Making intelligent choices about what we eat is essential for living a healthy, happy, and prosperous 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 ever-changing studies that say, "Eat more of this and less of that!" It's all so confusing!
A plant-based diet has no bells and whistles. There is no rabbit under anyone's hat. It's just real food that doesn't contain animals or their byproducts. Plant-based foods: 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 entirely doable, completely healthy, and amazingly delicious!
It's no secret that some foods provide better fuel than others. The better the food, the better the fuel; the better the fuel, the better we feel mentally and physically. When we give our body healthy, nutritious food, it uses it as fuel rather than storing it as fat because it can't figure out what else to do with it. So, if you are choosing foods without any thought to their nutritional value, it can and likely will end up harming you in the long run.
Familiarizing yourself with the nutritional building blocks of good health can help us all make better choices regarding what's in our fridge, what's on our plate, and ultimately, what we're putting inside our body!
Let's look at some primary nutrients and their functions to understand better how each nutrient works within our body.
Simple sugars, or 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 blood quickly, creating that "sugar rush" and overworking your metabolic processes. Complex carbohydrates such as whole grains are metabolized more slowly and help sustain a high energy level throughout the day. They also provide fiber, which is good for digestion.
Protein works to repair all the body's tissues. Most people think of animal meat as the only real source of protein when 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 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 a bad idea, and for some, it can be a recipe for disease. Fats perform essential bodily functions, such as transporting vital nutrients and lubrication. Paying attention to the quality of the oils you consume is more important. Fats derived from plant sources are called monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. These fats do not threaten heart health as the saturated fats in meat and dairy. Olive and canola oils are believed to be the healthiest because they oxidize very slowly. Other 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 give the body plenty of insoluble fiber, or "roughage." Roughage helps to move the toxins out of the intestines and keeps our entire digestive system happy. Providing adequate fiber will help your body process and absorb nutrients better for more vitality. A sensible vegan diet is high in fiber, one of its many significant benefits.
Vitamins and Minerals
Let's discuss vitamins and minerals, how our body uses them, and some good vegan sources. Most experts agree that eating a well-balanced diet with many fresh, whole, unprocessed foods ensures you get all the vitamins, minerals, and fiber your body needs. Fortunately, for vegans, getting the vitamins and minerals considered the most essential for good health and vitality is plentiful in a diverse natural and primarily whole foods diet.
Vitamin A is an antioxidant important for preventing heart disease, cataracts, and macular degeneration. As with 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 a major role in metabolism. It helps cells convert carbs into energy. It also plays a major role in heart function and maintains healthy brain and nerve cells. Deficiencies would cause fatigue, weakness, and nerve damage. Whole grains, wheat germ, dried beans, and peanuts are good sources.
Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin)
Riboflavin helps convert carbs into energy. Along with other B vitamins, it is essential for producing 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 keeps the skin, nerves, and digestive system functioning properly. Eating nuts, legumes, enriched bread, and cereals will ensure you get enough niacin.
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 called the "mood pill," vitamin B6 helps maintain healthy 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 of vitamin B12 is obtained by eating animals. Vitamin B12 is vital to maintaining a healthy metabolism, as well as blood cells and nerves. Serious vitamin B12 deficiencies can result in low numbers of red blood cells (anemia), stomach and intestinal problems, and permanent nerve damage. Some nutritionists believe that fermented foods, like miso, 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 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) and B12 produce red blood cells and are important in synthesizing DNA, which controls heredity and tissue growth. Dark leafy vegetables, broccoli, avocados, green peas, beans, and other legumes and whole grains are good sources of 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 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 the healing process should you find yourself suffering from the cold or flu. Foods rich in vitamin C are also ideal 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.
Depending on the circumstances, Vitamin D can be either a vitamin or a hormone. A hormone is a substance we can manufacture in our bodies and subsequently makes its way to other body parts 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 a hormone. However, suppose you live in the northern regions with little sunlight, are confined indoors, or work on a submarine. In that case, vitamin D is a carbon-containing substance essential to living, not burned for energy, and must be supplied in the diet. In this case, it is 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 daily on the face and forearms to build up pre-vitamin D that can convert to vitamin D. People with dark skin require 3 - 6 times longer. The ultraviolet lights from sun lamps can stimulate 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, corn flakes, Grapenuts, and some types of margarine.
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 and the utilization of vitamin K, and it aids in preventing cardiovascular disease by reducing the harmful effects of LDL (bad cholesterol). Good sources include vegetable oils, wheat germ, nuts, seeds, olives, asparagus, spinach, and other leafy greens.
Sometimes overlooked, this vitamin plays a vital 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 of 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.
Our bones absorb and release calcium throughout our lives. Children and young adults must consume adequate calcium during their formative years to ensure optimum bone mass. Calcium intake as we age is necessary for maintaining healthy bones and helping prevent fractures and osteoporosis. Good sources of calcium include spinach, collard greens, kale, wakame (seaweed), and tofu.
Iron is fundamental in carrying oxygen to the blood and muscles. Vegans are at a 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 muscles use 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. Medical experts widely acknowledge its power to prevent heart disease and kidney stones. It's a component of healthy teeth and bones, and it helps convert food to usable energy. Low levels of this mineral have been associated with some types of 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, 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 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 regulate blood pressure and water balance in the body, too much can 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 and the small amount you add while cooking is a good idea. For lower-sodium condiments, try using other spices and flavor enhancers naturally low in sodium.
Last but not least, there is zinc. An adequate zinc level in the blood is essential for a strong immune system, proper gland function, and healthy, radiant-looking skin. Zinc supplementation is 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.