Increasing numbers of people are cutting down on or cutting out meat and dairy products from their diet for a mix of environmental, ethical and health reasons. A plant-based diet can be one of the healthiest, but only if done right. And with the plethora of vegan junk foods now tempting us wherever we look, it’s getting harder for us vegans to stick to a healthy regime. Whether you are considering going vegan for the first time, been vegan for years, or just looking to increase the number of plant-based meals in your life, read on for my top tips on making your meat-free diet a balanced one.
Choose naturally vegan foods. Vegan meat and dairy alternatives are usually heavily processed. Use beans, lentils, chickpeas or tofu in place of meat; and try to simply go without cheese, the addiction will pass. Hummus could be a good option if you are craving a savoury taste and nutritional yeast flakes can provide a nutty, cheesy flavour when added to cooking. Try combining the latter with ground flaxseed (50:50) to sprinkle on meals as a nutritious alternative to Parmesan. Avoid processed margarines and instead try drizzling olive or flax seed oil on bread and use coconut oil in cooking.
Cook your own food. Vegan ready-meals and pizzas are commonplace now. But readymade foods are generally high in salt, sugar, trans fats and preservatives and have less vitamins and minerals than food cooked from fresh. If you are limited on time, batch cook a big pot of bean chilli or lentil stew once a week and put portions in the freezer. Have fun experimenting with vegan ingredients that you may not have tried before. There are loads of vegan recipe books out there (my favourite is Oh She Glows) as well as lots of online recipes (including on my blog!), there’s probably hundreds of recipes for the vegan version of your favourite dish, Google is your friend!
Eat ethnic foods. Traditional British food may not always be very vegan-friendly but lots of other cuisines around the world are and can provide healthy plant-based options. Think lentil dahl and chickpea curry from India, falafel and hummus from the Middle East, and tofu-based dishes from East Asia.
Be prepared with healthy snacks. While it is great that more and more places are catering for vegans, vegan cakes and cookies are not beneficial to our health! If you do need a snack between meals, choose a healthy alternative such as a piece of fruit with a handful of nuts or an oatcake or vegetable sticks with some hummus.
Be mindful of simple carbs. Many vegans over-rely on carbohydrates like bread and potatoes as the basis for meat-free meals. These release sugar into the blood stream quickly, spiking blood sugar. This causes insulin to be released, putting our bodies into fat-storage mode. Opt for slow-release carbs like sweet potato or root vegetables in place of white potato and whole-wheat sourdough or rye bread in place of white bread. Wholegrains like brown rice, buckwheat, oats or quinoa are a better option than white rice and will also provide a valuable source of protein and vitamins for vegans. Around a quarter of your plate should be your carbohydrate element of a meal.
Eat your veggies. Aim for 7-8 portions of vegetables daily with 1-2 pieces of fresh fruit. They are full of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals beneficial to health, as well as being low in calorie and high in fibre. Try to ensure around half of your lunch and dinner plate is made up of veggies, plus a portion of fruit or veg with breakfast and snacks too. Aim for as many different colours as you can: they all contain different nutrients which benefit our health in different ways.
Don’t skimp on protein. If you have been a vegan for a while you will be familiar with the old joke ‘but where do you get your protein?!’ While, as any vegan will tell you, protein is found in most plant foods and protein deficiency is rare in the Western world, it is nevertheless important to ensure optimal levels. A junk food diet based on, for example, chips, bread and noodles could result in sub-optimal levels, leading to health issues and low energy. Good vegan protein sources include nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, chickpeas, tofu, quinoa, hummus and tahini. Ensure all your meals including breakfast each contain at least a handful of one of these good protein sources and aim for 0.8-1g of protein daily per kg of body weight. Adequate protein will also help you feel full for longer, reducing the temptation to snack.
Get enough micronutrients. There are some nutrients that are more difficult to get through a vegan diet. Vitamin b12 is the most important one to be mindful of since it only comes from animal products, a supplement will help keep you topped up. Ground flax and chia seeds will help you get omega 3, seaweed is a great source of iodine, pumpkin seeds are good for zinc and calcium is available in green leafy vegetables, tofu and tahini. Supplements are again an option.
Further advice. If you would like further advice on how to optimise your diet or to find out what supplements may be best for you, contact me to arrange a one-to-one consultation. I am a registered Nutritional Therapist and have been a vegan myself for 5 years. Discounted supplements available for all clients.