Need some nutritional knowledge or answers to quandaries, queries or questions? Drop a line or email to Viva!Health’s vegan health experts.
Q. My GP has advised me not to go vegan saying that I will lack amino acids in the diet. Is she right?
A. No, she is most definitely not right! Protein-combining is very outdated thinking. A good, vegan diet can adequately provide all the amino acids our body needs. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein required for growth and repair of all body cells and they come in two varieties – essential and non-essential. For an adult, there are eight essential amino acids which have to be included in the diet as our bodies are incapable of making them and 12 other non-essential ones – those made in the body.
Protein is found in all plant foods and good sources include nuts, seeds, grains and legumes – peas, all types of beans and lentils, etc. Simply eating a normal variety of foods throughout the day guarantees that all amino acids are provided. There is no need to combine different plant proteins at each meal as the body has an amino acid ‘pool’ which collects all the different types. Having said that, combining tends to happen naturally with meals such as beans on toast. Beans are a rich source of the amino acid lysine but not so rich in methionine. Bread – like most cereals – is rich in methionine but not so rich in lysine. And that’s how it works.
Your GP may be working on outdated research which failed to assess the true protein value of plant foods. Newer analyses show them to be of extremely high quality. Soya is a good example and is nutritionally equivalent to meat as it contains all eight essential amino acids, so does the popular grain quinoa (pronounced keen-wah). Soya comes in the form of soya milk, tofu (bean curd), burgers, sausages, mince and other meat substitutes. Going vegan is one of the healthiest moves you can make.
FISH/OMEGA-3 FATS: Q. Do I Need Oily Fish? I’ve heard that even as a veggie I should eat some oily fish to provide me with all the beneficial types of fat my body needs. Is this true?
When you eat omega-3 fats they are converted by the body into what are called long-chain fatty acids – principally EPA and DHA – and they play a major role in the development and functioning of the brain, nervous system and cell membranes. They also help regulate blood pressure and are involved in the body’s immune and inflammatory responses. Obtaining omega-3 from plants and letting the body do the conversion means that the resulting EPA and DHA is fresher than that found, ready-made in oily fish such as salmon and sardines. Oily fish, of course, obtain their pre-formed EPA/DHA from plant sources – algae!
We need about 100-300mg of EPA each day and one tablespoon of linseed oil – of which 50 per cent is omega-3 fat – supplies approximately 200mg, the same as one large capsule of fish oil. A handful of mixed, unsalted nuts and seeds each day – walnuts, brazils, hazelnuts, almonds, linseeds, sunflower and sesame seeds – can also do the trick. Linseed oil makes a good dressing for salads and other cold foods but isn’t suitable for cooking as heat destroys the beneficial fats. A healthy alternative is olive oil. For more information see our Fish Campaign materials here.
FISH/OMEGA-3 FATS: Q. Cod Liver Oil Alternatives: Can you recommend a veggie substitute for cod liver oil – something to help grease my old bones a bit better and keep them moving!
You’re quite right to want to ditch fish oils, as our fish campaign materials shows. The stuff which seems to do the lubricating job is omega-3 fats. They also have anti-inflammatory properties, can help protect the heart, boost brain development and aid the retina and other organs, including the skin.
The argument often used against plant sources of omega-3 (ALA) is that it isn’t easily absorbed by the body whereas fish omega-3 oils are (DHA and EPA). In fact, the body is adequately equipped to convert ALA into both DHA and EPA – in other words, you can happily obtain your omega 3 from linseeds (flax), rapeseed oil, green leafy vegetables and walnuts.
In oil form, all you need is about a tablespoon of flaxseed oil a day. This oil must be keep cold and away from light or the oil will degenerate. It can be used for salad dressings and poured over vegetables but isn’t suitable for cooking, which destroys the fats. A handful of mixed, unsalted nuts and seeds each day, such as walnuts, linseeds, brazils, almonds, hazelnuts, sunflower and sesame seeds, can also do the trick.
Oily fish get their omega 3 from algae in the sea – and you can do the same. Find out how you can improve your conversion rates here.
SOYA/MEAT SUBSTITUTES: Q. Can Westerners Process Soya? I sit next to a guy at work who makes comments about my vegan diet and how, as it’s ‘short on nutrients’, it’s not good for me. His latest dig was about me drinking soya milk, saying that our bodies can’t process soya properly, unlike the Chinese. Any truth in it or is he just having another pop at my diet?
A. Soya foods have been a staple in China for over 4000 years and have been widely eaten in the West since the 1960s so they’re hardly new. There’s no research showing that we can’t process soya! It’s an excellent source of high-quality protein, containing all the amino acids found in milk and meat. But unlike animal products, it is low in saturated fats, cholesterol free and rich in soluble fibre. It is also high in the essential omega-3 fats. A mass of evidence links soya to lower cholesterol levels and good heart health – so much so that the US Government allows these claims on food products.
Soya beans also contain high concentrations of several cancer-busting compounds, including isoflavonoids, protease inhibitors and phytic acid. Low rates of breast and colon cancer in China and Japan are partly due to this, as are the low rates of menopausal symptoms in Japanese women.
Of course, there are good health reasons for not including cow’s milk or dairy in the diet at all. We’ve evolved to drink human milk but only until we are weaned and not beyond – and certainly not the milk of a cow. Human milk is tailor-made for human babies – and cow’s milk is tailor-made for calves. A calf doubles its birth weight nearly four times faster than a human infant does and so the composition of human milk and cow’s milk is quite different. If you want to understand more about diet and how it affects your health, look at our guides Nutrition in a Nutshell and Your Health in Your Hands.
A. There have been a number of newspaper articles about the risk of developing allergies as a result of eating Quorn. The Food Standards Agency, however, after looking at all the available evidence, believes Quorn is safe. The truth is, many foods can cause allergic reactions, particularly cow’s milk, eggs, fish, shellfish and peanuts. Compared to the numbers who suffer allergies from these foods, Quorn would seem to be very low risk.
No one food should dominate your diet so if you do eat a lot of Quorn, try to include other sources of plant protein such as grains, nuts, seeds, pulses and beans. Also bear in mind that Quorn, a fungus-based ‘mycoprotein’, is bound with eggs which some vegetarians (and most certainly vegans) find unacceptable. There has been talk of developing a vegan range – watch this space!
Write to Quorn telling them you think they should ditch the egg! Marlow Foods Ltd, Station Road, Stokesley, North Yorkshire TS9 7AB.
SOYA/MEAT SUBSTITUTES: Q. There have been scary stories in the papers about how soya is unhealthy. It’s a part of my diet so should I be worried?
A. The supposedly guilty parties are compounds called isoflavones or phytoestrogens. These behave like the female oestrogen hormone but are extremely weak – between 1,000 and 10,000 times weaker. Far from upsetting your oestrogen levels, isoflavones seem to normalize them.
There is far more reason to be worried about milk and dairy products. Two-thirds of UK cow’s milk comes from pregnant animals, when their hormone levels are sky high – 35 different hormones and 11 growth factors as well. These hormones are many many times stronger than phytoestrogens and have been linked to cancers of the breast, ovaries, prostate and colon.
Much of the research on soya is suspect. It involves not the whole soya bean but particular elements of it – isolates – and the tests are invariably carried out by feeding huge doses to animals, hundreds of times more than anyone would ever eat. There have been many more reports showing health advantages from soya, especially as part of a well-balanced, plant-based diet. Breast cancer has increased in the UK by 80 per cent since 1971 and affects one in nine women. We should be much more concerned about oestrogen than phytoestrogen, a plant hormone that has been consumed by millions of people for thousands of years. See more in our comprehansive and informative guide The Soya Story.
SOYA/MEAT SUBSTITUTES: Q A guy a work is always joking about men growing breasts if they drink soya milk or eat soya. True?
No! A few animal experiments have suggested that plant hormones in soya (phytoestrogens) can affect sexual development and fertility but these are flawed on many levels.
They usually involve injecting animals with extremely high levels of phytoestrogens – many, many times higher than any human eats. And phytoestrogens behave differently in different animals so they have no relevance.
Millions of infants have been raised on soya formulas in the UK and particularly the US, where 25 per cent of all infants have them. Many are now in their 40s and there have been no ill effects. And the use of soya in China hasn’t affected fertility rates! Far more damaging are the high levels of oestrogen in cow’s milk. See the White Lies report for further details.
Our factsheet, The Safety of Soya, examines the latest science on soya. We give you the facts on the wealth of health benefits and the supposed risks of the humble soya bean.
CHILDREN: Q. Do Kids Need Meat? I have just become a vegetarian but my mother is insisting I should eat meat. She says it’s essential for someone of my age and sex (I’m a 15-year-old girl). Is she right?
A. No! – and what’s so great about meat anyway? It’s linked to a string of diseases, including some cancers, heart disease and lacks essential nutrients – fibre, calcium and complex carbohydrates. It’s desperately short on vital antioxidant vitamins that protect you against disease – vitamins A (beta-carotene), C and E , being the main ones and found almost exclusively in fresh fruit and veg.
As for fear of iron deficiency (which is clearly on your mother’s mind), it’s no more likely to afflict a veggie than a meat eater. Having said that, it’s important for everyone to have iron-rich foods in their diet – green leafy veg, baked beans, dried fruit, cocoa and lentils are good sources. The other big concern is usually protein – bizarre since plant foods provide you all you need and it’s far less damaging than animal protein. Read more about the harmful effects of meat here.
A good vegetarian diet is based around complex carbohydrates from whole foods such as wholemeal bread and pasta and brown rice, potatoes and other starchy foods, with a good mix of fresh fruit and veg, grains and pulses and some seeds and nuts. It gives you more of all the nutrients you need and less of those you don’t.
CHILDREN: Q. My little boy won’t eat fruit and veg though I’ve tried everything, from dipping them in chocolate to hiding them under his chips! Is there no hope?
A. There are many ways to encourage young children to take fruits and vegetables – the most important is to make sure that you and your family eat them yourself. Learning by example is the best way to foster lifelong healthy eating habits.
Studies have shown that it can take several encounters with a new food before children will like it – up to a dozen! – so rejecting a food once doesn’t mean a child always will. Wait a few days and re-introduce it. Your son is bound to have some favourite foods and one good technique is to serve these foods alongside new or rejected foods such as fruit and veg.
Preparing foods differently may also help to make them more palatable, as will making them look attractive. Different vegetables add various tastes and textures so a brightly-coloured stir-fry can be a good way of increasing vegetable consumption. Or instead of just an apple, try serving a fruit salad. If your child isn’t hungry at mealtimes food rejection is easier so ensure your son isn’t too full from snacks when you serve new foods.
You can also disguise vegetables into meals that your son does like. For instance finely chopped vegetables can be sneaked into soup. Both fruits and vegetables can also be blended to make juices. Over time children will then develop a taste for these flavours.
Also, get him involved in preparing the meals himself to help develop an interest in food as well as a life skill! Some parents find that letting children grow some of their own produce also helps them pick up tastes for foods otherwise rejected.
There’s always hope, you’ve just got to be a bit patient!
VEGAN ON A BUDGET: Q. I don’t want to eat meat for ethical reasons and I’m convinced that it’s probably not that healthy but can I afford to be a vegetarian on a limited income?
A. Buying veggie burgers, imitation chicken chunks, vegan ice cream, and mock cream cheese can get expensive but they’re not the healthiest foods any way. Instead, enjoy plant foods in their own right rather than trying to imitate meat dishes. Whole grains, the vast array of beans available and vegetables make up the most economical, nutritious, healthy and tasty diets that you can find!
There’s such a choice! Whole grains include barley, buckwheat, corn, millet, oats, quinoa, rice, rye, spelt and wheat while pulses include peas, all the beans and lentils, for example, are both cheap and very filling. Porridge oats make a wonderfully nutritious breakfast cooked with water, soya, rice or oat milk or fruit juice – with added seeds, fruit or nuts. Tofu (soya bean curd) is now widely available, cheap and versatile and is rich in protein and calcium.
Make no mistake, fruits and vegetables are vital to a good diet – fresh, dried, tinned or frozen. A glass of fruit juice counts as one of your recommended daily five plus portions of fruit and vegetables. For inspiration, look in your local library for some good vegetarian recipe books and check our the budget section of our Vegan Recipe Club here!
VEGAN SLIMMING: Q. I would love to go veggie but I’m worried about what to eat in case I start piling on the pounds. Any tips?
A. A plant-based diet is actually a great way of controlling weight, even losing it. High-fibre foods such as vegetables, fruits, cereals, whole grains (brown rice, oats, wholemeal bread and wholemeal pasta) and legumes (soya products, lentils, peanuts, peas, and all types of beans) tend to keep weight off and are extremely healthy. Add to this a small amount of nuts and seeds each day and you’re likely to stay fit, healthy and slim.
The great thing about fibre, apart from its health benefits, is that tends to make you feel full and hence you’re likely to take in less calories – at meal times and between meals. Again, the guide Nutrition in a Nutshell contains sound advice on what you should be eating and how much of it. Official advice is for five portions of fruits and veg a day but there is strong evidence that if you eat more than this you’ll reap the benefits. For more information on how to lose and maintain a healthy weight see our materials here.
A. Food combining is associated with the Hay Diet and is offered as a way of solving digestion and absorption problems. It means not mixing starch (carbohydrates) and protein foods at the same meal, saving the body from having to produce two kinds of digestive enzymes at the same time. Carbohydrates are digested in the alkaline conditions of the mouth and small intestine whilst proteins need stomach acid.
What demolishes the Hay myth is that foods don’t consist of just carbohydrates or just protein but are a mix of both, plus fats – and that is what the body has evolved to cope with.
The main acid-forming foods are from animals – meat, fish, eggs and cheese. So, if digestion and absorption are problems, eat mostly alkaline-forming foods such as fruits and vegetables and pulses – soya beans, chickpeas, peas and lentils.
IRON: Q. I want to go veggie but have really heavy periods. I’ve been told I need to eat red meat to get enough iron. Is this true?
A. In short – no! Most of the iron in all our diets, including meat eaters, comes not from meat but from plant sources – and iron deficiency is no more likely to afflict veggies than meat eaters. That said, everyone, especially menstruating women, should include iron-rich foods in their diet.
Iron, found in red blood cells, is vital for transporting oxygen around the body. The whole range of pulses – beans, peas and lentils – nuts, cocoa, seeds, wholegrains and dried fruits are all good sources. And many breakfast cereals are fortified with iron. A generous bowl of fortified breakfast cereal, two slices of wholegrain toast with half a can of baked beans, plus 200g of cooked lentils such as dhal, easily meets your daily iron needs of 14.8mg. Men need considerably less – just 8.7mg a day.
The iron found in meat (haem) and that found in plants (non-haem) are different. Haem iron is absorbed quickly and continues to be absorbed and stored whether your body needs it or not. With plant iron, your body takes only what it needs. This is important as high iron stores as a result of eating lots of meat raise the risk of some cancers, heart disease and diabetes.
Vitamin C, such as in a glass of fresh orange juice, helps you to absorb iron. As tannin-rich tea and coffee slow absorption, it’s best to avoid them at meal times. See our fact sheet Ironing out the Facts.
GOING VEGAN: Q. My vegetarian daughter is trying to lure me away from fried breakfasts and bacon butties for my heart’s sake. But I’m 64 and I’d guess that the damage is already done – so what’s the point?
A. It’s never too late! Not only can a diet based on plant foods help prevent heart disease, it can even reverse some of the damage that might have already been done.
Heart disease and strokes (cardiovascular disease) are the main cause of death in the UK so your daughter has every reason to be worried – and so have you. Go veggie and your blood pressure, cholesterol and even weight are likely to drop – which all help to reduce your risks. Eating less saturated animal fat reduces hardening of the arteries. Vegan diets are lower still in saturated fat and are completely cholesterol-free!
The top treats for your ticker are – a plant-based diet where unhealthy saturated fats and hydrogenated fats are ditched in favour of healthy, plant-based oils such as olive and rapeseed, lots of fruits, vegetables, wholegrains and plant proteins, such as lentils, beans and soya. Take regular exercise, keep your weight down and don’t smoke.
You can still have a full English but with vegetarian sausages, mushrooms, baked beans, potato scones and grilled tomatoes (and try fried banana!) Grilled veggie rashers make a truly convincing ‘bacon’ butty. See more about how to achieve a healthy heart here.
GOING VEGAN: Q. I’d love to go vegan but where do I start? If I took all the meat, fish and dairy out of my cupboards I’d be like Old Mother Hubbard!
A. Whoa, making the decision to go vegan is a great step for mankind but can feel like a giant leap for you, so it’s often useful to go vegetarian first and change your diet gradually.
For starters (mains and pudding too!), check out the masses of different scrummy veggie foods available in the shops. As well as supermarkets, visit your local grocer and health food store as they usually have an even wider selection. Try whatever takes your fancy! A really healthy veggie diet will include fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grain breads, cereals, pasta and rice, nuts, seeds and pulses, ie all types of beans, soya products, lentils and peas.
Why not replace the mince in your shepherd’s pie with cooked lentils or that in your chilli with kidney beans? Or add tofu to your stir fry instead of chicken? Replace your Sunday joint with half a butternut squash roasted in olive oil? Mmm! Check out the VVF’s Vegetarian Shop catalogue for some ace cookery books to get your mouth-watering. Eating out couldn’t be easier either as pubs, restaurants and take-aways almost always have several vegetarian options plus vegan ones too.
Eventually you might want to try swapping your cow’s milk for soya, rice or oat milk or your usual choc with a bar of dark Green & Blacks but do it at your own pace. If you concentrate on making your vegetarian diet as healthy and as varied as possible, going totally animal-free will seem a piece of (vegan) cake!
We stock some super guides that can help wannabe veggies and vegans on their way. The L-Plate Vegan is a handy shopping guide. Martin Shaw Cooks Veggie is crammed with simple, animal-free recipes. Nutrition in a Nutshell explains how a veggie diet can easily supply all the vitamins and minerals the body needs. And send for our free Everyone's Going Dairy-Free guide, with recipes and info on dairy alternatives. See How to go Vegan for informnation and simple tips on how to veganise some everday dishes.
A. Constipation is when you go to the loo less often or you strain when you do go – caused by stools being hard and small.
Straining can not only be painful but it can also cause bleeding or swollen veins in the anus known as haemorrhoids or piles. If you’re bleeding regularly or your constipation lasts more than two weeks, see your GP! Constipation can also produce stomach ache and cramps, bloating, nausea, headaches, a furred tongue, tiredness and depression.
Make sure you get enough fibre from vegetables, pulses and wholegrain cereals – there’s no fibre in animal products! Drink one to two litres of water a day and exercise regularly.
UNDERWEIGHT: Q. I went vegetarian last year and I love the food – in fact I can’t get enough of it. But I’m struggling to keep my weight up. Help!
A. Don’t panic! Firstly, see your GP to rule out any underlying medical cause, such as diabetes or an overactive thyroid gland. It’s important for anyone who’s underweight or rapidly losing weight to have these checks.
But being underweight is usually caused by taking in less calories than you use up. So, try to eat a wide variety of foods, including a range of fruits and vegetables. Carbohydrates, preferably whole grains (brown rice, wholemeal pasta, whole grain cereals, wholemeal bread and so on) should make up the bulk of your diet – providing up to 75 per cent of your total calories.
Try to eat regularly, having five to six meals each day (two to three main meals and two to three snacks) and include some rich protein sources with each meal. Nuts, seeds, beans (not just baked beans: think chickpeas, kidney beans, lentils, peas…) and soya bean products such as tofu and soya milk are all great sources.
You could also up your calorie intake by adding high calorie foods such as seeds, avocado, houmous, nuts and nut butters (eg peanut butter or cashe butter), good quality oils and tahini (sesame seed paste) to salads, in smootihies, soups, stir fries, stews or pasta dishes. The combos are endless and I’m sure you’ll enjoy trying them out!
Check out our guide The Food of Champions for nutritional advice and recipes fit for athletes looking to bulk up their bulges!
SUPPLEMENTS: Q I’ve been vegan for 14 years and think I have it sussed! But should I take supplements in case I’m missing something?
If you’re a clued-up vegan, the only thing you’re likely to be missing is a string of preventable diseases! Heart disease, strokes, high blood pressure, diabetes and some cancers are all less common in vegans.
Fuel up on a wide range of fruit and veg, wholegrains (think brown rice, wholemeal pasta, millet, oats…), pulses (peas, all types of beans and lentils), small amounts of nuts and seeds and their oils (eg flaxseeds, walnuts, hemp and rapeseed oil) and a daily source of vitamin B12, such as fortified soya milk or breakfast cereal. Get your iodine from sea vegetables, kelp tablets, iodised salt or Vecon yeast extract two or three times a week.
Tofu, nuts, seeds and fortified non-dairy milks all provide calcium and spending time outdoors will up your levels of vitamin D, produced from sunlight on your skin. If this is your diet, supplements should be unnecessary. If you do take them, choose a multivitamin and mineral tablet which provides no more than 100 per cent of your recommended daily intake (RDA).
Nutrition in a Nutshell explains how a veggie diet supplies all the vitamins and minerals you need and includes a guide to food portion sizes. For more information see our informative facts sheets on iron, protein, vitamin B12 and calcium here.