Hey Vegans! (& those who love them): 5 Important Nutrition Pointers.

Via Ann Halsig
on Sep 18, 2012
get elephant's newsletter

Anybody who knows me (or reads me) knows that I’m not too keen on preaching about being vegan.

It’s something that’s very dear to me in terms of my life decisions, but I’m also well aware that people don’t like being told what to eat or how to eat it, and ranting about it is about as likely to get someone on one’s side as beating them over the head with a butternut squash.

What I’m struggling increasingly to keep quiet about is how vegans too often eat because:

  1. they personally don’t understand how important nutrition is;
  2. they trip over themselves incessantly in an effort to appease omnivores (a subject about which I intend to write very soon); and/or
  3. they fall victim to a lack of available foodstuffs that can keep them healthy.

Being vegan is not rocket science.

I have found time and again that the basic menus of many agricultural, indigenous groups lean toward vegan, particularly where meat is scarce and pricey. But sometimes being spoiled for choice isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. London, for example, is one of the most vegan-friendly places in the world. Le Puy-en-Velay is arguably on the other end of the spectrum. And yet I’ve been eating better in France than I have at perhaps any point in my life, while in London my health faltered dramatically.

Yes—I have done the poor eating thing. As a young person I was blessed with that limitless energy with which so many young people are blessed, and I could go ages without a nutritious plate of food. Many, many times a bag of chips or peanuts comprised a meal for me. I suppose I knew it wasn’t good for me, but then I was a smoker who slept about three hours a night on average, so health wasn’t top of my list.

Bad eating habits are the norm for the 16 to 25 group. But we get a bit older and realize that ain’t gonna cut it anymore. This applies to every person eating any diet at all. Wholesome eating takes time and energy (and is not necessarily expensive, but that’s another article entirely)—two things young people are likely to reserve for almost anything before preparing a meal.

Putting all this aside, as well as any and all judgment, the bottom line is this: a nutritious vegan diet is not something most of us are accustomed to accommodating—for ourselves or  anyone else—and it can be tricky to make it work. If you (or a loved one) are trying to figure out how to address the desire to eat ethically, here are a few strictly nutritional pointers:

1. Yes, vegans must have protein. Ahem. Yes, they must.

This has done my head in for years, not least because at the tender age of 19, on one of the loveliest islands of the world, surrounded by sun, crystal waters, sand, and staying in the poshest resort I’ll quite likely ever experience, I got sick. Like, really, really sick. Like, the medic on the island almost called a doctor out by helicopter because she was certain that I had malaria. Until she found out what I’d been eating.

Medic (looking at her notepad as she writes): What have you been eating?

Me:  Well, mostly vegetables and rice…erm…actually—yeah—that’s all I’ve had since I’ve been here.

Medic (looking up at me with wide eyes): How long have you been here?

Me:  Two weeks.

Medic (after a long pause, and with a look of blatant exasperation): You don’t have malaria. You’re malnourished. You need protein.

Me: But I’m vegan.

The medic didn’t know what vegan meant, and she didn’t care. Now much older and wiser, I can see her point. At the time, I went on being pretty damn sick out of some sort of stubborn resolve to remain true to my principles. Today, under similar circumstances, I would eat a fish.

Vegans need protein. At nearly every meal. Just like omnivores. We don’t eat nearly as much protein as most omnivores, because, frankly, most omnivores are protein poisoned. What are sometimes called high-quality proteins can be found in beans, nuts, and seeds. Low-quality protein is found in dark green vegetables and most other whole grains. Matching two proteins of these types is important, but it’s not as strange or difficult as it might seem. Beans and (brown) rice? Nuts or seeds on that (dark leafy green) salad?

Go on. Re-fry me. You know you want to. (Photo: Nourishing Cook)

Three superstar protein sources are tempeh, quinoa and soy. None of them need a compliment—they’re complete all by themselves. Soy’s gotten a bad rap over the last several years—like red wine, there are those who swear by it and those who swear it’s poison. I’ve been eating several servings of soy per day for all of my adult life—as have most Chinese people—and I’m doing okay. But it’s about whatever works for person behind the plate, really.

If we don’t have enough protein, here’s what happens: We get irritable. We get shaky. We get kinda dumb, like, Huh? What? We get headaches. And it only gets worse from there.

2. Vitamin B (and Zinc)

Oh, had I known how very, very important these nutritious friends really were!

Most of us know that B’s come in all shapes and sizes (B1, B2, B3, B6, B12). These are not impossible to find in the world of fruit, vegetables and grain!

B1: whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans and nutritional yeast (640 percent)

B2: whole grains, asparagus, brocolli, spinach, mushrooms and nutritional yeast (570 percent)

B3: sesame seeds, peas and nutritional yeast (280 percent)

B6: whole grains (including oatmeal), soy, peanuts, raisins, bananas and nutritional yeast (480 percent)

B12: fortified stuff and nutritional yeast (130 percent)

I’ll be the first one to admit that B12 is a tricky one. But I’m also gonna come out and say—hooray for nutritional yeast! Some people think it tastes nice…I think it tastes like nutritional yeast. But I swear by this stuff. Those figures in percentages above are the percentage of one’s daily recommended values just one serving of it provides. Magical stuff, indeed.

Now, could all the nay-saying omnivores please stop telling potential vegans and already-vegans that they can’t get their B vitamins from a vegan diet?

Lacking B vitamins? Since these all perform different roles in our bodies, they also produce different symptoms when we’re deficient in them. Wikipedia’s got an excellent page listing all of these, but suffice it to say that symptoms range from emotional breakdowns to memory loss and cognitive disturbances to acne and dermatitis to insomnia and just plain old feeling worn out all the time.

Incidentally, zinc is a really important one, too, and a serving of nutritional yeast gives you 20 percent. But sourdough bread, pumpkin seeds, beans and green veggies are all great sources, too.

Not enough zinc will lead to acne and cognitive deficiencies, and will also kill your appetite. One thing a healthy vegan needs is an appetite.

3. Calcium, Magnesium and Vitamin D

These guys are mates. They need each other. They’re like points on a perfect triangle. Which is why they’re so often mashed together into a vitamin. But the best source of D is not in any food source or pill—we need to go outside. Even if it’s cloudy and raining. That sun is pretty tough. It won’t let some silly clouds get in its way of keeping us well.

Calcium’s both super easy and tricky—dark, leafy greens, almonds, dried fruit and tofu are all great sources, but certain foods cancel it out. Spinach and chard (although ostensibly both leafy and green) are among those, so if one’s endeavoring to get a nice chunk of calcium out of a meal, best to nix these two lovelies. Magnesium, quite conveniently, is also found in leafy greens, as well as peanuts.

Going without calcium for long enough can lead to osteoporosis, among other horrors, but I’ve been told that really bad PMS can also be an indicator that calcium levels are low. When I went vegan, my mom said she was just afraid all my hair would fall out and I’d be a hunchback by the time I was thirty. Look ma: 33 now and still standing upright!

4. Iron

Iron supplements are one of the first things vegans are advised to take. The thing is, too much iron and prunes become a dietary requirement. But this is just plain silliness. I don’t believe a healthy vegan needs any supplements, but iron perhaps least of all. It’s everywhere, and most of the vegetarian foods in which it’s present are jam-packed with fiber, as well—no prunes necessary.

The Vegan Society advises to find your iron in seeds, beans, dried fruits, nuts, leafy greens (there they are again!), seaweeds, molasses and soya.

When we don’t have enough iron, our bodies shout it from the hilltops. Cold weather brings about numb fingertips and blue lips; the slightest bump can become a massive bruise. Our legs often cramp up unexpectedly, as well. When I let my iron levels drop as a young person, I used to wake up in the night crying out in pain.

5. Omega-3 Fatty Acids

We hear about these everywhere lately. One of the reasons they’re so darned important is because of the need to balance them against much-easier-to-find omega-6 fatty acids.

But here’s the thing—good ol’ Mama Nature has done all the hard work for us. Vegans can find omega-3’s in loads of great sources of omega-6’s!  Sorted!

These include:

  • Seeds:  Flax seeds (also called linseeds), hemp seeds and sesame seeds

    No fishies were harmed in the making of this delicious source of omega-3 fatty acids. (Photo: rubyran)
  • Nuts:  Walnuts and brazil nuts
  • Oils:  Soybean oil, canola oil (also called rape seed or colza), and wheat germ oil
  • Spirulina (very green…throw it in a smoothie and pretend it’s not there)
  • Vegetables:  (Wait for it) Leafy greens (!!) and cruciferous veggies (like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and bok choy)

Neglect your omega-3’s and you’ll feel fatigued, stupid (see #1), and irritable, your skin will go dry and flaky and your hair will lose its sheen, and over a longer period, it can get so severe you’re suffering from eczema or reproductive problems.

There are so many benefits to being vegan, and it really isn’t so difficult (you’ll note that there’s all sorts of stuff on those lists that repeat again and again…ahem…can anybody say leafy greens?). But it seems that so often we approach it from a place of frustration and irritation, rather than joy and intrigue.

Finding the time to eat properly hasn’t always taken center stage in my life, and I’ve no doubt that my emotional and psychological well-being suffered tremendously as a result. Live and learn—it simply is worth the time and energy. Ultimately, time and energy is precisely what we gain when we eat well.

For tons and tons more delicious information, go here and here—excellent resources all around.

Editor: Lynn Hasselberger

Like elephant food and elephant health & wellness on facebook.


About Ann Halsig

Ann Halsig is a freelance writer with a background in Social Science and Ethnic Studies. She has lived and worked in the U.S., England, the Philippines and currently resides in France. You can check out her musings, meanderings and misadventures on her blog or hire her for some word whittling here.


37 Responses to “Hey Vegans! (& those who love them): 5 Important Nutrition Pointers.”

  1. Shannon says:

    Are you KIDDING me? ANOTHER "nutrition" article spewing that age old lie that vegans have to combine proteins in one meal? This is ridiculous, in this day and age.

    • ann says:

      ahem…shannon, you could be a teensy bit nicer with the tone and all, no? at any rate, i'd have liked to insist – particularly because you found it necessary to be so insulting, but i must stand down: you are right. this is something i was taught more than a decade ago and i'd simply never learned any different. a quick internet search brought it to my attention that combining proteins isn't, apparently, necessary. having said that, whether it's psychological or not, i've always felt a greater sense of satisfaction when incomplete proteins were paired with proteins of a different "incomplete" nature.

      • guest says:

        while I can understand that nicer would be better, I can understand Shannon's sentiment. You are writing a piece, call it opinion, call it journalims, in a topic where most people have no idea and superstition is strong(even on ele). I agree with Shannon that research before hand would have been appropriate, if not necessary. oh wait. necessary would be right.

        • ann says:

          please take the time to scroll down – or at least read through the entirety of my response! yes – this is true. i stood corrected within a few minutes of sharron's post. and i did research – spent quite a lot of time on this post, so you know. this particular point happens to be something i learned long ago and took for granted, and i do sincerely apologize. as i did to sharron. i was incorrect.

  2. laydowninthetallgrass says:

    I really enjoyed this piece, Anne—all things I know that I know (does that make sense??) but good reminders on how important good nutrition is to keep this vegan being happy!

    And, you've also inspired me to get into the kitchen tonight and get creative with nutritional yeast!

    • ann says:

      so glad to hear it! would love to get more creative with nutritional yeast – at the moment i have it on my popcorn or in lieu of cheese on a marinara sauce or something along those lines…but i know the possibilities are limitless!

  3. Shannon says:

    My apologies, Ann. I dislike the idea of veganism being made to look harder than it is, and I have had a really bad week. It's no excuse to be rude, I know, but it explains my mindset. I appreciate the tips you have in this article, and your upbeat tone throughout.

    • ann says:

      you, shannon, are a superstar. anybody who comments on threads has done that – particularly when it's something near and dear to our hearts…and the thing is, you were right! i've been vegan for 15 years, and the biggest reason i wrote this is because i've realized that quite a lot of vegans don't really look after their longer-term wellbeing, and, like you, i wanted to show how easy and natural it can be to make the right decisions. i'm sorry you're having a bad week…thank you for teaching me this, and thank you also for taking the time to make this second comment.

  4. @artsy72 says:

    I think you made it too complicated. You make it sound like being vegan is hard. You just need to eat a varied diet

    • ann says:

      thanks for commenting! thing is, it isn't complicated, but just like any healthy eating, one has to be aware and conscious…a varied diet for me didn't cut it – i shied away from a number of veggies because i'd just never developed a taste for them. consequently as a young person i've suffered from an iron deficiency – not to mention that protein issue as stated above. but forget about vegan – even omnivores endeavoring to eat a wholesome diet have to think about what they put on their plates and in their mouths. the obesity epidemic, massive rises in heart disease, diabetes, and emotional health problems are for me just a few indicators that we're not thinking about what we eat.

  5. Muks says:

    Thanks for the article. I am neither vegan nor vegetarian, but I eat vegetarian most of the time.

    I just made myself a little bowl with mixed unsalted nuts and seeds :b

    • ann says:

      get your B's on!

      you know, i've often said that if the whole world ate like you, i'm not sure i'd have chosen the vegan path. but the reality is that they don't and so i have…but i firmly believe that every vegetarian meal counts…for you, for the planet, and for the animals that pull at my heart strings (thumb-bearing, upright ones included)!

  6. karlsaliter says:

    Nice article, I particularly enjoyed your "beating them over the head with a butternut squash."

    Looking forward to reading about appeasing the meaters: that one should get some comments going!

  7. Brenda says:

    It is clear you don't know about the dangers of soy. Asians only eat 2 teaspoons of soy a day, usually as a condiment, and it’s highly fermented! Fermentation takes care of many of the dangers of soy. Plus, the typical Asian will also consume soy with mineral-rich and nutrient-dense foods such as fish broth (naturally high in iodine & other minerals which support the thyroid). You are doing bodily harm by eating American soy. Independent research has clearly shown that consuming phytoestrogens is downright dangerous for the human body.

    • ann says:

      well…to be fair, i'm not really eating american soy. thankfully in france, where i live, gmo hasn't yet been re-legalized, although that is in the works. i don't buy gm soy, regardless. and i think that's a pretty massive generalization – most indians, bangladeshis, and pakistanis i know don't even consume soy! and, having grown up in southern california, i can assure you that there are lots of southeast asians who eat more than 2 teaspoons – and not always fermented. i discovered soy in asian restaurants, and only tried "stinky tofu" – the fermented variety to which i think you refer – when i went to the philippines. i now know i can get it in more or less any good southeast asian grocer. anyway, as previously mentioned, i have yet to suffer from my soy consumption, but i am very seriously allergic to wheat! and lots of research is coming out to say that industrialized wheat is making people very sick indeed. but the research is always coming out, and always changing…i know what works for my body – or at least has worked for 15 years…and i strongly advise people to do their own research and make their own calls on this one. at this point in my life, soy has proven a wonderful and nutritious additon to my diet, too valuable to let go of! thanks for commenting!

    • guest says:

      so it's clear you haven't read the studies. results vary, depending on what researchers are looking at. Phytoestrogen is not "downright dangerous for the human body"

      • ann says:

        this has been my experience – as i mentioned in the article, it's not unlike the red wine debate! it really goes back and forth. but the bottom line is that soy provides so many nutrients and is so versatile (love edamame, love tofu, soy yogurt), it's just not something i'm willing to give up on the basis of 50% of the researchers! here's hoping i'm not wrong, though! i guess there are just those risks we take in life…i'm willing to put my money on soy before red meat, though, for sure!

    • Kelley says:

      It really is sad to me how many people have fallen for the whole "soy is bad for you" thing. As long as it's organic (non-GMO), soybeans in and of themselves, are not in ANY WAY bad for you. Super processed forms of soy, like isolated soy protein, is not really good for you, but the same goes for anything overly processed. There are so many myths about soy, and what people don't realize is that a ton of it was purposely spread by the meat and dairy industries because it's becoming so popular as a protein substitute that they're scared of losing profit. The rest is just misinformation. It's important to note that plenty of other plants also have phytoestrogens, but nobody's condemning them. Why? Only because they're not as popular as soy, therefore they're not threatening any big businesses. It's also important to note that even the plants with the strongest concentration of phytoestrogens have less than 1% the potency of our own natural estrogen. In other words, you'd basically have to LIVE on soy, and nothing but soy, for it to negatively impact your hormone balance in any way. There are even many studies showing that phytoestrogens aid in the prevention of breast and prostate cancer.

      • ann says:

        i've definitely heard the prostate cancer studies – have even strongly encouraged every guy i know to get regular soy in their diet because the research looks so promising on that end. scariest part of GMO is the fact that we run the risk of losing heritage strains completely to these frankenfoods…and if we are what we eat, the majority of the american population is consuming vast amounts of soy via the cows they eat who live on it (as well as corn and even their own flesh…anything but the grass they're meant to eat)! i'm cool with soy…and it's still pretty popular, so i don't think it's going anywhere…would be great to do away with the GM varieties and start fresh, though, no?

  8. guest says:

    I just got into a discussion about Vitamin A and K and B12. Do you have any insight? Any non-fortified items that contain these three Vitamins?

    • ann says:

      starting with B12 – because it's the most contentious – the truth is, it depends on how you look at it. nutritional yeast is sort of "fed" B12…that is to say, the yeast (a fungus) feeds on B12, absorbing it, so that when we eat it, we get it, too. Assuming you're cool with mushrooms, yeast should be cool, too 😉 otherwise – to my knowledge – B12 is only available to vegans in fortified foods, as you've mentioned.
      K is rampant in parsely – so love that tabouleh! also brassicas have quite a lot (brocolli, kale, cauliflower, etc.).
      Finally A – think ORANGE! carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkin…and then think GREEN (those leafy greens again) – spinach and kale and the like.
      Really, as posters above have mentioned, getting as many interesting vegetables into your diet is the best route! Good luck!

  9. Sara says:

    I loved your article! I'm not vegan or veg, but I'm trying to eat consciously and considerately for my health and the planet, and I feel like the insight surrounding a vegan diet, protein, vitamins and alternative sources to get them, is exactly what more omnivores need in order to make a full time switch or even start cutting back on the on amount of meat/fish/chicken that we eat.
    I also wanted to say that I put nutritional yeast on everything…salads, soups, popcorn, toasted nuts, grains, grilled veggies…I really love the flavor so for me it just adds another dimension to my seasonings.
    And I think the overall tone of your article and your comments here, is really fantastic…you're sharing something near and dear to you without judgement or aggression towards people with alternate views, and I can feel that, so thank you!!

    • ann says:

      you, sara, made me feel so good. thank you! a million times over. and do get in touch if ever you want to mull over the idea of taking the next step! ann [at] presentpathway [dot] com

  10. earthsky23 says:

    I am very rarely moved to comment, but I have found this article to be very informative, most entertaining, and beautifully written … chapeau Ann … if you are ever in the Languedoc I would love to meet you, over a good vegan meal here at Earthsky peut etre ? … :~) ………

    • ann says:

      merci beaucoup, earthsky23! that would be absolutely lovely! do get in touch (ann [at] presentpathway [dot] com) – at the moment i remain a starving artist sans voiture, but so nice to've connected with another vegan in france! and would love to hear how it works (or doesn't) for you. on my end, the plethora of amazing fruits and vegetables have compensated completely for the myriad delicacies i can't touch (owing to my vegan lifestyle or my allergy to wheat).

  11. P. Fish says:

    Is this a joke? Get this girl some real science, some critical thinking skills, and then some basic biology.

    Protein is in *everything* that's alive- that's Bio101. You can't have life without it. Even grass contains protein. If need be, have a dietitian to explain to her how the body can combine amino acids to create the proteins it needs. I can't believe that schools let people out of 8th grade being this scientifically illiterate.

    You're letting a medic tell you about diet? A medic? They're even more ignorant that nutritionists and MDs tend to be. You need a dietitian and some bloodwork before believing (let alone repeating) such outlandish claims.

    I stopped reading at that ^ point. She'd already discredited herself. Why waste time on a person clearly unqualified to address the topic?

    Get her access to an actual medical nutritional resource. NutritionFacts.org might be something for a non-science type like her.

    • ann says:

      boy-oh-boy, p. fish, you know how to make a girl feel good about herself, dontcha? yes – i realize that everything has protein, but over-cooked vegetables and rice do not provide sufficient protein to keep us well. i wasn't in a position to prepare my own meals with the limited resources we had, and consequently became very ill.

      since you stopped reading, you won't have noticed that i'm quite happy replying to commenters, so you needn't ask the great beyond to reach out and get me help – you can quite easily address me directly 😉

      and i didn't let the medic "tell [me] about [my] diet" – she made an accurate observation about the poor choices i'd made during my time on that particular island, and i concurred. upon leaving the island i was back to a better balance and my illness disappeared.

      i'm sorry you found the article to be subpar, and i thank you for the (rather well-known) resource.

    • maxzografos says:

      Doesn't look like a joke to me. It's the author's opinion. And as far as I'm concerned it has motivated me to eat much better and feel so much better too. Ann thank you so much for writing this. I've posted it next to my kitchen for reference!

  12. Kristen says:

    Why are people so nasty and way too serious? Calm down! The AVERAGE person can use your great advice that you've written well. Most of us are deficient except for protein which we are overloaded. I think if you're eating tofu rather than a steak that's fantastic! Who cares about the research (the jury is still out), it's still better for you than a steak (that we KNOW). Baby steps everyone.
    Great article Ann and for all the naysayers….KAVA will help. 🙂

    • ann says:

      hahaha! thanks, kristen. looking back, i think i shouldn't have led with protein – just that if i go too many meals without a pretty decent dose (beans, nuts, seeds – even a bit of hummous will do me!), i start to feel really bad. have yet to try kava but keep hearing so much about it! will most definitely give it a go myself one of these days…anxiety plagues us all sometimes, i think!

  13. clare says:

    thank you Ann! good article good reminders. i make ai thrchia seeds flax seed and nutritional yeast into just about everything i eat.

    • ann says:

      can't go wrong there! a friend of mine makes a concoction of hemp powder and nutritional yeast first thing in the morning – that way he knows he's got his B's and Omega-3's before the day's begun! i say ick, but works for him!

  14. Kelley says:

    Thank you for this interesting article! I just wanted to note that Vitamin B12 actually comes from bacteria in the soil and if you happen to love nutritional yeast like I do, or foods fortified with it, you'll be in no danger of deficiency. But another good way to get B12 is to buy organic fruits and vegetables and eat them without washing or scrubbing them. The main reason we have so much B12 deficiency these days is because of modern sanitizing practices. Another thing I wanted to point out is that even though everybody's protein needs are a little different, most people actually can live quite well on the protein content of vegetables alone, as long as they aren't cooked for the most part. Cooking not only destroys a lot of nutrients, but it also denatures protein. Vegetables have a lot more usable protein if they aren't cooked. Also, the great thing about veggies is that since they're healthy for you and have no fat or calories, if we aren't satisfied and full with a certain amount, there's nothing wrong with eating a bunch more until we do!

    • ann says:

      true, true, true – all this! i remember reading about not washing vegetables some time ago, but that's one of those interesting bits i lost by the wayside. ditto the proteins in raw vege – also seem to remember that very gentle steaming releases other nutrients that are harder to digest while raw – but can't remember where i heard it or even if it was a viable source! thanks for the thoughts!

  15. Jimmy says:

    Loved the read. As a person who eats 99% vegan it's always good to see how other people are mixing it up and making it work. I took some of it in as helpful reminders too. Thanks.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.