Making smart choices when it comes to what we eat is essential if we want to live a healthy, happy, and successful life. But all too often, we're barraged with information and techniques that promote quick and easy results that can be harmful to our overall health: Crash diets, experimental drugs, and the ever-changing studies telling us to eat more of this and less of that can be overwhelming and confusing when all you really want to do is be healthy and happy.
This is where a vegan diet comes in. There are no bells and whistles. No rabbit under anyone's hat. No chemicals being concocted in a lab. We're talking about foods that simply don't contain animals or their byproducts. Foods that are plant based; Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes, such as alfalfa, clover, peas, beans, lentils, soybeans, peanuts and more! It's a plant-based diet that's completely doable, completely healthy, and amazingly delicious!
It's no secret that some foods provide better fuel than others. We all know the better the food, the better the fuel; the better the fuel, the better you feel both mentally and physically. When you give your body good nutritious food, your body is capable of using that food as fuel, rather than storing it as fat because it can't figure out what else to do with it. If you are choosing foods without any thought to their nutritional value, it can and likely will end up harming you.
Familiarizing yourself with the nutritional building blocks of good health can help you to make better choices when it comes to what’s in your fridge, what's on your plate, and ultimately, what ends up inside of you!
Let's take a look at some basic nutrients and their functions to get a better understanding of how each nutrient works within our body. This information can help guide you in the right direction so that you can begin living your very best life!
Simple sugars, which are also called refined carbohydrates, enter the bloodstream quickly. All sugars enter the bloodstream at different rates. Plain white table sugar, for instance, is solid sucrose, so it enters the bloodstream very quickly creating that “sugar rush” and overworks your metabolic processes. Complex carbohydrates such as whole grains, are metabolized more slowly, and help you sustain a high energy level throughout the day. They also provide fiber, which is good for your digestion.
Protein works to repair all the body’s tissues. Most people think of animal meat as the only real source of protein when in fact many plant foods such as grains, beans, and nuts provide amino acids which are the building blocks of protein. When you consume a variety of these foods daily, the amino acids combine and form complete proteins.
Not all fats are created equal. Cutting out all fats from your diet as a way to lose weight is not a good idea, and for some, it can be a recipe for disease. Fats perform essential functions in the body, such as transporting important nutrients, as well as lubrication. It’s more important to pay attention to the quality of oils you consume. Fats derived from plant sources are called monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. These fats do not pose the same threat to heart health as the saturated fats in meat and dairy. Olive and canola oils are believed to be the healthiest oils of all because they oxidize very slowly. Other types of vegetable oils are prone to oxidation and can create “free radicals,” the marauding molecules believed to play a role in cancer development.
Grains, beans, vegetables, and fruits provide the body with plenty of insoluble fiber, or “roughage.” Roughage helps to move the toxins out of the intestines and keeps our entire digestive system happy. Providing your body with adequate fiber helps it to process and absorb nutrients better, so you have more vitality. A sensible vegan diet is high in fiber, one of its many important benefits.
Vitamins and Minerals
Now let's talk about vitamins and minerals, and how our body uses them as well as some good vegan sources of each. Most experts agree that eating a well-balanced diet that includes lots of fresh, whole, unprocessed foods ensures you will get all the vitamins, minerals and fiber your body needs. And fortunately, for vegans, getting the vitamins and minerals that are considered to be the most important for good health and vitality are plentiful in a diverse natural foods diet.
Vitamin A is an antioxidant important in the prevention of heart disease, cataracts, and macular degeneration. Just like other antioxidants, it wards off cancer by neutralizing free radicals. Provitamin A carotenes are found in dark leafy greens and yellow-orange vegetables like sweet potatoes, carrots and winter squash.
Vitamin B1 (Thiamin)
Thiamin plays an important role in metabolism. It helps cells convert carbs into energy. It also plays an important role in heart function and is necessary for the maintenance of healthy brain and nerve cells. Deficiencies would cause fatigue, weakness, and nerve damage. Good sources are whole grains, wheat germ, dried beans, and peanuts.
Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin)
Riboflavin helps convert carbs into energy. Along with other B vitamins, it is essential for the production of red blood cells. It also helps eliminate dry, cracked skin. Nuts, green leafy vegetables, and legumes are good sources.
Vitamin B3 (Niacin)
Niacin is important in converting food into energy. It serves to maintain the normal functioning of the skin, nerves, and digestive system. Eating foods such as nuts, legumes and enriched bread and cereals will ensure you get an adequate amount.
Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic acid)
The word pantothenic comes from the Greek word pantothen meaning “from everywhere” because small quantities of pantothen are found in nearly every food. Consuming a wide variety of whole grains, legumes, and vegetables will ensure adequate intake.
Also referred to as the “mood pill,” vitamin B6 helps maintain normal brain and immune function. It also plays a role in the formation of red blood cells. Good sources include nuts, beans, bananas, avocados, sweet potatoes and whole grains.
As a vegan you need to be sure you're getting sufficient amounts of this vitamin since the primary source for vitamin B12 is obtained by eating animals. Vitamin B12 is important to maintaining a healthy metabolism, as well as blood cells and nerves. A serious vitamin B12 deficiency can result in a low number of red blood cells (anemia), stomach and intestinal problems, and permanent nerve damage. Some nutritionists believe that fermented foods, like miso, as well as wheat grass, sea vegetables, and some nutritional yeasts can provide enough of this vitamin. However, it is recommended that vegans take a Vitamin B-12 Supplement
Biotin is another B-complex vitamin and is essential for the metabolism of proteins and carbohydrates alike. Eating a wide variety of whole grains, legumes and vegetables will ensure adequate intake.
Folacin, (folic acid) along with B12 produces red blood cells, and is important in the synthesis of DNA, which controls heredity and tissue growth. Dark leafy vegetables, broccoli, avocados, green peas, beans and other legumes, and whole grains are good sources for folacin.
There have been a ton of studies done on the health benefits of vitamin C. We know it contributes to healthy gums and teeth as well as helping our bodies to absorb iron, and maintain the connective tissue we call collagen. And while it may not be able to keep you from getting the common cold, it can speed in the healing process should you find yourself suffering from the cold or flu. Foods rich in vitamin C are also great for helping to relieve arthritis pain. Thankfully nature provides us with a fantastic variety of foods rich in vitamin C such as citrus fruits, strawberries, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, broccoli, papaya, and cantaloupe to name a few.
Vitamin D can be either a vitamin or a hormone depending on the circumstances. A hormone is a substance we are capable of manufacturing in our own bodies and that subsequently makes its way to other parts of the body to exert its effect. We make vitamin D in our skin (with a little help from the sun) and it travels to our kidneys, intestines, and bones to take effect. In this instance, it is clearly a hormone. However, if you live in the northern regions with little sunlight, are confined indoors, or work on a submarine, then for you, vitamin D is a carbon-containing substance that is essential to live, not burned for energy and must be supplied in the diet. In this case it is clearly a vitamin. Regardless, vitamin D is a key player in a team of nutrients and hormones that keep blood calcium at optimal levels and support bone health during growth and throughout life.
For people with light colored skin it takes about 10 - 15 minutes of sunlight a day on the face and forearms to build up previtamin D that can then be converted to vitamin D. People with dark skin require 3 - 6 times longer. The ultra violet lights from sunlamps can be used for vitamin D production; limit 20 minutes or use as recommended.
Other sources for vitamin D include enriched or fortified soy and grain milk, breakfast cereals; bran flakes, cornflakes, and Grapenuts, and some margarines.
Notable for its antioxidant properties, vitamin E helps to neutralize free radicals (unstable oxygen atoms) in the body. It also helps in the formation of red blood cells, the utilization of vitamin K, and helps to prevent cardiovascular disease by reducing the harmful effects of LDL (the bad cholesterol). Good sources are vegetable oils, wheat germ, nuts, seeds, olives, asparagus, spinach, and other leafy green vegetables.
Sometimes overlooked, this vitamin plays an important role in blood clotting and maintaining strong bones, especially as you age. About 80% of this vitamin is manufactured in the body’s intestines, while the rest comes from your diet. Good sources for vitamin K are cabbage, broccoli, spinach, kale and other leafy greens. Soybeans and vegetable oils also are high in vitamin K.
Side note: Taking antibiotics may cause a deficiency in vitamin K, as these drugs destroy both the healthy - and infectious bacteria in the body.
Throughout our lives our bones are absorbing and releasing calcium. It is vitally important for children and young adults to consume adequate amounts of calcium during their formative years to ensure optimum bone mass. As we get older, our calcium intake continues to be important in maintaining strong bones, and in helping prevent fractures and osteoporosis. Good sources for calcium in the vegan diet include spinach, collard greens, kale, wakame (seaweed), and tofu.
Iron plays a fundamental role in carrying oxygen to the blood and muscles. Vegans are at a somewhat higher risk for iron deficiencies since the highest concentrations of dietary iron are found in animal foods. Good sources of iron for vegans include peas, beans, nuts, dried fruits, leafy green vegetables, and fortified whole grain cereals. Cooking in cast iron pots is another great way of incorporating iron into your diet.
As minerals go, potassium is the most prevalent in the human body and the most important dietary electrolyte. Potassium converts blood sugar to glycogen, which is used by muscles during exercise, and plays an important role in muscle contraction, including the heart muscle. Early signs of a deficiency are fatigue and muscle weakness. Good sources of potassium include potatoes, avocados, lima beans, tomatoes, and bananas.
Magnesium is the second most prevalent mineral in our bodies. Its power to prevent heart disease and kidney stones is widely acknowledged by medical experts. It is a component of strong teeth and bones, and helps convert food to useable energy. Low levels of this mineral have been associated with cancer, insomnia and menstrual problems. Good sources of magnesium include Kombu, wheat germ, wheat bran, tofu, and many nuts and seeds.
This mineral is incorporated into proteins to make selenoproteins, which are important antioxidant enzymes. While essential to good health, it is required only in small amounts. It protects heart and blood cells from oxidative damage and is also needed for iodine metabolism. It protects against cancer, cataracts and other free radical-associated diseases in the body. Good dietary sources include whole grain bread, oatmeal, wheat germ, Brazil nuts, and seeds grown in selenium rich soil.
While sodium helps to regulate blood pressure and water balance in the body, too much can actually elevate blood pressure in some people, and increase the possibility of stroke. Vegans relying heavily on veggie meats and processed foods may have high sodium intakes…
Listed below are the levels of sodium in grams in a few of the more popular vegan foods:
- Table salt - 1/6 tsp/1 g - 388 grams
- Sea salt - 1/6 tsp/1 g 388 grams
- Tamari or soy sauce - 1 tsp - 335 grams
- Miso - 1 tsp - 209 grams
- Tomato sauce - 1 cup - 40 - 1,680 grams
- Canned tomatoes - 1 cup - 24 - 504 grams
- Veggie burger - 1 burger - 114 - 1,148 grams
- Veggie meat slices - 3 oz - 680 - 980 grams
- Potato chips - 3 oz - 360 - 660 grams
- Corn chips - 3 oz - 182 - 869 grams
- Salsa - 1/2 cup - 468 - 1,280 grams
average sodium intake/day: about 2,400 grams.
Weaning yourself off the salt shaker, and relying on the sodium that occurs naturally in foods along with the small amount you add while cooking is a good idea. For lower-sodium table condiments try making your own using other spices and flavor enhancers that are naturally low in sodium.
Last, but not least, there is zinc. An adequate level of zinc in the blood is essential for a strong immune system, proper gland function, and healthy radiant looking skin. Zinc supplementation has been shown to be effective in controlling acne and in treating prostate problems. Good dietary sources include pumpkin seeds, nuts, whole grains and legumes.
Shopping for Vegan Vitamins has never been easier or more convenient.
A Healthy Vegan is a Happy Vegan.