Phoebe Liebling, Nutritional Therapist. BSc(Hons) DipNT mBANT mNNA CNHC registered GNC registered.
Whether you are plant-based, plant focused or simply a plant curious omnivore Veganuary offers the most wonderful opportunity to really celebrate the bounties of the abundant non-animal foods we have access to. Because if I were to ask you to count up the 2 groups in terms of options, well you’d definitely still be working your way through types of lentils long after finishing up with the meat/fish/dairy list!
Which feeds beautifully into the below, the truly bountiful benefits of centering our dietary choices around more of those naturally vegan foods.
There have been many studies into the gut; it’s our second brain, it contains 70-80% of our immune system, it is incredibly responsive to exposure to trauma & stress, the list continues. So it stands to reason that anything that supports this integral component of our health is something we should absolutely dive headfirst into right?!
Well when we talk about the above 1 of the primary things we are looking at is the influence of our probiotic bacteria, the literal trillions of microorganisms that are trucking away 24/7 to keep us fit & well. And you know what those bacteria absolutely adore? Well that would be the fiber you find in the skin/husks of beans, pulses, lentils, fresh vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds & fruits. The more the merrier & in fact the more different types the better, as each bacterial species will have their personal preference & we want a good cohort of all. An incredibly in depth study published last year actually showed that an increased diversity of plant based foods within someone’s diet can positively influence the microbiome (the collective name for those gut bugs) in just 4 days! So imagine the effects you could create in 30...
But hold up, who’s ever encountered a little extra ‘tummy turbulence’ when they’ve increased those beans & their pulse based pals? Well you are not alone & there are 2 key tricks here - the first is to do things incrementally as those bugs love a fibre based feast & 1 of the by products of said delight is gas. So don’t go from hummus once a week to a superfood salad with quinoa, 6 beans & 12 different vegetables overnight, add in a couple of new things every day or so & gradually dose up.
And secondly it’s to soak those beans, pulses, whole grains etc before using them (this actually makes them more nutritious as well). What we are doing is eating the seeds of those plants & they’ve encased them in compounds to help them survive the digestion of animals who would eat them, travel & then ‘deposit’ them to grow & proliferate. The thing is our digestion isn’t always robust enough to break those compounds down but an overnight soak in water + a little raw apple cider vinegar before cooking & you’ll see those components come off in a scum on the surface. Rinse them away & move on with your day! If you tend to use tinned/ready to eat options & you have no problems whatsoever then you can skip this, but if you wonder if they’re causing the occasional digestive wobble then give these a good rinse, pop into a bowl with plenty of water + a splash of vinegar or a pinch of salt & let them sit for 15-20 minutes. Give them another jolly good wash & then away you go.
The age old question & there is a simple answer - you can 100% achieve all the nutrition you need from a plant based diet with the simple proviso that certain key micronutrients need to be supplemented (Vitamins B12 & D) & because we have removed a number of foods you need to be a little more savvy about how you put things together. But the same would be true of someone choosing to follow a paleo diet which removes things like grains.
So to begin with protein. We aren't anatomically the same as plants but by combining different plant based foods with the following simple equation as a guide we can make the same complete protein profiles that you would get in a ‘ready made’ animal protein. Options such as edamame beans, organic tofu, tempeh & chia seeds can be considered complete in themselves but it’s always advisable to pair them with other forms too.
Whole grains + legumes, beans, pulses or lentils OR nuts & seeds
Then to the other big ones - calcium, iron & omega 3. Similarly plant based forms are a tad different to those in animal foods but compare calcium in dairy to that in tahini or green vegetables...there’s more in the 2nd group. You do need to account for absorption (certain fibres & other compounds can get in the way) but on the whole if you're having a planty party at meal times you’re all set. Iron is quite an individual 1 as it requires conversion to an active form, in some cases people can struggle here so it’s 1 to just keep tabs on if you don’t feel 100% (tiredness, being pale, out of breath, losing hair being symptoms of low iron). I’ll also just say here that there is a lot of interest about the interaction between dairy & iron absorption, especially in children with behavioural difficulties as over consumption/reliance on milk can block iron uptake causing those attention issues. An area of research to keep an eye on for sure!
And finally omega 3. So important for so many elements of our wellbeing but particularly our nervous & immune systems. Cold pressed flaxseed, chia & hemp oils are your best plant based dietary sources but they will need to be worked on by enzymes to become active, so up your intake of these to cover all bases. Also avoid vegetable & sunflower oils as the fat profiles of these can interfere with the balance here. Algae based supplements are a fantastic option as a top up too.
SKIN, HORMONES & HEART HEALTH
If we take a quick tour of a couple of clinical applications for plant based eating routines (just for fun) we often see these 3 areas pop up & for jolly good reasons.
What people fail to link sometimes is that our skin is a major detoxification organ & so if we don’t have the capacity to get rid of all our metabolic waste through our digestive tract then we can often pop it out as pimples. But as I explained above a more diverse plant centred regime wholly improves our digestive function, plus we are adding in armfuls of antioxidants to neutralise potential problem causers & unsurprisingly that then links to clearer complexions! More antioxidants will also protect all our tissues from the ageing process so extra plants can also fend off wrinkles in the long term too.
This feeds into the hormone balance & heart health bracket too as again the gut is incredibly important for their long term optimal function. Notable elements to consider are the plant sterols (similar to cholesterol molecules so helpful to remedy issues here), phytoestrogens (again similar chemical structure so really beneficial with menstrual issues, menopausal symptoms etc) & specific forms of fibre, for example beta glucans (found in oats & mushrooms) can be therapeutically dosed in our diets as potent natural medicines. Fresh herbs & spices too shouldn’t be overshadowed, for example a fresh walnut pesto can actually be used to remedy insulin resistance (Type II diabetes). More plant power we say!
JUST PURE GOOD FUN!
So that’s all well & good & hopefully has you thinking a little more about experimenting with a few more meat free meals (or if you’re already plant based perhaps working on your overall diversity a tad more) but we think that the fundamental point about Veganuary should be…...to just enjoy it!
Have fun with your food, try something new, get everyone involved & see what you discover! If my 96 year old Grandpa had had his way he would’ve never discovered how much he loves almond butter & sauerkraut on toast….!!