Now, I’ve been vegetarian for 30 years, since I was a kid, and I remember my mum being really panicky about this when I told her that I wanted to become vegetarian at 9 years old. She said, "Well you can, I’ll cook your meals for you just as long as you eat fish". She was worried I wouldn't get enough protein and perhaps rightly so.
This week I've been putting questions to Nutritional Therapist, Anna Mapson (below) of Goodness Me Nutrion, all about how to move towards a more plant based diet, whilst also keeping ourselves fuelled and healthy with the nutrients we need.
As always, I love any topic which brings together planetary health and people health - and this topic has the extra benefit of animal health - BONUS! So it's a juicy one but I'll keep it digestible (mwah ha haa - mum joke!).
Anna is actually a gut health specialist and I worked with her not that long ago to help me sort out some IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) symptoms (mainly bad-ass bloating) that I'd been having for about 2 years. I'd seen the GP, tried cutting out sugar for 3 months (3 MONTHS!), reduced my dairy intake - nothing helped. That was until I started following Anna's recommendations and almost overnight, my symptoms improved dramatically. And I can still eat the occasional cake.
So that is why I asked for HER opinion on healthy plant-based diets, because you can't trust everything you read, but I do trust Anna. So here are my questions and Anna's answers, put as plainly as possible.
Q 1: Are there any particular sources of veggie/vegan protein that are going to help us get what we need and do you think the issue of protein in plant based diets is actually of real concern?
A: "It’s definitely of concern if you’re vegan and having no animal products at all. It is totally possible to get enough protein with a fully vegan diet, but you do have to think more about it because there are lots of different types of proteins with different amino acids.
When we eat protein it gets broken down into amino acids. Some of these are 'essential', which means we have to get them from our diet. Others are 'non-essential', which means our bodies make them from the ones we eat. To get all of the right ingredients to do all the different jobs our body needs to do, we need to eat lots of different types of protein sources, like nuts, seeds, tofu, beans, pulses. When going plant-based, you need to broaden it out as much as you can.
Choosing more protein-dense grains can also be an easy thing to do. For example, swapping from white rice to brown rice, adding quinoa etc as they’re a little bit higher in protein than white grains. Basically, every time you eat, try to think about little improvements you can make."
Anna pointed out that moving towards a plant based diet isn't necessarily about going fully vegan though. You may just want to cut back on your dairy and meat intake, for planetary and/or health reasons, but this advice about making sure you get enough nutrients, is still relevent.
Q 2: In terms of micronutrients ie vitamins and minerals, for people eating less meat and dairy, are there any micronutrients tthat hey may become deficient in?
A. "Possibly but it also depends on HOW you’re digesting your food. You can have a really good diet and put a lot of good stuff in but you may not be absorbing it very well. So it’s not just about what you eat but how you get that into your cells.
IRON is probably the one we talk about most because meat is a really good source of it. But you can get it from green leafy veg, nuts and seeds, wholegrains etc, you just need to make sure you're having enough of them every day, not just once or twice a week as you might with meat.
CALCIUM is another one. 2-3 portions of dairy a day gives you enough calcium. So you need to think about other daily sources eg almonds, green leafy veg again, sesame seeds, tofu that’s in a watery solution (not the firm, vacuum packed stuff).
Fortified foods can help a bit eg soya milk, but it’s usually not as bioavailable as natural sources. (Note, Bioavailable means 'entering the circulation when introduced into the body and so able to have an active effect'.)
OMEGA 3 we mostly get from fish. So you can get a vegan capsule which comes from algae in the sea, which is actually where the fish get it! There's a lot of research about inflammation, weight loss, memory all sorts of things that omega 3 can help with.
Another one is IODINE. It’s only actually in dairy products because of the way they use iodine to clean the milking equipment, but it’s the main source of people’s iodine in this country. However, you can get it from sea products like nori/sea weed which you can sprinkle on your salad etc daily."
Q 3: You mentioned bioavailability and our body's ability to absorb nutrients, is that related to your specialism, gut health then?
A: "It can be. We can go through periods where we’re getting inflammation/irritation of the gut lining which is stopping the absorption of some nutrients in the small intestine. This can happen due to stress, high alcohol intake, medication etc – just LIFE basically, So yes it’s possible.
However, moving to a more plant-based diet can be really helpful as the extra veg means you’re giving your body more fibre which feeds the gut bacteria in the large intestine. There are lots of health benefits to eating more fibre. So for most people, eating lots of fibre and plant-based foods is of benefit (for a few, it can make IBS symptoms worse). And some research suggests that we should eat 10 portions of fruit & veg a day, not the 5 a day that’s recommended."
And in case you're wondering, Anna says a portion is approximately a handful - so for your kids who have smaller hands, they need smaller portions. It's a really easy way to ensure you're all getting enough.
So there you have it, some essential info to get you moving more towards a plant-based diet in the healthiest way possible. Variety seems to be the key, as well as daily intakes of the right stuff.
I finished by asking Anna if she has any final recommendations for getting started with a new, plant-based diet and she recommended keeping a food diary for a few days to help you look in detail at how you might get your sources of macro nutrients (mostly protein) and micronutrients (vits & minerals). It'll help you see where you might be lacking.
Anna also thinks that when you're transitioning to a more plant-based diet, the shop bought more processed foods like veggie/vegan mince, suasage, burgers etc can be really hepful.
"They can be quite salty so for very small children you need to be aware of not giving them daily. But yeah they’re great, just to make life easier and adapt more slowly rather than just living off lentils. Doing it in this way means that your family might not kick off about it too!"
Great advice from a mum and Nutritional Therapist, who knows.
If you need a bit of recipe inspiration to get you going with cutting back on meat and dairy in the healthiest way possible, make sure you give Anna's 2 day high protein vegan diet plan a go. Plus here's another blog I wrote about my favourite ways to get more plant-based protein. And if you just need some support with IBS type symptoms, here's some more info about coaching with Goodness Me Nutrition.
That's it from me. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this blog and if you've been trying to cut back on your meat and dairy recently as I have.
Remember, never underestimate your power to change the world, (one veggie-sausage at a time).
To join the mailing list and never miss a blog post (plus get yourself a FREE 'stretch & unwind' workout video for busy mums), head here.
Wishing you health & happiness