When I turned vegan almost a year ago (that’s right, I went vegan after Veganuary!) I came to this realisation that I was grossly unaware of nutrition and what my body needs. And I’m not talking about a few weeks in - I mean a few months in.
One of the key elements to a happy and fruitful plant based diet as a vegan is knowing where to get your nutrients. “But where do vegans get their protein?!” is a query with which we are so familiar, but if I’m honest I hadn’t a clue and I didn’t even know why I needed protein. Also what even was iodine?! Surely I cannot be alone in that?
This post is not intended to be an expert guide to nutrition - I am not a dietitian! I am merely speaking from personal experience about my own experiences, the sources I consulted and how I learned about keeping on top of my health. I’m not trying to promote anything, this is just a personal insight into part of my vegan journey.
“If you choose to carry on for longer than a month [Veganuary], it’s a good idea to think about how you will stock up on all your nutrients, such as vitamin B12.”
- Azmina Govindji
- The Vitamins -
There were two main sources that got me thinking about this subject. I started off with Nutrition Tips for New Vegans by registered dietician Jack Norris, and The Nutribible: Nourishing Foods And Delicious Recipes To Boost Your Health. My eyes were opened.
Norris’ free document is a mount of information. It takes nutritional elements individually such as calcium, iron and of course protein with plant sources. Having a list of these foods is pretty handy as I started to build up meal plans and snacks.
So what did I learn? Take calcium. Like many others I grew up with the belief that dairy was ultimately the best way to get my calcium needs. But we do not actually need milk or cheese - oranges, kale and spinach are all good ways to meet your requirements.
Of course there is also iron, which I can get from chickpeas and lentils! I do not need that red meat (or even want it, so yeah). And what about omega-3? Like iron which most people get from animal sources, omega-3 fats can easily be accessed on a plant based diet. The dietitian Heather Russell penned in the most recent issue of simply vegan that you can get this from chia seeds, flaxseed or hemp seeds (p.18). I occasionally sprinkle a tablespoon or two over smoothies or cereal.
And last but not least is B12. Next to protein we vegans are perpetually asked about our B12 intake. Also like protein, I knew neither why I needed this nor how to get it. See? Hopeless. All dietary and nutritional guidelines will emphasise making sure you get enough for your red blood cells and your nervous system.
However unlike iron and protein, B12 is best got through fortified foods or supplements. The Vegan Society says that the “only reliable vegan sources of B12 are foods fortified with B12 ... and B12 supplements.”
They recommend three different ways to ensure that you are meeting your requirements, including foods that are fortified “two or three times a day to get at least three micrograms”; “Take one B12 supplement daily providing at least 10 micrograms” or “a weekly B12 supplement providing at least 2000 micrograms.”
There are of course many other vitamins, minerals and fats to think about. I just focused on these for a brief discussion.
- A Bit of Extra Help -
One way I try to get what I need is looking out for products that are fortified. Remember I said I didn’t know what iodine was? Around the same when I learned about it, and why I needed it, I found that an oat milk that I had been buying was actually fortified with iodine.
A number of plant based milks are similarly useful in this way. Some contain B-vitamins and calcium so you know you are not really missing out. It is also comforting to know that a potentially unhealthy obsession with nutritional yeast means I am getting a fair amount of B12. Although I personally would not rely on these as my main source, it is reassuring to know that you can get a bit of a boost.
- Supplements -
And what about taking supplements? It seems to me that the vegan community is very divided on whether or not we should. Some argue that if we are eating a healthy and balanced diet then there is really no need - you are probably getting everything you require. There is of course a lot of logic to this and other dietitians say this too, that the best way to meet your nutritional needs is through your diet.
Yet B12, iodine and Vitamin D are probably the ones we should be supplementing depending on your diet and where you live. B12 is super, super important and this is one of the supplements I take myself (plus as I said, I tend to buy plant based milks with added B12 and use a lot of nutritional yeast).
The other supplement I take is for iodine. This magic element I never heard of until a few months ago which helps with normal thyroid function. Nori sheets are considered to be a good way to get iodine, but honestly? I have probably eaten sushi or anything involving seaweed maybe twice in my life. My dad used to eat seaweed from a bag, but I definitely did not inherit this love. I was certainly going to be lacking in this.
And finally, vitamin D! If you are anything like me, you live in an area where the autumn, winter and even parts of the spring are dark, gloomy and depressing. It is dark when I get up for work, and then dark again when I come home. I see the sunlight only through the window from my desk. The NHS recommends a dietary supplement! You might not need one yourself, you do you.
There are of course a load of other vitamins and supplements out there, but the general consensus seems to be unless it is something like B12, vitamin D or iodine, you should be able to get what you need for a good diet. However if I felt I was lacking something else, like calcium, I probably would look into a supplement.
- Let’s Wrap it Up -
Okay - this has been bit of a long one. I don’t do anything by half. Ultimately I started off my vegan journey abysmally unaware of what my body needed (which was in no small part due to my ignorance beforehand). I learned that actually my body needs a variety of different elements, some of which are easy enough to get from plant sources and others not so easy.
I started to look out for foods that I knew would give me that nutritional importance, as well as fortified products that would give me a bit of a boost. And not so long ago I started taking some supplements to help with what I knew my body was lacking the most.
I’m not saying my diet is perfect, but it is definitely better than what it was before! This is part of one vegan's life.
**All photos are 'Free From Wix'