
But, if you eat a balanced vegan diet based around sensible portions of wholegrains (including brown rice, quinoa, spelt, oats, buckwheat, rye), a range of vegetables and fruit, legumes and beans, some nuts, seeds, and vegetable fats/oils, as well as a variety of plant-based dairy alternatives (mylks, cheeses & yoghurt) and some fermented vegetables and soy products – this is far healthier than relying on vegan-friendly calorie counted ready meals and cereal bars – or trying to do a weird super-restrictive low-calorie or low-carb diet!