Sunday, 27 November 2011

003: But how do you get...?

As a vegan, a question I find myself constantly being asked is in relation to nutrition, usually in the form of: “but how do you get...?”  I don’t see it as a particularly challenging question, although I do know it is (more often than not) asked with the intention of somehow catching me off-guard and thus reducing me to a stuttering wreck who mutters something about lettuce and vitamin tablets before turning bright red (or beetroot, as us vegans prefer, har har).  No, I’m afraid what I eat isn’t challenging at all.  People want it to be.  They want veganism to be difficult to get right, difficult to follow.  It gives them another reason to label it as a “fad diet” or “extreme lifestyle”; incidentally, the way it is portrayed in the media (thank you Natalie Portman, Megan Fox et al).  This gives them another excuse to say “oh, I could never be a vegan, it’s too hard”. 

Following the “but how do you get...?” question is usually a changeable, but repeated, list of suffixes generally highlighting certain aspects of food which we have been told from Day One that we can only successfully acquire from the big Meat-and-Dairy diet.  The main suffixes usually proceed thusly: “[but how do you get] your protein/calcium/iron?” Well, I guess the easiest way would be to show you.

Where do you get protein?

The biggest sources of protein, we are told by GPs, the media, the food industries and so forth, are: meat and fish, eggs and cow’s milk.  An interesting fact worth noting here is that, where vegan diets are proven to provide correct and adequate amounts of protein to one’s diet, omnivores tend to eat more protein than is required or healthy.  And yes, too much protein is in fact a bad thing.  It is linked to kidney problems as well as kidney stones, to causing a calcium imbalance which can cause mineral loss in bones, as well as leading to higher levels of cholesterol and fat.  Furthermore, soya protein is actually equivalent in biological value to animal-derived protein. 1  This completely nullifies this idea that one must consume meat and dairy in order to have high levels of protein!

Vegans, on the other hand, obtain their protein from pulses (peas, beans, lentils, soya products), grains (wheat, oats, rice, barley, buckwheat, millet, pasta, bread), nuts (brazils, hazels, almonds, cashews) and seeds (sunflower, pumpkin, sesame).   Personally, I don’t see anything in there that’s particularly faddy or extreme, just good, clean, wholesome proteins designed to fill you up and aid in muscle growth.  Ah, wonderful protein. 

Where do you get calcium?

Everyone knows the answer to this one.  The best source of calcium is milk, right? Wrong.  Put down that glass of white stuff, people.  There ARE other ways to get calcium in your system without aggravating your body with another species’ baby juices.  Just 42g of almonds provide 100mg of calcium, or a 54g serving of brown bread will get you the same. 2  Leafy greens, spinach, broccoli, curly kale, watercress and spring greens also contain calcium and have the added bonus of being from vegetables, which aid calcium absorption.  Tofu also contains calcium, and most dairy-free milks such as soya and rice milk are fortified with calcium.  It’s never been something I’ve worried about as a vegan.

Where do you get iron?

Another easy one.  Red meat, duh.  Oh, and liver.  Mmm, yummy liver.  Again, there ARE other options out there. Nuts, for example – particularly cashews and pistachios.  Lentils and chickpeas also have a high iron content, as well as wholemeal bread and even dried apricots.  So, there’s really no need to worry over a vegan’s iron intake.  In fact, studies show that iron deficiency in vegans is no more prominent than in meat-eaters.  What is interesting to note, is that with meat, up to 22% of the iron is absorbed, whereas around 1-8% from plant foods is absorbed.  What increases the absorption of iron in plant foods is the presence of vitamin C, found in foods such as oranges and cauliflower amongst many others.  In fact, it tends to increase the absorption levels by three-fold. 3 And since a vegan diet is commonly high in vitamin C levels, vegans are able to maintain or exceed healthy iron levels, often without even consciously trying.

These are by no means an exhaustive list of the nutritional questions I come up against as a vegan; I have merely found them to be the most common, and also the ones in most need of being myth-busted.  As a vegan, one is generally more actively involved in what goes into ones diet, therefore allowing for a more conscious effort to be aware of nutritional content.