Here are a few considerations if you're choosing a vegan path:
- One of the most important things is to make sure you're getting sufficient, good-quality protein. Protein is present in many vegetarian foods, but the foods need to be properly combined to make sure you're getting all of the amino acids to make a complete protein. Quinoa is an excellent food for vegans, because it is said to be a complete protein. Make sure to include a good range of beans, combined with whole grains like brown rice, millet, quinoa and barley in your daily meals. Nuts and seeds are also good protein sources.
- Vitamin B12 is also a consideration, as meat is the only reliable source of this vital nutrient. It has been claimed that fermented foods such as miso, tempeh and sauerkraut also contain B12, but the evidence is not conclusive. B12 is necessary for the proper functioning of the nervous system, and to produce red blood cells, which carry vital oxygen to all the cells in the body. The anemia that can result from a deficiency of B12 can have serious consequences. Some of the symptoms of B12 deficiency might include pale skin and nails, general weakness and fatigue, dizziness, shortness of breath or heart palpitations, or chest pain. The digestive system can also be affected, resulting in nausea or vomiting, abdominal bloating, gas and weight loss. If you suspect you might be deficient in B12, it might be a good idea to take it in supplement form.
- Calcium is often cited as a reason not to adopt a vegan diet, but there are many excellent non-dairy sources of calcium—such as leafy green vegetables, nuts, seeds and sea vegetables—so make sure these are part of your daily diet. Vitamin D, vital for proper calcium absorption, is not found in the vegan diet— make sure you get your daily dose of sunshine so your body can produce this vital nutrient. (We're a bit challenged in Ireland in that respect, but there's always Hawaii!)
- From a macrobiotic perspective that looks at the energetic nature of foods, meat, fish, chicken and salty cheeses are said to be more yang than yin. To balance these yang foods, people often end up consuming a lot of yin foods like sugary desserts or alcohol. This is a more extreme balancing act, but in the vegan world, it's important to maintain balance by including whole grains and beans, sea vegetables, miso and more yang or grounding foods, as well as a nice range of lighter fruits and vegetables, both cooked and raw. Many people become vegan for spiritual or moral reasons and can become quite depleted if they're relying on just vegetables, smoothies and fruits to meet all their nutritional needs—believe me, I've seen this happen.
- It can be quite challenging to maintain a balanced vegan diet while traveling, so if you're truly committed to maintaining your diet, you need to be quite prepared when taking a road trip or traveling to a place where the foods you commonly use are not so readily available. I have an 80/20 theory: If I eat healthily 80 percent of the time, I can allow myself a little leeway or indulgence once in awhile. If I'm going on a long road trip or to a place where I don't have access to my foods—and especially if I'm not in a position where I can cook my own foods—I'll always take a stock of nuts and seeds, nori seaweed to provide my daily minerals, healthy food bars and a green powder such as chlorella, spirulina or blue-green algae for protein and minerals. You can even bring oat flakes, because they can be combined with nuts, seeds and dried fruits and soaked overnight—in the morning you have a lovely muesli to which you can add some fresh berries or chopped apple. Couscous can also be soaked in boiling water...add some chopped veggies, olive oil and lemon to make a lovely lunchtime salad.
This also applies to flying—I've ordered vegan meals on airplanes and been presented with a platter of fruit and cut-up vegetables. There's still very limited knowledge on catering for vegan or vegetarian diets outside of certain hubs where it's become more mainstream; many people are still not aware there's a whole world of food beyond what they're familiar with. I always go prepared when flying these days.
If you are choosing the vegan path, I commend you for making a choice that is sure to have a positive impact on your health and on the planet, and I encourage you to do it in a way that keeps you strong, vital and balanced.
If you're choosing to eat meat, I recommend eating it in moderation and making sure to include lots of fresh, green vegetables in your diet to counteract the acidic condition that can result from excess meat.
I could eat quinoa every day of the week, because it's versatile, quick to cook and provides me with all the protein I need to keep me strong and healthy. I hope you thoroughly enjoy my Summer Quinoa Salad
More from Aine