Welcome to the Ask a Dietitian column!

Over the course of the school year, our Registered Dietitians and dietetic interns get some deep questions regarding nutrition and food from students like you. We’ve noticed a trend in what people are interested in knowing more about, so we thought we’d post our answers for everyone to enjoy!

This month, we discuss veganism. Veganism is a total buzzword these days – it’s hard to have a day go by without hearing about vegan recipes and new vegan restaurants. But veganism isn’t just a celebrity fad anymore, and if you (like many other students) are considering adopting this dietary lifestyle, you must do so with as much reliable information at hand as possible to stay healthy and safe.

One student asks…

Dear Dietitian,

I’ve been a vegetarian for a few years now but have recently been considering veganism because of its health benefits. After seeing the ‘What the Health’ documentary on Netflix, I now strongly feel that I should not consuming any products that come from animals, but I’m worried that I may not be getting all the nutrients I need. Do you have any suggestions or guidance on keeping a healthy vegan diet? Thanks!

Thank you for your question. A well-planned vegan diet is definitely a healthy option that is high in fibre, vitamins, and antioxidants. Research shows that vegans also have lower rates of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. A healthy vegan diet requires some planning to ensure that you are eating a variety of foods to meet your nutrient needs. It’s important to make sure that you’re substituting the nutrients that you commonly get from animal products (such as meat, eggs, and dairy) and getting them from somewhere else. The nutrients that are crucial to pay attention to when cutting out animal products (iron, vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, meat-based protein, and others) are outlined below.

Iron helps carry oxygen around the body. We don’t absorb the iron in plant-based foods as well as the iron in animal foods, so vegans require twice as much as people who eat meat. Vegan sources of iron include legumes, soy products, quinoa, dark green vegetables, and fortified pasta and cereal. In order to absorb these sources of iron better, try eating iron-rich foods along with a source of vitamin C (such as citrus fruits or bell peppers). A good example of this would be a quinoa salad (the iron source) combined with broccoli, bell pepper with a lemon dressing (the vitamin C source). These sorts of combinations can really help your iron intake, but avoid drinking tea or coffee along with them – these beverages can decrease your ability to absorb iron.

Vitamin B12 keeps your nerve and blood cells healthy, but is found only in animal and fortified foods. Vegan sources of vitamin B12 include fortified soy, almond and rice beverages, Red Star nutritional yeast, and fortified meat alternatives. Even after including products fortified with vitamin B12 in your diet, you may still need supplementation. Speak with your doctor or Registered Dietitian for more information about vitamin B12 supplementation.  

Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium. We get vitamin D from the sun, however, we often need more than the sun provides (especially during our Canadian winter months). Keep an eye out for Vitamin D in certain fortified margarines and soy, almond, or rice beverages.

Calcium helps to keep your bones healthy and regulates heart and muscle contractions. Include vegan sources of calcium (such as almonds, sesame seeds, dark green vegetables, and fortified non-dairy beverages) in your diet.

Zinc contributes to wound healing and helps your immune system stay strong. Vegan sources of zinc include legumes, nuts, seeds, grains, and soy products.

Try to include vegan sources of omega-3 fatty acids (such as walnuts, ground flaxseed, and canola oil) in your diet as well. Omega-3 is an essential fat that helps contribute to cardiovascular health and cognitive function.

Keep protein in mind when planning your vegan diet. Plant-based proteins are thankfully plentiful and often lower in saturated fat and higher in fibre than animal-based proteins, so including them in your diet shouldn’t be too difficult. Don’t forget to take the time to determine how much protein you will require per day: an average healthy adult, for instance, requires approximately 0.8-1 g of protein per kg of body weight. By doing the math, you can determine that (if you weigh 65 kg) your protein requirement would be about 52-65 grams of protein per day. This requirement jumps a bit higher if you exercise often to help rebuild your muscles after working out.

Need some help thinking of protein-rich meal ideas? Try some of the following and let us know what you think in the comments!  

  • Have oatmeal for breakfast. ¼ cup of oatmeal has about 3 g of protein.
  • Have some almonds for a morning snack. ¼ cup almonds has around 8 g of protein.
  • Add black beans to your soup or salad at lunch. ¾ cup black beans have about 11 g of protein
  • Try a tofu vegetable stir-fry for dinner. ¾ cup tofu has around 16 g of protein.
  • Peanut butter on whole grain toast with a glass of enriched non-dairy beverage is a great protein-rich snack any time of the day.

The key to a well-balanced vegan diet is getting a wide variety of different foods. The above tips should help you plan out healthy vegan meals and get you on the right track. Check out the following resources for more information and should you have any other questions, feel free to reach out!

Remember: if you have some of your own questions to ask us, we’d love to hear from you! Email us at AskaDietitian@carleton.ca or visit https://dining.carleton.ca/nutrition/ask-a-dietitian/ and fill out the form at the bottom of the page.

Friday, December 1, 2017 in ,
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