How To Do Vegan Right
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All About Vegan
Before beginning our journey into how to do vegan right, let’s begin at the beginning with what is veganism?
Basically, being vegan is avoiding animal products, which sounds so simple, but don’t judge too quickly.
While when we think of being vegan we think of things like avoiding meat, animal products are actually incredibly diverse and are in a whole range of things that you probably wouldn’t think of.
Take sucrose for example, which is table sugar. Is it vegan friendly? After all, it comes from a plant. Well yes, it does, but it’s often processed with bone char, which is an animal product, so it’s mostly off limits to vegans.
Lactose, which is another sugar, is also an animal product. Even the amylase used to make high fructose corn syrup, an ingredient that’s ubiquitous these days, can be animal derived (although it’s mostly not, but it might be).
Various supplements are a no-go, like D3 due to using fish oil. Honey is mostly off limits due to arguments around honey production being inhumane.
Being vegan, then, is not as simple as we might imagine, especially when first starting out, as there’s a number of things to learn and get on-board with. Indeed, you’ll often find yourself reading ingredient lists (and having to find out what certain things are) when first starting out.
There’s also an offshoot to veganism, which is plant based. Actually, let’s briefly discuss the differences between the 3 animal avoiding diets before moving onto how to do vegan right.
Differences Between Vegetarian, Vegan, & Plant Based
Being vegetarian simply means not consuming meat and flesh. It can also include not consuming any products that involve animal slaughter. Eggs, cheese, etc., are all on the menu for a vegetarian. Leather shoes may or may not be on the menu for any particular vegetarian.
Vegan is not consuming anything of animal origin. Eggs and cheese are not on a vegan’s menu. Neither are leather shoes.
Plant based is descriptive. It’s a diet that’s comprised of plant based foods. Eggs and cheese are certainly not plant based. Leather shoes can be on or off the menu for any particular plant based follower.
All of them can be healthy or unhealthy, depending on how they’re done.
There’s also the notion of a ‘strict vegan’, which is the idea of “things needing to be natural”. So anything packaged is largely out and off the menu for these folks.
However, the idea of things needing to be natural is somewhat a red herring as everything we eat these days has been modified in some way and you won’t be eating anything in its “pure and natural state”.
Nor should you really care about this because actually natural stuff wouldn’t taste as nice, wouldn’t be as wholesome, and the idea of natural = good (or unnatural = bad) is just the appeal to nature fallacy anyway, so forget about it.
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So in a nutshell, veganism is just avoiding animal products, but I guess the next question is why would we want to do this?
Why Go Vegan
The motivations to be vegan mostly hinge on 4 themes:
This developed from the belief that causing harm to sentient creatures for our personal gain is unethical, and it’s easy enough to understand the reasoning and is testament to some moral progress (at least in principle) in our race—although the vegans who commit harm to humans (another sentient creature) in order to enforce their point seem to have missed the memo.
The effects of deforestation are particularly egregious, much of which is to accommodate agriculture—something that contributes considerably to greenhouse gas emissions.
This is arguable depending on how it’s approached. Improved health is most certainly not a given as being vegan can actually be unhealthy.
Of course, how to do vegan right is what we’re here for, and to which we’ll be turning to next.
Again, this is not a given, and being vegan can easily lead to weight gain. We’ll consider this later.
How To Do Vegan Right
So Is Going Vegan Healthy?
Well, if we know how to do vegan right, it can be, but it’s not necessarily so. The reason for this is blatantly obvious if you take a quick look at a lot of the ‘vegan’ foods found in the shops—they’re high calorie, high fat, low fibre, low protein, and low in nutritional value.
Hardly poster foods for a healthy diet, I think you’ll agree.
Vegan For Weight Loss
And it’s the same reason why achieving weight loss on a vegan diet is not a given. If your diet is comprised mainly of high calorie, and low protein and fibre foods then there’s more chance that you’ll actually gain weight on a vegan diet rather than lose it.
To make veganism a healthy diet and improve our health and/or achieve weight loss with it then we should modify it into a predominately plant based diet.
There are other ways to do it, but plant based is an easy modification (and arguably the most healthy).
A Plant Based Diet
As mentioned above, a plant based diet is any diet that consists mostly or entirely of foods derived from plant sources.
There’s a chance this might sound strange to you. I mean, vegan and plant based, they’re the same thing, right?
Well, no, they’re not.
Just because something is vegan doesn’t mean it’s also plant based, but the same can’t be said for the opposite. That is, if something is plant based then it’s also going to be vegan.
So if you’re plant based then you’re also vegan (from a dietary perspective). But if you’re vegan then you’re not necessarily also plant based.
For example, soda/fizzy drinks can be vegan friendly, but they’re not plant based friendly. In fact, any ultra processed foods (1, 2,) could be vegan friendly (many of which are actually promoted to vegans), but it’s unlikely that they’re plant based friendly.
Cleaning Eating & Plant Based
An extension to the plant based diet is the idea of ‘clean eating’. To be fair, this is a pretty vague and ambiguous term, with a fundamentally correct definition being unavailable, but one interpretation that seems to work and sit well with most people is that of ‘low chemical’.
That is, clean eating is eating foods with the least amount of chemicals.
Strictly speaking, this is a poor definition because everything we eat is comprised of numerous chemicals. After all, just take a look at the chemical composition of a banana:
Water, Glucose, Fructose, Sucrose, Maltose, Starch, Fibre, Glutamic acid, Aspartic acid, Histidine, Leucine, Lysine, Alanine, Serine, Glycine, Threonine, Isoleucine, Proline, Tryptophan, Cystine, Tyrosin, Methionine, Palmitic acid, Omega 3 fatty acid, Omega 6 fatty acid, Linoleic acid, linolenic acid, Oleic acid, Palmitoleic acid, Stearic acid, Lauric acid, Myristic acid, Capric acid, Ash, Phytosterols, E515, Oxalic acid, E300, E306, Phylloquinone, Thiamin, Riboflavin, E160a, 3-Methylbut-1-YL, Ethanoate, 2-Methybutyl, Ethanoate, 2-Methylpropan-1-OL, 3-Methybutyl-1-OL, 2-Hydroxy-3-Methyethyl, Butanoate, 3-Methybutanal, Ethyl Hexanoate, Ethyl Butanoate, Pentyl Acetate, 1510, Ethene Gas.
That’s quite the chemical make up!
I suppose we could attempt to get around this by saying only ‘natural chemicals’, which has its own problems, such as if we’re not versed in chemical naming then we’d likely look at the above and assume that much of that was actually ‘unnatural’.
It also runs the risk (again) of assuming natural = good, which isn’t the case at all because if there’s something that nature is particularly good at it would be killing things.
But, by and large, the clean eating diet and the plant based diet are largely similar from a practical perspective, and the differences are mostly found in the ideology and beliefs of the followers.
However, another risk of this natural = good idea is that many end up taking it to extremes, as can be seen with the raw food dieters.
The Raw Food Diet
The raw food diet is basically anything that hasn’t been packaged, refined or chemically processed, and not heated above some (largely arbitrary) value.
Two reasons are promoted for following this diet. The first is just the appeal to nature fallacy again, and the other is the idea that heating food up will destroy the enzymes in the food, which means your body has to use its own energy to produce its own enzymes, which is wasteful and results in a less than optimal system.
And just like the other pseudoscience diets (the alkaline diet comes readily to mind), the reasoning behind all this doesn’t make sense.
First, any enzymes in food are irrelevant insofar as our abilities are concerned—eating an ox won’t make you stronger. Well, at least no stronger than, say, plants will that have the same amino acids, fats, and carbohydrates.
Second, digestion will destroy the enzymes anyway. So whether you destroy the enzymes through cooking or not, before the constituents of whatever you’ve eaten hit your blood stream the enzymes will have been destroyed by either the environment of your stomach or the digestive processes of your intestine.
Cooked Food Is Safer Food
However, even if we give a pass to the waffle, there is a very good reason to cook a lot of our food, and that is to kill parasites. Cooking much of our food is just all round safer.
Granted, cooking food can also destroy some goodness is some foods, like vitamin C, but we can get around that by eating raw fruit.
Add all this up and there is barely any reason for following a raw food diet—save for wanting to eat copious amounts of food and not suffer the consequences of easily gaining a lot of fat.
But we don’t need, nor should we want, to eat everything raw.
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Why Is Vegan Good For Health & Weight Loss?
So if that’s all the ways we can do veganism wrong, we now need to know how to do vegan right. That is, how do we make it healthy and/or lose weight on it?
Well, as mentioned above, we should do veganism by following a predominately plant based approach. This ensures that our vegan diet is comprised mainly of wholefoods, which bring a whole bunch of goodness along with them.
In a nutshell, improved health and/or weight loss is achieved through wholefoods for 3 reasons:
High nutritional value
Low calorie in large volumes
High Nutritional Value
In many ways this doesn’t need to be said (save for completeness) because any adult knows that wholefoods are where the abundance of nutrition is found.
Not basing your diet around wholefoods is actually an excellent route to malnutrition.
There’s a number of benefits to fibre, not least of which is that a high fibre diet appears to decrease risk of various diseases (all-cause and cardiovascular related mortality, coronary heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, colorectal cancer, lower bodyweight, lower systolic blood pressure, and lower total cholesterol).
Other benefits of fibre containing foods are high nutritional, vitamin and mineral value, motility, and are aids in a healthy gut microbiome.
Low Calorie In Large Volumes
Along with the high fibre content, this is the reason why being vegan is good for weight loss (as well as maintenance).
To spell it out so you know what is meant, this is a large volume of food but yet contains a low amount of calories. For example, 1kg of spinach is not much over 200 calories! That’s a bucket of spinach for around the same calories as 2 slices of bread.
And this is why a plant based vegan diet is good for weight loss. Not only is it high in fibre, which fills you up and aids in satiation, it’s a large amount of food with minimal caloric value—it makes you full by being a lot of food in your stomach.
High fibre foods are also often high in water content, which further aids in filling you up.
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But these 3 things, high nutritional value, high fibre, low calorie dense food, are not something you necessarily get if you only go down the vegan (or vegetarian) route.
To be fair, even a plant based approach is not without its potential pitfalls, especially when eating out. Some plant based salads I’ve seen are north of 2000 calories! Nuts, oils, seeds… calories can rack up fast. And vegetarian stuff can be even worse as we can then throw a whole bunch of cheese on top.
Regardess. a plant based approach to veganism is a reliable route to improved health and/or weight loss.
There’s 4 other things we should take note of when following a vegan or plant based diet.
4 Things To Ensure Health On A Plant Based Diet
Being cognizant of the following 4 things when on a plant based diet will ensure your health isn’t compromised:
Essential fatty acids (omega 3 and 6)
The idea here is not so much the amount of protein but rather the idea of complete protein. To clarify:
All cells function through their proteins and the body is largely comprised of them. Proteins are made up of amino acids.
Think of an amino acid as a bit of data, and to create a protein (protein synthesis) you need all the data—the amino acids, ribosomes, transport RNA, etc.
Your body can generate some of this data on its own, but others it cannot.
The data that it can’t create on its own has to come from the diet, and this data that we get from the diet are called the essential amino acids.
There are 9 essential amino acids, and when you eat all 9 in sufficient amounts you are said to be getting a complete protein.
If you’re body hasn’t got complete protein then it’s got incomplete data and information, which means it can’t create the proteins that it requires.
How Important Is Complete Protein In A Single Meal?
This is tricky to answer definitively and won’t be a one-size fits all. Sure, the body has amino acids in at all times (known as the amino-acid pool), so your body can combine meals from different sources at different times to form complete proteins, but the question though is one of whether this being an ideal situation or not?
That’s not a rhetorical question, it’s just difficult to answer definitively for any one in particular.
So while, yes, you can just eat some (incomplete) protein, and then later on complete that protein with another source by combining it with the amino acids in your blood, maybe it would be better to just complete the protein in one go and forget about it?
An argument against the necessity of this is that protein deficiency is not seen, at least in developed countries, so the fuss with single meal complete proteins is just a much ado about nothing because we’re obviously all okay anyway.
However, the most egregious and chronic problems with not eating enough protein can take years to manifest, and the more acute problems (like muscle loss, weaker bones, hormone imbalances, accelerated aging, mood disorders, weakened immune system, etc.) would likely go unnoticed for a long time.
For that matter, would you ever really notice them anyway?
Of course, the choice is yours, but eating complete protein is not hard to do, removes any doubt, is likely required for performance purposes, and makes meals more varied, tasty and enjoyable, so our recommendation is to just complete the protein with your meals whenever possible.
How To Get Complete Protein In A Plant Based Diet
Remember, to get a complete protein you just need to get all 9 essential amino acids in sufficient amounts. So while you can find various combinations from just a quick search, to make your own combinations you just need to find sources of protein that compliment each other, giving you all 9 essentials—and if you don’t want to bother yourself with any of this then just ensure you eat high variety and you’ll probably be fine, at least for maintenance purposes.
The 9 Essential Amino Acids
Here are the essential amino acids:
The figures in brackets are the individual requirements per kilogram of body weight per day. Basically, if you were to multiply that figure by your body weight (in kilograms) you’d know how much of each amino acid you’d need (for maintenance).
You don’t (really) need to know that, but we wanted to include it for completeness as some protein sources have an imbalanced amino acid profile, as well as plant based protein sources not always being as bioavailable as we’d like them to be (we’ll say a bit more on this below).
Plant Based Combinations For Complete Protein
If we mix up legumes, nuts, seeds, wholegrains and vegetables then we’re already there—such as legumes & nuts, seeds, or grains—but right off the bat we also have quinoa, soybeans (tofu/tempeh), amaranth and Ezekiel bread, which are all complete proteins standing on their own.
The amino acid profile of quinoa is not ideal, but it’s decent, and the profile of soybean can depend on where it came from. But, for the most part, they’re fine.
Here are some base combinations:
Rice & Beans
Hummus & Pita
Wholewheat & Nuts
Seitan & some source of lysine (onions, peppers, carrots, mushrooms, etc.)
Spirulina & Oats/Nuts/Seeds/Grains
Pulses and lentils, although technically complete proteins, are particularly deficient in methionine, so couple it to something with that in decent amounts (oats, spinach, seeds, nuts, etc.). Pulses are also an excellent choice when used as the main ingredient in meat alternative dishes.
The practical step for making your own combination is to decide on a food you like (say, beans), then check the amino acid profile of it. Notice what amino acids it’s lacking (in this case, and depending on the bean, it’s often methionine), and search for a source that you like of those amino acids. Then just put the two (or more) together.
It’s worth pointing out that thinking you’ll have to spend ages doing all this, such as researching and coming up with multiple fanciful combinations on a regular basis, is probably not the case.
After all, how many completely different meal combinations do you have now? Unless you’re a total foodie the answer’s probably not all that many.
And if you are a foodie then you’ll enjoy the process of doing it anyway.
The bioavailability of the protein is also something to consider, as we might be eating X amount of protein but our bodies are only getting X-Y of it to use. A select list of values can be found here.
As you can see, the values for protein utilisation and the DIAAS (available after taking any antinutrients into account) range from the mid 70’s into the mid 90’s for animal protein and mid 50’s to mid 60’s for plant protein. Some of the DIAAS values are even worse for plant based due to the various antinutrients (29 for white bread, for example).
But not all plant sources are poor, pea protein being an example of a particularly good one.
So what does this mean? What’s the take away? It just means you need to eat more of it if you’re relying on a poor quality source for your protein—you can also take the probiotic B. coagulans 30 to help with absorption and utilisation.
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That was quite a long account for protein, but we’re still on the 4 Things To Ensure Health On A Plant Based Diet (the remaining 3 are much shorter, we promise!).
The things to take away from this spiel on protein are:
Protein, or rather, the essential amino acids, are extremely important, so don’t forget about or neglect it.
Eat various sources of protein, and mix them together when desirable.
If you’re concerned about performance then you probably want to spend a little more time understanding exactly what you’re eating and acting accordingly.
B12 & Iodine
B12 is essential for health, and while it’s easy to get when on an omnivore diet, when on a plant based diet it’s not so easy.
In fact, it’s so difficult to get sufficient amounts that you just want to supplement for it instead. Yes, you can consume yeast extract for it, but the amount you have to eat for sufficient B12 intake isn’t practical.
Likewise with iodine, getting sufficient amounts of this from things like potatoes and strawberries isn’t practical. You could eat seaweed, but much of the world doesn’t routinely eat this so it’s not very usable advice for many of us.
Just supplement for both and forget about it.
Omega 3 & 6
These are also essential for health. There’s 3 types: ALA, EPA and DHA.
ALA is easy to get on a plant based diet, with seeds (particularly flax seed or oil having the best profile) being the most notable way to get it.
Nuts are often advised, but the ratio of 3 to 6 is way off on all of them. The same applies to avocado.
And while we don’t need to decrease our omega 6, we do need to think about increasing our omega 3. And it’s tricky on a plant based diet. In fact, the only reliable way to do it is to take micro-algae supplements.
The body can actually convert ALA to EPA and DHA, but it’s not very efficient at it, so relying on this route alone might not be enough.
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That, basically, it the low-down on how to do vegan right, but should we do so? Are we designed to be plant based?
Are We Designed To Be On A Plant Based Diet?
If you were to listen to some of the ideologues in the vegan and plant based world you’d hear the answer as a resounding yes! This belief seems to hinge on 2 ideas. The first is our long digestive tract and the second is the existence of teeth built for grinding.
Neither of these really stand up.
First, the teeth. Yes, we have molars, but we also have incisors and canines. What are we to make of that? Are we, in fact, really carnivores instead? Of course not.
Second, the long digestive tract. The answer to which is, so what? If we were herbivores then we would have adapted to more adeptly digest fibre.
If we look at some of the animals that are actually plant based and can effectively digest fibre, i.e. the ruminants, we can see that we have a wildly different digestive tract than they do.
I mean, some of them have 4 chambers to the stomach! We, in contrast, have 1.
We’re not designed to be plant based, just like we’re not designed to be carnivores. We are, in fact, designed to be omnivores.
But we don’t have to be. And we certainly don’t need to invent waffle to support our plant based position. We can be plant based, we can take it to be healthy, and we know it’s even beneficial in certain respects (such as with various health and environmental issues).
The question, then, is do you want to be plant based? If you do, then great! But do it right.
Being vegan is not necessarily healthy due to the ease with which you can go exclusively vegan on ultra-processed foods.
It’s also not necessarily good for weight loss due to the ease with which you can go exclusively vegan on high calorie foods.
Going predominately plant-based is a better choice, for both health and weight loss.
Have variety in mind.
Keep half an eye on protein.
Keep one eye on omega 3. Consider supplementation, especially if you’re in a group with increased needs, such as pregnant or breastfeeding.
Supplement for B12.
Supplement for iodine.
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