Nutritional information is confusing. We are told by some that a vegan diet is very healthy. Others tell us that we need to eat a paleolithic diet, of vegetables, fish and meat. Other health advice says eat lots of grains and milk. People can’t be blamed if they give up listening to the “experts.”
What is a vegan diet?
Vegans eat only plant food, with no meat, fish, shellfish, eggs, milk, cheese, cream or butter. Yeast is allowed. The great advantage of the diet is that it avoids milk, which is very much associated with coronary heart disease, the greatest killer in the western world. Healthy vegans eat nuts, seeds, nut butters, vegetables, pulses, mushrooms and a little fruit.
However, vegans may also eat grains, sugar, soya, preservatives, flavourings, sweeteners, colourings and hydrogenated oil. A diet of bread, margarine and jam, textured vegetable protein, soya dessert, flavoured crisps, sweets, diet coke and beer may be vegan, but is it healthy?
Some vegans just don’t like meat, fish, eggs and milk. Others feel that eating them, exploits animals. Others are concerned that much animal production is done in a cruel way. Other vegans point out that the land can support more people if they are fed on plants, instead of animal foods.
A good vegan diet
There are healthy vegans, who grow organic vegetables and fruit in allotments and gardens. Green vegetables, nuts and seeds provide magnesium, a mineral that is deficient in many western diets, and which protects us from heart disease, diabetes, anxiety and depression. Vegetables and fruit provide vitamin C, which protects us from infection.
Nuts, seeds and pulses provide protein. Avocadoes give us vitamin E. Buckwheat and red cabbage supply molybdenum, a mineral needed for detoxification. Lentils, avocadoes and nuts give us vitamin B2, which recycles our most important antioxidant, and which is needed for making energy.
Are some important nutrients missing in a vegan diet?
Vegans need to think about whether their diets provide all the necessary nutrients, and if they provide them, do they provide enough?
Vitamin B12 is made by living organisms. It helps protect our nervous systems and our hearts. In Indian villages, vegans may obtain this vitamin from bacteria in the water supply, but we have chlorinated water here, to protect us from dangerous waterborne diseases like cholera.
So vegans need to take vitamin B12. They may wish to use spirulina instead, but it is not the same as vitamin B12, and may even block the action of the real vitamin.
Vitamin D protects us from cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis, multiple sclerosis and depression. It is best to obtain enough from the sun, with moderate exposure to sunlight, without wearing sunscreen. It is important not to be burnt. Cover your skin if you are to be out too long in too strong sunlight. The trouble is that there is no vitamin D to be obtained from the sun North of Birmingham in winter.
Vitamin D3 is fat soluble, and is in fatty animal foods. Vitamin D3 is also sold in supplements. Vitamin D2 is in vegan supplements. It is less effective than D3, but useful nonetheless.
One kind of omega three fatty acid is found in flax and hemp seed oils. We can process this into an anti-inflammatory fat called EPA, and a fat needed by the brain, called DHA. Fish eaters don’t have to bother to do this, as the fish has done the work for them. Vegans need about two dessertspoonfuls of flax oil, or even more of hemp oil, to make enough EPA and DHA.
They also need various vitamins and minerals, from the diet or supplements, to do this. We need both omega 3 and omega 6 fats. Hemp oil has a good balance of these oils. Flax oil, has more omega three, and needs to be balanced by another source of omega six, like nuts.
Calcium is needed by bones, teeth and the nervous system. Most westerners consume enough, or too much calcium, as they have milk, cheese and yogurt. Vegans do need to consume calcium. A rich source is finger millet. This is quite different from the millet in the health food shops which is bulrush millet.
Bulrush millet grows on a single stem, but the stem of the finger millet divides into several little fingers, with the seeds all round them. They are a reddish brown. The flour is beige, but when you make porridge out of it, it becomes a chocolate colour. If you squeeze a lime or lemon into the porridge after cooking it, it makes the porridge creamy.
I think it is the nicest porridge there is. I buy mine at an Asian supermarket, where it is known as ragi. In Kenya, village women take finger millet porridge to women who have given birth, as the calcium helps them make breast milk. Sesame seeds contain calcium, but it is hard to chew a lot of them. It is easier to have tahini.
Leafy vegetables, like watercress, kale and parsley, contain some calcium, but not everyone wants to eat enough leaves to provide all the calcium they need.
For many people, meat is the main source of iron. There is iron in green leaves, but it is not in the most absorbable form. So again, vegans need to eat plenty of leaves, or they may become anaemic.
There is protein in vegan foods like pulses and nuts. It is not as well balanced as protein in meat and fish. Mixing different sources of protein helps to provide the various constituents of protein in a suitable balance.
In Africa people often eat maize with beans, peas with mashed potatoes, or green bananas with groundnut sauce. In India, people often eat lentils with rice. In Jamaica a popular dish is rice and pigeon peas or rice and beans. An Italian version is rice and peas.
Are all “vegans” really vegan?
There are pitfalls in trying to be a vegan. People who had been vegan, or so they thought, for twenty years were tested, and found to have antibodies to the membrane round the fat globules in cows’ milk. Perhaps they had been drinking vodka that had been clarified using a milk product. Maybe they had eaten a croissant, thinking it was just a sweet bread roll, not realising that it would have butter or milk in it.
Don’t think you can just cut out the meat and fish, and you will be a healthy vegan
There are good and bad vegan diets, just as there are good and bad omnivore diets. If you do decide to cut out meat, eggs, milk and fish, you need to work at how to obtain all you need to be healthy. Have a varied diet, as that way you are more likely to have a healthy mix of nutrients.