While at Sano, we don’t advocate any particular way of eating, we think the ethical & moral advantages of vegan diets and nutrition are admirable and are huge advocates of including more plants into everybody’s diet wherever possible. So we’ve unpacked some of the questions & myths around vegan nutrition to break down any barriers you may have to trying this way of eating and to ensure you’re getting all the necessary protein, omega 3 and B12 you need from your food.
Vegan Nutrition – Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Firstly, let’s talk fatty acid balance in vegan nutrition.
We are reliant on omega 3 and omega 6 essential fatty acids (EFAs) in our diet. As their name suggests, they are essential and we cannot manufacture them. The thing is, our modern diets & lifestyles have left us in a collective state of potentially dangerous imbalance when it comes to the ratio of these two omegas – stress & too many vegetable oils in our diets have left most of us with elevated omega 6 levels.
Omega 6 fatty acids are used for normal brain function, growth, and development. However, we only need a very, very small amount of these per day in order for them to achieve their physiological goals. Once we go past this level, these fatty acids get shuttled down a different metabolic pathway and are turned into series 2 prostaglandins – the type that switches on and exacerbates inflammation. Which is not what we want if we want to stay healthy. Omega 3 fatty acids, on the other hand, have a positive influence on inflammation. The omega 3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are fed into metabolic pathways that produce the anti-inflammatory series 1 and series 3 prostaglandins. More omega 3 and less omega 6 in our diet is therefore incredibly important in preventing chronic health conditions. The best source of omega 3 is fish – which clearly poses a problem when you’re vegan or vegetarian.
So how can vegans get their fatty acid balance in check?
It’s a simple answer: supplement. Choose a good quality supplement from algae – a direct source of DHA and EPA – and be sure to read the labels to make sure all ingredients are vegan. Contrary to popular opinion, chia and flax seeds are NOT a good source of omega 3 for plant-based eaters. The ALA (the precursor to long-chain EFAs) in chia and flax seeds is not easily converted by humans to DHA and EPA, meaning you could eat chia seeds until you turn into one but you won’t get anywhere near enough conversion to reap the therapeutic, anti-inflammatory effects.
Vegan Nutrition – Vitamin B12
How do you meet your vitamin B12 needs on a vegan diet?
Getting vitamin B12 as a vegan can be tricky and vegans are at risk from deficiency. Lack of B12 can cause neurological damage, dementia, anaemia & cardiovascular disease, so it’s important to get enough. B12 is synthesised by bacteria in animal digestive systems & studies show it IS present in the human colon, but studies show that the majority of B12 in the humans is an inactive form. If we can’t rely on B12 synthesising in our guts, where can we get it from?
Animal food sources are organ meats, some oily fish, oysters, egg yolk & cheese. But if you’re not consuming these foods, you need your B12 from somewhere else – given the lack of evidence on the availability of B12 produced in the human gut or the bioavailability from plant sources, vegans should ensure adequate intake through fortified foods or supplementation. Fortified foods include some plant milks & some cereals. Supplements are available as tablets or liquids. There is continued research into if fermented plant foods are a source of B12 that is bioavailable to mammals. Rat studies using black tea are encouraging but there isn’t enough conclusive evidence to rely on this, so really, supplements are the best option.
Any suboptimal workings in the body can also lead to poor absorption of B12, even if you’re actually taking in enough. Stomach acid levels & stomach function are affected by diet, stress, medicines, bacterial infection, age & low micronutrient content of our food so managing these is important in ensuring the B12 you ARE eating is being absorbed. Even if you go back to animal products after Veganuary, it would be sensible to ensure you eat fortified foods &/or supplement during January.
Vegan Nutrition – Protein
Every plant-based eater knows the scenario: tell somebody you don’t eat animal products & the first question you get is usually: ‘so how do you get your protein?’. Well actually, as long as non-meat & egg eaters keep a cursory check on their protein consumption, it’s not too difficult. There are a couple of reasons why adequate protein is important:
- Protein helps balance blood sugar. Consistent blood sugar spikes over long periods of time is not good for health & can lead to a host of ailments incl. diabetes & metabolic syndrome. The way in which you combine your meals is key. The simple rule is always to consume protein with carbohydrates, which as vegans, you already have covered as plant sources of protein are almost always naturally combined with carbs. By doing this every time you eat you create a meal that takes longer to digest, so energy is released much more slowly so that you drip feed your blood sugar rather than carpet bombing it. This keeps your energy levels consistent without the troublesome peaks & troughs.
- Protein is also vital for growth & structural maintenance & also in the roles of enzymes, hormones, antibodies, transport proteins & regulating fluid balance.
So, where to get enough protein on a vegan diet?
- Soy has a bad rap but Dale is a fan as a valid source of plant-based protein due to its good amino acid profile, & it’s a great source of calcium. Unprocessed & fermented forms are the best options.
- Fresh soybeans are also a good, less processed protein option & make an easy snack. Regular consumption can lower LDL cholesterol (the type we don’t want lots of). Tempeh (fermented soy) packs the protein with the benefits of fermented food, which will keep your gut happy at the same time.
- Other beans, nuts & seeds also contain favourable amounts of protein along with healthy fats, which are essential to a healthy diet.
As a general guide, be sure to include a source of plant protein with every meal & snack to manage your blood sugar levels and ensure you’re getting enough in, & you can’t go too wrong.
Visit Sano To Go in London to try our delicious, nutrient-rich vegan menu. Every dish at Sano To Go has been made with real nutritional science in mind to create a menu of fresh, uncomplicated meals that are actually healthy for you.