When you go vegan, you cut animal products and animal by-products out of your diet – and your wardrobe – buy cruelty-free cosmetics, toiletries and household products. You don’t visit places where animals are used for entertainment and you avoid other ethically questionable practices. But no two vegans are the same so when it comes to what we eat, our diets likely vary a great deal. Does it matter?
Most people go vegan for ethical reasons while others take this step for their health or to tread lightly on the environment. We all gradually learn more about the other aspects of veganism and why it simply makes sense, whichever way you look at it. But as the endless debates on social media show, opinions are sharply divided over what a vegan diet should be and what matters.
Take me to the limit
Through my many years of being a vegan campaigner and advising people on vegan diets, I’ve met a huge variety of people. Some advocate ultra-healthy diets – no fat, no sugar, no salt – while others reckon it doesn’t matter what you eat as long as it didn’t come from an animal.
I understand the motivations for both and everything in between but it’s all about sustainability. Not the environmental kind as a vegan diet in general has the lowest environmental footprint – it’s about what’s sustainable for you in the long-term. If you finetune your diet to be as healthy as possible, it may become too restricted in some ways and leave you hungry at times when you can’t get your ideal food. On the other hand, if you survive on crisp sandwiches and chocolate bars, it’ll become unsustainable for your body to stay healthy and you’ll suffer the consequences sooner or later.
The common ground?
It’s our responsibility – as both adults and vegans – to be able to look after our bodies in a way that makes us not just survive but be healthy, too. You absolutely don’t have to start sprouting seeds and grains but there is a certain ‘minimum’ that we should stick to simply to make sure we’re getting all the essential nutrients. You can add to it as much vegan junk food as you like (well, within reason)!
So what’s essential? Every day, you should have:
- Some fresh fruit and vegetables – if you’re not a fan, sneak sliced veggies into a sandwich, blend fruit into a smoothie, add it into soya yogurt, stir finely chopped veggies into your main. Five a day is a minimum! (But the more the better.)
- A green leafy vegetable – one portion a day is a sensible strategy. We need them for several vitamins and minerals, including calcium and vitamin K, and they have some powerful antioxidants, too. Think broccoli, kale, spinach, rocket, watercress, cabbage, Brussels sprouts etc.
- Pulses and nuts and seeds – it depends what you prefer and how it fits into your day but all these foods are important sources of protein, healthy fats, vitamins and minerals that you’d be hard-pressed to find elsewhere. Tofu, made from soya beans, counts too and so do beanburgers and hummus!
- Wholegrains – not just the grains themselves such as oats, brown rice or quinoa, but also the products made from them – wholemeal pasta, bread, oatcakes, crispbread. If you’re on a raw food diet, feel free to drop them but if not, wholegrains are a valuable source of nutrition and keep your digestive tract healthy. If white bread is your ‘thing’, perhaps try to alternate white and wholemeal or do half and half.
- Vitamin B12 – we all need this elusive vitamin, that’s a fact. Whether you get it from fortified foods or supplement is your choice but as we age, our bodies are less efficient at absorbing it so a supplement is recommended for everyone over 50 (vegan or meat-eater). Deficiency may take years to develop but when it does, it’s has serious consequences so don’t underestimate the importance of B12.
- Omega-3s – they are referred to as 'essential' because our bodies can't make them and it's down to us provide a supply. There are several good sources, such as ground flaxseed, hempseed, chia seeds, walnuts and rapeseed oil (for cooking) - and they're also anti-inflammatory.
Not all ‘healthy’ food is healthy
It’s far too easy to let attractive packaging and flashy slogans mislead you into buying something you don’t need to spend money on when often there's nothing better than eating a good old piece of fruit. This is especially true for the many ‘health drinks’, particularly sweet vitamin waters or pasteurised fruit juices – they’re all just a drink full of sugar with not much nutrition. And the same goes for a lot of energy bars and flapjacks loaded with sugar and fat – unless you’re climbing a mountain or running around rescuing animals all day, you probably don’t need them.
Sadly, there’s no magic formula, just read the ingredients to know what you’re paying for and don’t let clever marketing convince you that you absolutely need the latest magical superfood.
Not all junkfood is junk
We’re used to perceiving certain products as healthy or not but there are many crossovers. So don't be confused! For example, a vegan hot dog – an alternative to meaty junk food – can be a vegan junk food if made from TVP, lots of fat and salt but it can also be fairly healthy if it’s tofu-based. A vegan pizza made with traditional, thin base and loaded with veggies, maybe pine nuts and not a huge amount of vegan cheese, can be a decent dinner but if it’s just a puffy base dripping with cheese and some tomato sauce, well, it’s just junkfood.
Processed to death
There are lots of accidentally vegan products and with veganism expanding rapidly, so is the range of snacks and ready-made foods that are suitable for us. While lots of the ready-made meals, such as sandwiches, salads, rice pots and curries are a good, on-the-go choice, many snack foods are highly processed, loaded with fat, sugar or salt. Just as bad, a worrying number contains the vegan-yet-evil-rainforest-destructor, palm oil.
We all learn along the way but if you’ve been vegan for a while, it might be time to rethink convenience foods – just because it’s vegan, doesn’t mean we should always embrace it or that it’s ethical.
Treats and cheat days
What works for most people is to roughly watch what they eat on a daily basis to make sure they get all the good and important nutrients and then have ‘cheat days’- for example at weekends when you go for the less-healthy and indulgent foods. In other words, mostly wholefoods with some junk food treats.
It’s generally a good idea to limit the amount of fat, particularly added fat, you eat – slathered on bread or poured over foods but mostly ‘hidden’ in deep-fried foods, takeaways and snacks. And the same goes for sugar – the less you eat the better… sorry about that.
There’s no ideal vegan diet but ideally, what you eat should make you thrive so non-vegans around you might feel more inclined to follow your example. That way it’s not just good for you but it’s a type of activism in itself.