Protein is a really important component of our diet. Protein provides structure for the cells that makes up every part of our body. We also use protein for growth, tissue repair, to carry oxygen around our bodies and to fight off infection.
Most people eating a plant-only diet will, at some time, be asked the question; ‘where do you get your protein?’
Well, if you think about it, we could also wonder where some of the biggest creatures on earth get their protein – rhino, elephants, gorillas, even cows and sheep – these animals eat a plant based diet.
So the answer is simple, we can get our protein from the same place they do – plants! Protein is made up of building blocks called amino acids. Some are called ‘essential’ amino acids, meaning our bodies cannot make them and we therefore need them in our diet.
All the essential amino acids are found in plant foods in varying quantities. If we eat a varied plant-based diet that include beans and pulses, whole-grains and vegetables, and meet our energy requirements, we will get all the protein we need, plus additional beneficial components such as fibre, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals.
So how much do we need? As healthy humans, we require around 0.8g of protein per kilogram of body weight. Just times 0.8 by your body weight in kg to find out how many grams of protein you need per day. You might be surprised!
Carbohydrates are our main source of fuel. Our brain is wired to run purely from carbohydrates, unless we are in a state of starvation. Dietary carbohydrate intake maintains blood sugar and glycogen stores used for energy in muscles and the liver. Low intakes can therefore lead to a lack of energy and poor concentration.
The World Health Organisation recommend that 55 to 75% of calories are derived from carbohydrates. All carbohydrates are not created equal however, and this can cause some confusion.
If you are trying the popular low-carbohydrate diet, you are likely to doing some good by removing refined and processed carbohydrates; like fizzy drinks, white bread and crisps. BUT you will also be shunning health promoting foods such as wholewheat pasta, brown rice, legumes, even fruit and vegetables! These foods provide valuable energy, packaged up with other powerful health-promoting compounds such as fibre, minerals, vitamins, antioxidants and phytochemicals.
Studies from Japan in 2010, and a Harvard study in 2013 concluded an increase in all-cause mortality for those following low carbohydrate, high protein diets. This was greatly pronounced for risk of cancer and cardiovascular mortality for those with their protein sources coming from animal foods.
The buzz around low carbohydrate diets is rife, and there is no question that they result in short term weight loss. But this becomes somewhat irrelevant when we look at the bigger picture of long-term all-cause mortality.
Going for whole, unprocessed, plant-based carbohydrates is beneficial for your energy levels, managing your weight, as well as keeping a healthy heart and reducing your risk of chronic disease.
A completely plant-based diet has been endorsed by the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and by the British Dietetic Association as healthy at all stages of life. If you are to get the full benefits of your new healthy diet, there are three supplements that are recommended.
The first two, Vitamin B12 and Vitamin D3 can be most easily obtained by taking a single daily dose of “Veg-1”, a handy one-a-day supplement designed by the Vegan Society. You can buy this online at www.vegansociety.com. A one-year supply costs about 28 euro or 32 US dollars. The third supplement is a plant-based omega-3 fatty acid.
Vitamin B12: 25mcg per day
Vitamin b12 is produced by bacteria that live in the soil. Most farmed meat contains vitamin B12, because the farmed animals have either ingested these bacteria while grazing or have themselves been given vitamin B12 supplements. Vitamin B12 is incredibly important, it is vital in maintaining healthy brain function, regulating the production of DNA and the formation of the red blood cells that carry oxygen around our bodies.
Low Vitamin B12 levels also lead to a condition called “hyper-homocysteinemia”, which actually increases your risk of developing heart disease and stroke, potentially undoing the benefits of your heart-healthy diet.
Because our fruits and vegetables are now washed and cleaned of any soil prior to eating, they no longer come with a source of vitamin b12. We don’t recommend eating soil due to the risk of contracting diseases, but we do strongly recommend taking a vitamin b12 supplement every day. In fact, I regard this as mandatory.
VEG-1 from www.vegansociety.com contains a daily dose of 25mcg of vitamin B12, which is enough for 99.9% of people. For a tiny minority of people, higher doses are required. So if you are suffering from fatigue, or if you are a woman planning a pregnancy, please get your vitamin B12 level checked. We also advise that everyone aged 65 years or over should have their vitamin b12 level checked as part of their annual health check.
Vitamin D3: 400 IU per day
There are small amounts of vitamin D3 in certain foods, but our bodies have evolved to make their own supply. Active vitamin D is manufactured in our skin, but this process depends on exposure to strong sunlight. If we can’t guarantee daily exposure to 20 minutes of bright sunshine, then a Vitamin D supplement is advised.
Low vitamin D levels have been linked to increased risk of heart disease, fractured bones, falls, memory problems and high blood pressure.
Vitamin D deficiency is incredibly common, regardless of diet, whether omnivore, vegetarian or vegan. This is because our modern lives keep us indoors and out of bright sunshine. In the United Kingdom, the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition recommend that everyone should take a vitamin D supplement during the winter months, or all year-round if they work indoors.
While you can obtain small amounts of Vitamin D from foods such as tofu and mushrooms, and from fortified plant-based milks, if you cannot guarantee 20-minutes of bright sunshine three hundred and sixty-five days a year, we strongly recommend that your take 400 international units or 10 micrograms of vitamin D each day. A convenient way to take this is in the Vegan Society’s VEG-1 supplement, which also contains your daily dose of Vitamin B12 and other important trace nutrients like iodine and selenium.
Omega-3 fatty acids: 250mg per day
Omega-3 fatty acids are one type of a group of healthy oils, also known as poly-unsaturated fatty acids. There are two types of omega-3, short-chain and long-chain. Both are important to help maintain your long-term brain health and heart health.
You can get enough short chain omega-3 by eating a tablespoon of chia seeds, flax seeds or walnuts each day. But long-chain omega-3’s are a bit trickier. One great source of these is algae. Because fish eat a lot of algae, eating oily fish or taking a fish-oil supplement is one option. However, on a healthy plant-based diet, we prefer to bypass the middle-fish, by taking 250mg of a plant-based omega 3 supplement daily. There are lots of brands available, most are made by extracting omega-3 rich oil directly from algae. As the algae are purpose grown and harvested in clean water; these supplements have the added advantage of containing none of the heavy metals and other pollutants such as PCBs which come built in with fish and fish oils.
We have no brand loyalty and suggest that you search on amazon.com or other reputable suppliers for “Vegan omega 3” or “algal oil omega 3” and then shop around for a good deal. You should expect to pay less than £12 to £15 per month.
If you follow all recommendations on supplements we give including a daily Veg-1 supplement and a daily plant-based omega 3, it should end up costing you about £100 year. In my opinion, that is money well spent!
Calcium is an important mineral for human survival. It is needed, as you probably already know, to keep our bones and teeth strong and healthy. Small amounts of calcium are also required for nerve function, to relax our muscles and for blood clotting.
Before the domestication of dairy cows was commonplace, many human populations evolved without dairy in their diet, consuming all the calcium they required from plants. Due to the artificial selection of sweetness, rather than nutritional content, many of the plant foods we consume today have lower levels of calcium than that of their ancestors.
Drinking cow’s milk is a relatively recent practice across some human populations, and in these places, natural selection is favoured humans who were genetically adapted to consuming cow’s milk. In regions where cow’s milk is not a cornerstone of the diet, such as in Asia and Africa, more than half of the population experience abdominal discomfort when they drink dairy; this due to a natural reduction in the enzyme that digests milk, lactase, after weaning.
Many people switching to a plant-based diet, and therefore giving up cow’s milks, are understandably concerned about their calcium intake. From the time we were children, we were encouraged to drink our dairy milk to get strong bones; is this true, or is it simply a marketing strategy?
Medical studies have shown that omitting dairy does not increase your risk of osteoporosis, or ‘thinning bones’ if you are getting sufficient calcium in your diet. You may be pleased to hear that you can still get all the calcium you need from plants.
The recommended calcium intake in the UK is 700mg per day. If you have coeliac disease, are breast feeding, are over 50, or have a diagnosis of osteoporosis, you are recommended to increase your intake to up to 1200mg per day.
Most plant milks are fortified to match the calcium content of cow’s milk, other plant-sources of readily absorbed calcium include dark, leafy greens such as kale, watercress, mustard greens and Pak choy. You can also get calcium from broccoli, tofu, tahini (ground sesame seeds), beans and almonds.
And it’s not just calcium we need to keep our bones healthy; folate, vitamin C, vitamin K and protein are all required to build and maintain healthy bones.
How we live our lives is also important; we recommend regular weight-bearing exercise to help our bones remodel and strengthen. We also recommend avoiding smoking and drinking too much caffeine or alcohol to maintain bone density.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Omega 3 fatty acids are an important part of a healthy diet, especially when it comes to maintaining our brain, nervous system and aging well. Omega 3 refers to 3 fatty acids; ALA, EPA and DHA.
ALA is a short-chain fatty acid and the human body cannot make it, so it is essential to have in our diets. Good sources of ALA include soy, walnuts, flaxseeds (also known as linseeds), hemp seeds, chia seeds and leafy green vegetables.
EPA and DHA are long-chain fatty acids found in fish, eggs, and seaweed. They are important for functions in the body including the reduction of blood clotting, inflammation, blood pressure and cholesterol, as well as for the brain, eyes, sperm and cell membranes.
The human body can convert ALA into DHA and EPA, however the efficiency of this isn’t known. Some suggest that those following a vegan diet should supplement EPA and DHA, and this can be obtained from the same place the fish get theirs; algae (in the form of algal oil supplements).
The American Heart Association and the British Heart Foundation recommend adults consume 2 portions of fish per week, one of which should be oily. There is, however, contradictory evidence suggesting that some type of fish may contain high levels of mercury and other environmental contaminants; this provides a potential advantage of choosing to consume algae-based supplements instead.
There is no specific UK recommendation for omega 3 for vegans or non-vegans, but if you’re planning to eat minimal or no fish, we recommend you get your omega 3 from sources such as walnuts and pumpkin seeds, rapeseed or linseed oils, soya products such as milk and tofu, and green leafy vegetables. If you do choose to take a supplement, we recommend sticking to no more than 450mg EPA and DHA per daily adult dose.
Whole fats are the fats that you get from whole, unrefined foods such as avocados, nuts and seeds. These fats are known as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats and include the omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which are essential fats that cannot be made by the body. Whole fats help our bodies to function optimally, provide us with a source of energy and help us to absorb certain vitamins and minerals.
Refined fats are those present in cakes, crisps ready meals, and other processed food. These fats have gone through a refining process that includes stripping them of their vitamins and minerals, heat treating them, and sometimes even changing the molecular structure, known as hydrogenation. Trans fatty acids are not conducive to optimum health, and should be reduced or removed from the diet and replaced with whole monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids.
Fat is high in calories:
It’s important to remember that all types of fat are very high in calories – so eating too much of any type of fat can cause weight gain. Both whole and refined fats provide 9kcal/g, whereas protein or carbohydrate only contain 4kcal/g. This is why fat is much more satiating and addictive.
Meeting our daily needs:
A nutritious diet should contain in the region of 20-35% fat intake from whole, predominantly plant-based fat, such as olives, avocados, nuts and seeds. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids can help decrease inflammation in conditions like arthritis and cardiovascular disease, as well as and reduce symptoms of depression. They are also important during pregnancy and breastfeeding to support child development.
Fish is promoted as a source of omega-3, but only the very small oily fish such as sardines, anchovies and kippers. Most white fish, salmon and tuna, contain trace omega 3, and can often include dioxins, PCBs, mercury, and other industrial pollutants. All other meats are a poor source of omega 3 and contain predominantly saturated fat.
Whole food plant-based sources of omega-3 include: Flaxseed, Chia seeds, Walnuts
As well as providing us with Omega-3 fats, these foods are also valuable source of vitamins and minerals, as well as fibre.
What are refined fats?
Refined fats are fats that have been processed in some way and that do not to contain any other nutrition other than fat. It is for this reason that we consider all oils to be a refined fat source. Yes, even olive oil, sorry to any Mediterraneans out there! Because oil has been extracted from the whole food it originated from, it has lost all fibre and nutrients. For example, olive oil is 100% fat, whereas an avocado is 75% fat while also providing fibre, vitamins, and minerals.
What are trans fats?
Artificial trans fats are created in an industrial process that adds hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them solid. Companies do this as a cheap way to prolong the shelf-life of foods and give an appealing taste and texture to foods. Cakes, pastries, biscuits and dairy spreads are just some examples of food high in artificial trans fats. Many restaurants and fast food establishments use trans fats to deep-fry food, as oils with trans fats can be used many times. Some countries (Denmark, Switzerland and Canada) have reduced or restricted the use of trans fats in restaurants. Trans fats are not conducive to health and wellness, and should be removed from the diet long-term.
What is saturated fat?
Saturated fats are typically hard at room temperature, for example, cheese or butter. These fats can raise cholesterol levels which can increase the risk of heart attack or stroke. All meat contains saturated fat, as does all dairy, butter, cheese and eggs. Replacing saturated fat with unsaturated, whole fats (such as those you get from nuts, seeds and avocados) has been consistently proven to reduce blood cholesterol and lower the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Iron is essential to transport oxygen around our body and to our muscles, this happens via our red blood cells in veins, arteries and capillaries. Iron is also important for energy production, immunity and production of our DNA.
There are two known forms of iron – haem iron (found in animal products) and non-haem iron (found in plants). We know that haem iron from meat is readily absorbed in comparison to non-haem iron in plants, but is this a good thing?
Research shows that our bodies have more control over our absorption of non-haem, or plant, iron. If the body is low in iron, it will adapt to increase absorption, if we have too much, it will decrease non-heam iron absorption, which is pretty clever!
Haem iron found in meat is readily absorbed, even if it is not required by the body. Once absorbed, our bodies have no efficient way of excreting it and, as iron is a pro-oxidant, too much can cause DNA damage and has been linked to some diseases including Alzheimer’s’ and Parkinson’s, cardiovascular disease, arthritis and some cancers.
If you are healthy and consuming a wide variety of plant foods, you don’t need to worry about iron as it is provided in abundance.
Some people do struggle with absorbing enough iron, this includes people with coeliac disease, those who are on proton pump inhibitors (or PPIs), or anyone with any abnormal internal or external bleeding.
In the UK, we recommend adult males and females over 50 years get 8.7mg and adult females below 50 years get 14.8mg of iron daily.
If you fall into one of the at-risk categories, or you feel you need to boost your dietary iron you don’t need to start eating meat.
To boost iron, you can add sources of vitamin C to your meals to support iron absorption (for example peppers, broccoli, grapefruit or orange), avoid tea and coffee at meal times, as the tannins in these drinks can inhibit iron absorption, and increase your intake of beans and pulses. There is also evidence to suggest cooking in a cast iron skillet can help increase dietary iron.
Research shows that those eating a purely plant-based diets are at no greater risk of iron deficiency than omnivores and have a high, or higher intake, of dietary iron.
Fibre is an essential, but perhaps overlooked, nutrient found exclusively in plant foods.
The benefits begin in the intestinal tract. Fibre bulks out stools making them softer and easier to pass, this promotes regular bowel movements and reduces the risk of constipation and associated diseases (for example diverticular disease), but the benefits by no means stop there.
Some of the fibre we eat is broken down by bacteria in our large bowel (known as our ‘microbiome’) into short-chain fatty acids.
The short chain fatty acids produced by the bacteria bind to specific cells of our gut lining which in turn generate chemical signals to our gut, pancreas and brain. These signals tell our body that we have consumed enough calories and directly maintain control of our blood glucose levels. Dietary fibre also helps to control our blood cholesterol levels and maintain the immune function of our gut.
In the UK, we are recommended to get 30g of dietary fibre per day. On average, we only reach 18g, a stark contrast to traditional plant-rich diets of our ancestors.
The most diverse microbiome ever studied came from the Hadza people of Tanzania who consume up to 100g of fibre daily. Interestingly, their community have virtually none of the common western diseases we experience here, including obesity, allergies, heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease and cancer.
If we don’t consume the fibre our microbiome loves, we are less likely to feel full, calorie consumption can go up, blood sugar control is disrupted and the gut lining function is less active, predisposing us to the health risks that are rarely seen in our Tanzanian counterparts, like obesity and cancer.