In 2021, more people are doing veganuary than ever before, and while veganism is an ethical stance, many may have been influenced by the promise to follow a healthier diet for the first 30 days of the year. Unless, of course, going vegan doesn’t automatically translate into a healthier diet – in fact, poor diet can lead to nutrient deficiencies (just like a poorly planned omnivorous diet).
The new book Vegan Savvy: The Expert’s Guide to Plant-Based Diets by nutritionist Azmina Govindji does not seek to convert anyone to veganism, but rather provides practical advice that will help any vegan (or dabbler) eat well. We spoke to Govindji about her experience following a vegan diet while writing the book and what a nutrient bridge is.
You tried a vegan diet for eight weeks. What did you learn?
You have to plan. With all the knowledge I have, I thought it would be pretty easy for me to just swap foods and still eat well. But what I did notice was that if I didn’t plan well, I wouldn’t get to the nutrients I thought I could get.
I’ve mostly eaten nice whole plant-based foods, but sometimes it’s hard to eat enough – to get all of the calories and nutrients you need.
I also found that I had to spend more time cooking because I noticed that some ready-made meals were high in salt or not enough of certain nutrients.
In my experience, you can’t choose to go vegan overnight and get it right. I think what it takes is careful planning, a great shopping list, time to cook, and a bit of awareness of how to prepare your meals.
Do you have any tips on how to make sure you are eating enough and not feeling hungry all the time with a vegan diet?
Look for foods that are more filling. We know from research that these foods are high protein and high fiber foods. A lot of people who do Veganuary tend to forget about that. So you will have beautiful colorful soups and salads, as well as roasted eggplants and all kinds of delicious foods, but you haven’t thought of the protein that will help you stay full longer.
There is this VVPC disk [dividing every plate of food into quarters filled with vegetables, vegetables, protein and carbs] come inside. My daughter and her friends think of that VVPC plate and go, right, I have my toasted veggies here and I have my crusty bread for the carbohydrates then they toss up some cashews. I didn’t think about the protein. And it’s the protein in these cashews that helps you stay full longer.
Where do you think vegan nutrition can go wrong and become unhealthy?
When switching from an animal-based diet to a full plant-based diet, you need to be aware that some of the nutrients in your foods may be less available to the body and therefore potentially nutrients of concern.
There are some important nutrients like vitamin B12 that are generally only found in animal foods like meat. And there are other important nutrients that are less talked about, like iodine, which you get mostly from fish, eggs, and dairy products – you can get them in vegetarian foods, but not quite as much.
The other thing to remember is that even if, for example, spinach contains calcium, there are also substances called oxalates in spinach that can decrease your absorption of the calcium. The calcium is less bioavailable, which means it can be used less by the body. In an animal diet, there are other factors that improve calcium absorption – dairy products in your diet will help improve nutrient absorption. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be eating spinach, or that you should think that you shouldn’t get your calcium from spinach. It alerts you to the fact that you are eating more so that the amount you get from that serving is enough for your body.
A similar example that I use in this book is comparing steak and spinach in terms of iron. 100 g of boiled beef and 100 g of boiled spinach contain 2.6 mg of iron. So the same amount of food, the same amount of iron, but due to differences in absorption, you will only get a small amount of that iron from spinach.
In your book you use the concept of “nutrient bridges”. Are these essentially tips and tricks for addressing those areas where the vegan diet may be lacking you in nutrients?
It’s exactly because I realized that there were so many nutrient gaps that I had to find a creative way to make up the deficit in a practical sense.
The nutrient bridges, like putting lemon juice on hummus, are very small changes. Will they really make a noticeable difference?
One time won’t make much of a difference to your iron content. However, if you take over some of the nutrient bridges for various micronutrients over the course of a week, the more likely you are getting enough of the nutrients that are less available.
It’s about choosing the bridges that work for you and your lifestyle and making them habits. So when you cook, slide in some nutritional yeast and you can’t go wrong. When thickening a stew or curry, add some peanut butter or tahini paste.
Over time, making small changes like adding lemon juice to hummus can be very important. If you did this every time you eat beans or hummus, you would improve your iron status. So yeah, a bridge isn’t going to make a significant difference, but it’s about creating those little habit changes.
Do you have a favorite nutrient bridge that you use all the time?
I really like tossing sesame seeds in everything because they are a good source of calcium and really versatile. Calcium is needed for bones and teeth, as well as other reactions in the body, so we need to make sure we are getting enough calcium, especially the elderly or teenage girls whose bones are developing.
You can toss sesame seeds in broccoli or a pan, or use them as a coating for homemade mock fish sticks. If you’re vegan, you can put them on toast. Sesame paste, which is tahini, is great for adding a creamy texture to foods with a dash of calcium, protein, and fiber.
What are the benefits of a vegan diet?
The evidence is still growing, but there are so many things we know about making the switch to plant-based eating. Assuming you have all of the nutrients you need for a well-designed vegan diet – and this is a really important assumption – then you can enjoy all of the nutritional and health benefits.
By simply increasing the number of plant-based foods in your diet, you will increase your fiber intake, which will have a positive effect on your gut and digestive health.
Then there is research that suggests that people who are vegetarians and vegans – again, who get it right – have lower BMI. There are many diet-related conditions such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease that are based on your metabolic health and whose BMI can affect your metabolic health.
I have learned from patients with diabetes that their blood sugar control improved when they switched to a plant-based diet. This is great for long-term management of diabetes.
I’ve also had people tell me that they have more energy because if you eat a plant-based diet, you are more likely to get five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. And many of these nutrients in fruits and vegetables help reduce tiredness and fatigue.
Vegan Savvy: The Expert’s Guide to Plant-Based Diets is published by Pavilion Books, RRP £ 12.99
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