There are many reasons that can explain why one would want to move to a plant-based diet, be it in the name of animal cruelty, save the planet, or for your own health reasons. For me, it really is a combination of all 3.
There are even fancy names for these lifestyle changes now – flexitarian, social vegan…. I started making this change 3 years ago, with a focus on health reasons. Since this is still largely an elective exercise, I at best manage to eat vegan 90-95% of the time. When I go out, and do not have a choice in what to order, I will eat that occasional egg, piece of fish or seafood. At home, when I can fully control what I buy, I am strictly 100% vegan.
Since I have to cut out meat, dairy and seafood on a regular basis, I feel the need to ensure that the nutrients that I am absorbing is sufficient. The most effective way, in my opinion, is to see a nutritionist/naturopath. They will be in a position to recommend the right foods to eat. I took an extra step and did blood, stool and DNA tests to ensure that I got my grounds covered. They are also in a position to prescribe supplements should you be deficient in anything (and most people will have some deficiencies that they are probably not aware of).
If you are considering switching to a plant-based diet, or generally eat less meat, I want to raise awareness in a few common nutrients that vegans / non-meat / non-dairy eaters should be aware of.
Vitamin B12 – B12 is made by micro-organisms, and is not found in plants. It is a vital nutrient in protein metabolism and production of red blood cells. Soy, cereal and seaweed are also good sources of B12. Supplements are commonly prescribed.
Iron – or heme iron, which is only found in red meat. It is used to make new DNA, carry oxygen in red blood cells, and needed for energy metabolism. Deficiencies in iron typically lead to anemia, and fatigue, or lowered immune function. Iron can be found in leafy greens, beans, peas, nuts and seeds, and dried fruits. Iron supplements are typically prescribed for anemic patients, but constipation often results.
Long chain omega-3s – we obtain essential omega-3 (alpha-linolenic acid / ALA) from our diet, and our body turns the ALA into long chain omega-3 eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) that we need for our brain and eyes, and to fight inflammation, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Foods to take include flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts and soy.
Vitamin D – this is a fat-soluble vitamin that is needed to absorb calcium and phosphorus from our gut. It is also vital in bodily functions like the immune system, mood, memory and muscle recovery. Unfortunately, food is considered to contain insufficient vitamin D for our body. It has been recommended that 15 minutes under strong sun (with no sunscreen) is a good way to get the dosage. Supplements are also prescribed in some cases.
Iodine – a crucial component for a healthy thyroid function, which in turn controls your metabolism. Insufficient intake of iodine can lead to hypothyroidism, with symptoms including low energy levels, dry skin, tingling of hands and feet, forgetfulness, depression and weight gain. For vegans, iodine can be supplemented by seaweed or iodized salt, or with supplements.
Zinc – a vital mineral needed for metabolism, immune system and repair of cells. Deficiency can lead to developmental problems, hair loss, diarrhea and delayed wound healing. Zinc rich foods for vegans include whole grains, wheatgerm, tofu, nuts and seeds, legumes and sprouted bread.
Calcium – an essential mineral for bone and teeth health. It also plays a role in muscle functioning, nerve signaling and heart health. Calcium rich foods include bok choy, kale, mustard greens, broccoli, chickpeas and watercress. I am an advocate of taking calcium through food rather than with supplements (another topic for another time).
Through a plant-based diet and the right supplements, I have managed to lower my cholesterol significantly these few years, and I rarely get sick. I guess there is nothing better than to invest in your own health! Prevention is always better than cure.