Plant-Based Nutrition: The Power-Ups and the (Very Few) Pitfalls

Power-Up 1: Protein

That macronutrient which non-vegans will never let you hear the end of… Containing essential amino acids (the building blocks of the body, ensuring bone and muscle and tissue and cartilage, as well as our skin and blood are all formed correctly and can repair as and when necessary) – adequate protein intake is crucial for hormone and enzyme production, too. One of the key macronutrients alongside fats and carbohydrates, the RDA for a person is determined by the simple sum of 0.36g multiplied by body weight in pounds. So, someone weighing 130lb would need 47g of protein each day. Those who are active bods and never go a day without a short jog or a brisk walk (or gym-bunny devoted trip to the gym) should certainly consider investing in a good protein powder, but others should strive for 3 servings of protein per day. Whereas omnivores will turn to Greek yogurt, salmon, and dark

turkey meat, vegans should think beans and legumes in the first instance, of which you only need half a 400g tin or less than a cup for one serving, as well as tempeh.

Pitfall 1: Iron

Alas, it is that bit more difficult to get adequate iron on a plant-based diet, but not because of a lack of it. Rather, phytic acid (aka phytates) in some vegetables (we’re looking at you, spinach) inhibit non-haem (plant-based) iron absorption by the human body. Vital for the health of our red blood cells, iron forms our haemoglobin

(that oxygen-transporting saviour of the blood, without which our immunity crumbles away and our energy becomes less than a limp lettuce leaf; though, more seriously, heart damage can occur if anaemia is left for too long unresolved). Nonetheless, to overcome absorption problems, have some vitamin C-rich foods with your iron-dense veggies: cooked spinach with

a drizzle of fresh lemon juice, a warm kale salad with slices of orange, or rocket scattered with raspberries… Taste-tastic enough to make Popeye jealous, we’d say.

Power-Up 3: Calcium

Ah, calcium: another point of correction needed in a conversation, just like protein, when the topic of the pros and cons of a vegan diet pops up. Calcium consumption throughout life is incredibly important if we want strong bones in later life (as well as properly functioning muscle contraction and blood

clotting, generally) and the RDA is between 1,000mg and 1,300mg dependent on age. Clever marketing having ingrained in people’s psyche that calcium

is only available in dairy products, plant-based sources of calcium actually do away with the risk of potential absorption of antibiotics, hormones, and trans fats from animal product calcium sources.

The human body, which stores 99% of calcium in the bones and teeth, is only able to absorb 30% of whatever calcium we do consume, but the calcium in plant-based foods is up to 65% absorbable.

Soaking beans and nuts helps our body better take in their calcium content, while tofu and plant-based alternatives to milk which are fortified with calcium are another option for the budding vegan. Be wary of relying on green leafy vegetables: they contain calcium, yes, but it is nearly voided by the presence of oxalates (particularly spinach).

Pitfall 3: Vitamin B12

By contrast, water-soluble vitamin B12 – crucial for a long list of physical processes, including DNA production, nerve function, cellular division, balanced homocysteine levels, cognitive performance and heart health – exists naturally in neither meat nor most plant-based foods. And we require roughly 6mcg per day… In fact, water lentils are thought to be pretty much the only significant source of readily bioavailable vitamin
B12. Nutritional yeast, on the other hand, is grown on a B12 medium for human consumption, while fortified plant milks and cereals are numerous these days (and if you eat too much of it, B12 simply gets stored in the liver for future use). As for meat and the surrounding myths of its B12 magnificence: what B12 can be absorbed from eating animal products
is thanks to the B12 both fed to the livestock and present in their own intestinal bacteria. Appetising.

Power-Up 2: Fibre

If you want fibre, the Whole Food Plant Based way of life is incomparable. Vital for gut health, aim to have between 4 or 5 cups of dietary fibre each day. That includes wholegrains (and sprouted grains), pulses and starchy vegetables such as sweet potatoes and squash, as well as fruits like pears and even berries. Remember, without fibre, our bowels wouldn’t work and without water, that fibre wouldn’t be effective – so keep hydrated and reach for the fruit and veg!

Pitfall 2: Fats

The human brain needs fat; it’s that simple. The brain itself consisting of two-thirds fat, 20% of that is the Omega-3 fatty acid DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). Over 500 million years of evolution, DHA has remained unchanged and as necessary as ever to vertebrate health (we creatures with backbones). And oily fish is the best source… DHA forms the myelin and assists development of the cortex – in short, in order to think, we need fat. “Fat” as a concept is not just insulation (sometimes a little too much insulation) and energy storage, but is also critical for nutrient absorption, cell signalling, and a properly functioning immune system (pretty crucial during these lingering pandemic days).

Unfortunately, although Omega-3s per se are bountiful in such plant-based sources as hemp seeds and flaxseeds, walnuts and pumpkin seeds, and dark green leafy vegetables (really), that is the shorter chain ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). Plant- foods do not contain DHA at all, and although it is possible for the body to turn ALA into DHA, as well as EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), most studies have found the conversion rate to be less than 10%; some have even found nil efficacy. Happily, algae oil is

a natural plant-based source of DHA and can be supplemented.

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