What vegetarianism was to the 1970s, veganism is to the new millennium. A recent survey indicated about 1 per cent of the Australian population – around 240,000 people – do not eat any food sourced from animals.
And, like anyone on a restricted food regimen – from paleo to gluten-free – vegans need to be meticulous about meeting their nutritional requirements.
The vegan diet is essentially incredibly healthful. But there are four elements that may be compromised – protein, calcium, iron and vitamin B12. Here’s how to ensure they’re not.
INFOGRAPHIC: Vitamins & minerals
Pump up the protein
Large, complex molecules, proteins play a critical role in how the body functions, from regulating tissues and organs to providing structure and support for cells.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. While the body creates many amino acids itself, there are some, known as essential amino acids, that we get through food.
By consuming a good variety of protein-rich plant foods – legumes, soy products, grains, seeds and nuts – vegans should be getting those essential amino acids and meeting their recommended daily intake (RDI) of protein– 0.75g per kilo of body weight a day (about 50g if you weigh 65kg).
Lentils, tempeh, pumpkin seeds and peanut butter are four of the best vegan protein sources.
MAKE THIS: Chilli tofu salad
Calculate your calcium
Essential to maintain bone health and structure, calcium is strongly associated with dairy products – and rightly so: 100g of Swiss cheese, for example, contains 885mg of calcium , almost the entire RDI (women between 19 and 50 need 1000mg of calcium a day; over-50s, 1300mg ).
But there are plenty of alternatives for vegans. Calcium-fortified mixed-grain cereals are an excellent starting point, providing up to 671mg of calcium per 100g . Firm tofu (320mg per 100g), almonds (250mg), basil and parsley (about 240mg each) and dried figs (200mg) are also excellent sources.
However, an Australian native food, ground wattle seed (available from specialist retailers), surpasses them all, at 419mg per 100g.
Become an iron(wo)man
is essential for blood production and proper immune function. Think iron, you think meat, but vegans can get their RDI (18mg a day for women aged 19 to 50 years) of iron from whole plant foods.
Iron “stars” include wheatgerm, red kidney beans, lentils, raw cashew nuts, greens such as bok choy, spinach and watercress, sun-dried tomatoes, garlic and green olives.
However, there’s a catch: iron from plant sources (known as non-haem iron) does not absorb as well as the one found in meat (haem iron ).
The solution is to combine these foods with a vitamin C-rich food, which will enhance that absorption process .
So, think blueberries with an iron-fortified breakfast cereal, lentil and sweet potato soup, a chickpea and tomato sauce for pasta, and tortillas with refried beans and roast capsicum.
The caffeine and tannins in coffee and tea, on the other hand, inhibit iron absorption – try not to drink either at least an hour either side of an iron-rich meal.
Boost your B12
Adequate intake of vitamin B12 (cobalamin) is essential for both blood and neurological functions.
The bad news for vegans is that it’s found almost exclusively in animal foods . The good news is that it isn’t terribly hard to achieve the RDI of 2.4µg (micrograms) for adults through vitamin B12-fortified products on the market.
These include plant milks, breakfast cereals and soy products. So, drinking 200ml of fortified soy milk daily will provide about 1.8µg of B12.