Going vegan? Do it the healthy way

CHOICES: Plant milks like almond, oat, rice or soy are good alternatives to dairy.
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CHOICES: Plant milks like almond, oat, rice or soy are good alternatives to dairy.

It might be a stretch to describe vegan eating as mainstream, but the signs are that more people are willing to give it a go (why else would Beyonce launch a business delivering vegan meals)?

For one thing, the old vegan image of nut roasts and homespun fashion is dead. Eating plants, not animals, has a new glamour thanks in part to the numbers of famous names now reportedly eating meals without animal products – think Christine Lagarde, the elegant head of the International Monetary Fund, comedian Russell Brand and actors like Joaquin Phoenix and Jessica Chastain.

And while paleo still rules in the world of cookbooks, the numbers of vegan and vegetarian titles published is rising. So far this year Murdoch Books has released the Easy Vegan by Sue Quinn and Eat Clean Green and Vegetarian by Lee Holmes.  

Meanwhile, Kym Staton who founded the Sydney Vegan Club two years ago to support both vegans and those who are trying to be, reports that around 200 new members are joining each month, double the rate of a year ago.      

But eschewing all animal foods – dairy and eggs included – isn't always easy, especially if you try converting overnight.

"In my experience it's the people who go vegan in a more gradual manner who usually have better vegan diets," says Lucy Taylor, an Australian dietitian and vegan.

"They might stop having dairy milk and switch to soy milk instead and they'll have beans, lentils or tofu instead of meat.  Some people who try going vegan overnight don't always do their research and end up just omitting meat and dairy from their diet – for instance, they might just have vegetables and pasta for dinner but without a good source of protein such as legumes.   

"The solution is to read vegan food blogs and recipe books – there's a whole world of new foods that opens up that you can experiment with. Grains like quinoa, amaranth, barley, couscous and freekeh, legumes like chickpeas, black beans and lentils, nuts and seeds as well as plant milks like oat, almond, soy and rice."

While it's easy enough to get sufficient protein on a vegan diet from legumes and nuts, for example, the nutrient that's hard to get from plant foods is vitamin B12.

"There aren't appreciable amounts in any plant foods except fortified foods such as plant milks – most soy milks are fortified, for example – and some vegetarian sausages," she says. "If you had three serves daily of fortified foods you wouldn't need a supplement, but not many people would eat this many serves.  The best thing is to take B12 in a daily multivitamin (containing 25 to 100 micrograms B12) or a 1000 microgram (1 milligram) B12 supplement twice weekly."

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While nut butters or plant-based dips like hummus are a good alternative for cheese on a slice of bread, parmesan isn't easily replaced. The closest plant option is nutritional yeast,  a deactivated yeast that's high in B vitamins and which adds a savoury cheesy  flavour to foods, says Taylor, whose blog Bloom Nutritionist is a good source of  credible info for anyone attempting a plant-based diet.  She makes a cashew "parmesan" by blending one cup of cashews or almonds with 1/4 cup of nutritional (brewer's) yeast and a pinch of salt until crumbly.

As for a swap for breakfast yoghurt, she suggests either a smoothie with plant milk, fruit and oats or a smoothie bowl of plant milk blended with fruit and topped with muesli – but not coconut yoghurt.

"It's not a good substitute for yoghurt – although it has probiotic cultures, it's very high in saturated fat. I'd use a spoonful at most on fruit for a dessert," Taylor says. "Although dairy yoghurt contains probiotics, you can also get them in fermented vegan foods such as miso, tempeh or cultured cashew cheese."

Still, not all hurdles are food related. Sometimes the challenge is other people.

"Everyone becomes a nutritionist, with comments like 'but you can't get enough calcium without dairy' or 'you've got a cold because you're not getting enough zinc'," says Taylor, who recommends getting educated about vegan nutrition.

"Not from unqualified people on the internet, but from reputable sources like dietitians and doctors who know about vegan nutrition – for instance, I'd suggest Becoming Vegan by Brenda Davis and Vesanto Melina and Vegan for Life by Jack Norris and Virginia Messina, both written by dietitians."

 - Sydney Morning Herald

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