What a Dietitian Wants You to Know About Going Vegan
Vegan might possibly be the biggest buzzword of 2020 so far. I'll admit it; the recent coverage of plant-based eating and the rise of informative wellness documentaries on Netflix did give me the push I need to move away from meat and dairy and focus on whole foods and increasing my intake of vegetables. My decision was easy though; dairy didn't agree with my body and I had never enjoyed eating meat. For others, the adoption of a vegan diet can stem from a heap of different health or sustainability concerns. While there is much more information around now and even dedicated vegan food aisles at the supermarket, it's important to arm yourself with the facts so that you can ensure you're hitting your nutritional goals daily. So, we decided to reach out to Dietitian Millie Padula to answer all our burning vegan questions.
To decipher whether going vegan is just a trend or actually a sustainable way of living, Millie told us that it really comes down to your own personal motivations for pursuing a vegan lifestyle. If you're feeling influenced because your favourite YouTuber is doing it, it most likely won't be very sustainable for you. On the other hand, Millie says that in her practice she's seen people who've been following a vegan diet for over ten years and are the healthiest they've ever been. "It most definitely can be sustainable long-term if you equip yourself with the right knowledge and resources", she explains. When it comes to getting all the necessary nutrients to thrive, it's entirely possible to do this while being vegan. Millie suggests potentially starting with some guidance from a qualified health professional first who will be able to help you plan your meals accordingly. You'll need to take some time to educate yourself as well so that you don't become deficient in any nutrients and in turn, wind up feeling lethargic, fatigued or foggy.
Millie explains that it's important to eat foods that make you feel good, but also those that help you meet your daily requirements. Not every meal is going to be perfectly balanced, and that's okay. It's all about what you do every day over a prolonged period that really has the biggest impact. To start with, including a source of protein with every meal will keep you feeling satisfied while also help to repair tissue in the body. Millie also suggests including a source of healthy fat, especially omega 3 which can be found in walnuts, tofu and flax seeds. The last thing to consider when planning your meals is calcium. This essential nutrient can be incorporated with calcium-set tofu, green vegetables and fortified plant milks.
Another question we asked Millie is whether food is automatically healthy because it's vegan. The answer? A resounding no. Food and beverages like soft drinks, alcohol and hot chips can all be vegan but most of us would consider them a treat or something to be enjoyed on occasion. On the other hand, fruits, nuts, vegetables and seeds are amongst the most nutritious vegan foods we can consume. There are even some products that are labelled as vegan or plant-based that have gone through processes to make them palatable and often contain additives and preservatives. Always observe labels of the food you're buying and aim for whole foods to make up the majority of your meals.
Lastly, we spoke to Millie about some common misconceptions about a plant-based diet and asked for her expert opinion. The first one is that vegans are all iron deficient and will develop symptoms of fatigue after adopting a vegan lifestyle. This can be true for people who aren't incorporating the types of food, but Millie also told us that by eating a balanced diet you can even increase your energy levels! The other most common concern is that vegans just can't get enough iron to function properly. Millie explained to us that there are two types of iron: haem (meat and fish) and non-haem (plant foods). Non-haem iron isn't absorbed as easily, so vegans should aim for 32mg of iron per day, which is more than those who eat meat. If you're dedicated to whole foods, you'll be able to hit those targets with the help of tempeh, legumes, nuts and leafy vegetables. Millie's expert tip is to also consume foods rich in vitamin C (citrus foods, strawberries, tomatoes) to help with the absorption and uptake of iron.
If you are concerned about your health, wellbeing or sleep, your first port of call should be your GP, who will advise a correct treatment plan.