I am officially on day 7 of my 14 day stint in London and these three things are true:
- I’ve gotten a fraction of what I’d have liked done in terms of work;
- It’s been profoundly emotive and emotional;
- I’ve been solidifying all sorts of theories I had about why me and London weren’t best mates when I called it home.
I won’t bore you with the details of any of these…just thought you might like to know. What I will do, however, is preach a little bit about proper vegan nutrition – something I’ve only recently wrapped my head around and something too few people – from die-hard omnivores to sworn vegans – properly appreciate.
Anybody who knows me (or reads me) knows that I’m not too keen on preaching about being vegan. It’s something that’s very dear to me in terms of my life decisions, but I’m also well aware that people don’t like being told what to eat or how to eat it, and ranting about it is about as likely to get someone on one’s side as beating them over the head with a butternut squash.
What I’m struggling increasingly to keep quiet about is how vegans too often eat because:
- They personally don’t understand how important nutrition is;
- They trip over themselves incessantly in an effort to appease omnivores; or
- They fall victim to a lack of available foodstuffs that can keep them healthy.
Being vegan is not rocket science. I have found time and again that the basic menus of many agricultural, indigenous groups lean toward vegan, particularly where meat is scarce and pricey. But sometimes being spoilt for choice isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. London, for example, is one of the most vegan-friendly places in the world. Le Puy-en-Velay is arguably on the other end of the spectrum. And yet I’ve been eating better in France than I have at perhaps any point in my life.
I have done the poor eating thing. As a young person I was blessed with that limitless energy with which so many young people are blessed, and I could go ages without a nutritious plate of food. Many, many times a bag of chips or peanuts comprised a meal for me. I suppose I knew it wasn’t good for me, but then I was a smoker who slept about 3 hours per night on average, so health wasn’t top of my list. Bad eating habits are the norm for the 16-25 group. But we get a bit older and realize that ain’t gonna cut it anymore. This applies to every person eating any diet at all. Wholesome eating takes time and energy (and is not necessarily expensive, but that’s another post entirely) – two things young people are likely to reserve for almost anything before preparing a meal.
Putting all this aside, as well as any and all judgement, the bottom line is this: a nutritious vegan diet is not something we are accustomed to accommodating – for ourselves or for anyone else – and it can be tricky to make it work. If you or a loved one are trying to figure out how to address the desire to eat ethically, here are a few strictly nutritional pointers:
1. Yes, vegans must have protein. Ahem. Yes, they must.
This has done my head in for years, not least because at the tender age of 19, on one of the loveliest islands of the world, surrounded by sun, crystal waters, sand, and staying in the poshest resort I’ll quite likely ever experience, I got sick. Like, really, really sick. Like, the medic on the island almost called a doctor out by helicopter because she was certain that I had malaria. Until she found out what I’d been eating.
Medic: (looking at her notepad as she writes) What have you been eating?
Me: Well, mostly vegetables and rice…erm…actually – yeah – that’s all I’ve had since I’ve been here.
Medic: (looking at me with wide eyes) How long have you been here?
Me: 2 weeks.
Medic: (after a long pause, and with a look of blatant exasperation) You don’t have malaria. You’re malnourished. You need protein.
Me: But I’m vegan.
The medic didn’t know what vegan meant, and she didn’t care. Now much older and wiser, I can see her point. At the time, I went on being pretty damn sick out of some sort of stubborn resolve to remain true to my principles. Today, under similar circumstances, I would eat a fish.
Vegans need protein. At every meal. Just like omnivores. We don’t eat nearly as much protein as most omnivores, because, frankly, most omnivores are protein poisoned. What are sometimes called high-quality proteins can be found in beans, nuts, and seeds. Low-quality protein is found in dark green vegetables and most other whole grains. Matching two proteins of these types is important, but it’s not as strange or difficult as it might seem. Beans and rice? Nuts or seeds on that (dark leafy green) salad?
Three superstar protein sources are tempeh, quinoa and soy. None of them need a compliment – they’re complete all by themselves. Soy’s gotten a bad rap over the last several years…like red wine, there are those who swear by it and those who swear it’s poison. I’ve been eating several servings of soy per day for all of my adult life – as have most Chinese people – and I’m doing okay. But it’s about whatever works for person behind the plate, really.
If we don’t have enough protein, here’s what happens: We get irritable. We get shaky. We get kinda dumb, like, Huh? What? We get headaches. And it only gets worse from there.
2. Vitamin B (and Zinc)
Oh, had I known how very, very important these nutritious friends really were!
Most of us know that B’s come in all shapes and sizes (B1, B2, B3, B6, B12). These are not impossible to find in the world of fruit, vege and grain!
B1: whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, and nutritional yeast (640%)
B2: whole grains, asparagus, brocolli, spinach, mushrooms, and nutritional yeast (570%)
B3: sesame seeds, peas, and nutritional yeast (280%)
B6: whole grains (incl. oatmeal), soy, peanuts, raisins, bananas and nutritional yeast (480%)
B12: fortified stuff and nutritional yeast (130%)
I’ll be the first one to admit that B12 is a tricky one. But I’m also gonna come out and say – hooray for nutritional yeast! Some people think it tastes nice…I think it tastes like nutritional yeast. But I swear by this stuff. Those figures in percentages above are the percentage of one’s daily recommended values just one serving of it provides. Magical stuff, indeed.
Now, could all the nay-saying omnivores please stop telling potential vegans and already-vegans that they can’t get their B vitamins from a vegan diet?
Incidentally, zinc is a really important one, too, and a serving of nutritional yeast gives you 20%. But sourdough bread, pumpkin seeds, beans and green veggies are all great sources, too.
3. Calcium, Magnesium, and Vitamin D
These guys are mates. They need each other. They are like points on a perfect triangle. Which is why they are so often mashed together into a vitamin. But the best source of D is not in any food source or pill – we need to go outside. Even if it’s cloudy and raining. That sun is pretty tough. It won’t let some silly clouds get in its way of keeping us well.
Calcium’s super easy – dark, leafy greens, almonds, dried fruit and tofu are all great sources. Magnesium, quite conveniently, is also found in leafy greens, as well as peanuts. But calcium’s a little bit tricky – certain foods cancel it out. Spinach and chard (although ostensibly both leafy and green) are among those, so if one’s endeavoring to get a nice chunk of calcium out of a meal, best to nix these two lovelies.
When we don’t have enough iron, our bodies shout it from the hilltops. Cold weather brings about numb fingertips and blue lips; the slightest bump can become a massive bruise. Too much iron and prunes become a dietary requirement. So I tend to look for iron in fiber-rich foods, like beans and dried fruit. It’s also in soy, as well as molasses.
Coming back to London, it’s really hit home how seriously I neglected my nutrition before. It may have been that by many standards I was eating well, but it wasn’t well enough…
There are so many benefits to being vegan, and it really isn’t so difficult (you’ll note that there’s all sorts of stuff on those lists that repeat again and again). But it seems that so often we approach it from a place of frustration and irritation, rather than joy and intrigue.
Finding the time to eat properly never took center stage when I lived here, and I’ve no doubt that my emotional and psychological wellbeing suffered tremendously as a result. Live and learn…it simply is worth the time and energy…ultimately, time and energy is precisely what we gain when we eat well.
For tons and tons more delicious information, go here – just an excellent resource all around.