How to be a healthy vegan
Vegan diets are becoming more common, but they aren’t easy. It isn’t just a matter of avoiding meat, fish, eggs, milk, cheese, yoghurt, cream and butter. The reasons for trying a vegan diet vary from reducing greenhouse gases, feeding as many people as possible on a limited amount of land, or not exploiting animals, to simply preferring vegan foods, or a desire to economise.
Good vegan diets
Some vegan diets are healthy, with a variety of foods, from nuts and seeds to vegetables, pulses and grains. Nuts, seeds and pulses provide protein. Nuts and seeds provide mainly omega six fats, but flax and hemp seeds supply omega three fats. These two sorts of essential fats need to be kept in balance.
Green vegetables, nuts, seeds and pulses provide magnesium, which is important for the heart. Finger millet or ragi provides calcium and makes an enjoyable porridge. It is available from large Asian supermarkets and Asian websites. Nuts, seeds and pulses provide zinc, although it is harder to absorb zinc from these foods than from meat. Coconut provides two fats that are important for the gut.
Vegetables and fruit provide vitamin C, which is needed for immunity. Avocadoes, nuts and seeds give us vitamin E, which is an important antioxidant and heals wounds. Red cabbage and buckwheat provide molybdenum, which is needed for detoxification. Lentils, avocadoes and nuts provide vitamin B2, which is needed for energy and recycles our most important antioxidant. One good aspect of a vegan diet is that it excludes milk, which is the food most associated with having a heart attack.
The unhealthy way to be a vegan
Other vegan diets are anything but healthy, with lots of sugar, sweeteners, flavourings, colourings, preservatives, soya and over-processed vegetable oil. However, even healthy vegan diets need care, as it is easy to miss out on vital nutrients.
The most important concern for a vegan is to have enough vitamin B12. This is not present in vegan foods. It has to be supplemented. If you miss out on vitamin B12, you can develop permanent nervous system damage. B12 deficiency can also lead to heart attacks, anaemia, and damage to an unborn child. Some people think that spirulina will substitute for vitamin B12. This is not the case. Traditionally tribes that avoided animal products drank unboiled, unchlorinated water. Microorganisms in the water provided some vitamin B12. This doesn’t happen with municipal water supplies.
There is little vitamin D in vegan foods. It is needed for us to absorb calcium, which we need for bones, teeth and the nervous system. It also protects us from infection. It calms the immune system if it becomes over-active. This occurs with allergies and autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis, but also if people become very ill with infections like Covid-19.
We do make vitamin D in our skin. This only occurs if we expose our skin to sunshine. Working indoors in schools, offices and factories means that many of us do not have enough sun exposure. Covering skin with sunblock reduces vitamin D production. Also, we live in a Northern country. We cannot make vitamin D in winter North of Birmingham. Of course, we don’t want skin cancer, and so we should avoid becoming sunburnt. Darker-skinned people need more sun exposure than those with light skin, in Northern climates. Most people in Britain would benefit from vitamin D supplements.
Zinc is needed for immunity. People short of zinc can develop anorexia, become spotty, have white spots on their fingernails, or pick up every infection that is going around. People who do not eat meat have to take care they don’t become short of zinc.
Vegan foods are short of iron, and vegans should be careful to avoid becoming anaemic. There is iron in green leaves, but it is not easy to absorb it.
Most British people rely on milk, cheese and yoghurt for calcium. There is some calcium in leafy vegetables, but most people do not eat enough leaves to provide all the calcium they need. Finger millet porridge is taken to women who have given birth in Kenya, as it is good for making breast milk. This is because of all the calcium in it.
Omega three fats
Omega three fats are anti-inflammatory and prevent the blood from clotting too avidly. The best vegan source is flax seed oil, otherwise known as linseed oil. This oil is fragile. It should be stored frozen. When the bottle is opened, it should be stored in the fridge. This oil must not be cooked. Only a small proportion of this is converted to the long, bendy fats our bodies need. I suggest consuming two dessertspoons a day.
Processing it needs a variety of vitamins and minerals. Fish provides these long bendy fats ready-made. Vegans have to make their own. One way of consuming flax oil is to liquidise a banana with the flax oil, then add rice milk, and liquidise again. That makes an enjoyable “milkshake”. You could also squeeze a lemon, and mix the juice with flax oil, for a salad dressing.
No one needs to eat large steaks to have enough protein. However, the advantage of meat is that it provides all the amino acids we need to make our own proteins. Vegan proteins can provide all we need, but we need to mix these sources of protein into the diet. One way of doing that is to combine grains and pulses. In India, people have rice and lentils. In Africa, they have maize and beans, peas and potatoes, or green bananas and groundnuts. In the Caribbean and Italy, they have rice with peas, pigeon peas or beans.
Soya is not a healthy source of protein. It contains a substance which acts against digestion, and also contains plant oestrogen. Men and children do not really want to be consuming a plant version of an adult female hormone. Soya protein isolate is in many processed foods and contains aluminium, a harmful mineral. The protein is extracted in aluminium vats, using acid. A girl I met was given a soya savoury dish every day at school, followed by a soya dessert!
Rhubarb, spinach and sesame seeds contain a lot of a harmful chemical called oxalate. Tahini is sesame spread. This oxalate reduces the absorption of important minerals, and it can also be toxic. It can cause kidney stones and is thought to be implicated in a variety of conditions, including damage to the retina at the back of the eye. So eating a lot of fashionable foods like hummus and spinach smoothies is not a good idea.
Whole foods are fashionable but can cause gut problems and arthritis. In the bran layer of seeds are chemicals called lectins, which bind to specific sugars in the body, often causing trouble. People with irritable bowel syndrome or arthritis would be wise to avoid wholemeal bread and bran.
For many, the easiest bread to tolerate is made of refined flour and slowly fermented, for example, white sourdough bread or ciabatta. White rice is often better tolerated than brown. Split lentils without skins, like the red ones, are often better tolerated than beans and lentils with skins left on. Nuts without skins, like macadamias, white almonds, and cooked cashews are often easier to cope with than walnuts and brazil nuts.
There is often no way of avoiding the need for a vitamin B12 supplement if you are vegan. Given the difficulty of obtaining enough other nutrients from the diet, it makes sense to supplement some other nutrients as well. Make sure there is enough of what you need, that the supplements avoid harmful colourings and sweeteners, and that there is no carrageenan in them. This is highly inflammatory.
Most vegetarian capsules that contain liquids contain carrageenan, as otherwise, they can leak. Oils like evening primrose are best bought in bottles. Carrageenan is common in “free from” foods.
“Vegans” are not always vegans
People who thought they had been vegan for 20 years were tested for antibodies to the membrane around the fat globules in milk. Surprisingly they still had these antibodies. So where had they been consuming milk? The answer is that vodka and other alcoholic drinks can be clarified with a milk product.
If you don’t know about cookery, you may well pick up a croissant at the baker’s, thinking it is vegan, and unaware that there will be butter or milk in it. Many medicines contain lactose, which is milk sugar.
How to have a healthy vegan diet
Being vegan does have its pitfalls, but it can be done healthily. Just make sure you have enough of all the nutrients, and that you supplement vitamin B12 at least. Cook your own food, rather than relying on ready-made dishes. Have varied foods, as that way you are more likely to cover most of the nutrients. Be careful not to have too much of the harmful members of the plant kingdom, like oxalates and lectins.