More people are making the switch to ditch all animal products from their diets to become vegan, for health, environmental and financial reasons, but is it healthy? Paulette Crowley ventures into the world of veganism to find out how to do it well.
Back in 1989, I met a vegan. I had to ask her several times what they actually meant, and was incredulous when she explained that she didn’t consume any animal products. ‘No eggs? Milk? Cheese? Really? What do you eat?’
These days vegetarians are common – about in 10 Kiwis – but many more people are choosing to eat differently, with veganism being the trend of the day.
From food allergies to glowing health
Megan May, co-owner of Little Bird Unbakery in Auckland grew up on an organic farm where everything was made from scratch and the family butchered their own animals.
Ironically, the bloody reality of farm life wasn’t the reason she became vegan seven years ago. “I’ve never been squeamish: I was always the first one to dissect something in biology.”
She was, however, prone to digestive problems, particularly with meat, and was constantly sick with colds. A doctor told her she was allergic to gluten, dairy and sugar, which was radical advice at the time. “But I was never 100 per cent convinced, and I didn’t really take it as seriously as I should have. It was the 80s and it was almost shameful to eat vegetables. Sugar was king, as was everything processed.”
It’s now widely recognised among health professionals that plant-based diets are strongly associated through reputable scientific studies to improve health on many levels, including a decreased risk of cancer, obesity and heart disease. Some research has even linked vegan diets to a healthier gut, and a reduction in the symptoms of menopause and stress.
After years of chronic illnesses, including adrenal fatigue, Megan’s quest for nutrition knowledge and flair with cooking eventually led her to a raw vegan diet. It healed her body, fit in with her environmental ethos and has now become her life and business with partner Jeremy Bennett.
Little Bird devotees marvel at the organic, mainly raw vegan creations that come out of the ‘unbakery’, proving that vegan food can be as gourmet as you like, with ‘cheesecakes’ and mouth-watering patisserie items the norm.
Vegan food is everywhere
Sandy Percival, who became a vegan 20 years ago because of her concerns over animal farming practices, says finding delicious vegan food is a piece of cake.
“There’s an amazing amount of vegan restaurants in New Zealand – we are so progressive when it comes to whole, raw and vegan foods that you are spoilt for choice.
“And you can buy alternative ingredients everywhere. I have birthday parties where no one knows that their kids have just devoured an entire feast of vegan food. They’re totally oblivious.”
The nutrition mission
While accessing vegan food products is easier, keeping on top of nutrition requirements is still a big consideration for those considering going vegan.
“A plant-based diet is always a good thing, but there are certain nutrients that you will miss out on if you are on a vegan diet,” says registered nutritionist Emily Hope.
The biggest culprit is iron deficiency, which is common among menstruating women, no matter what they eat. But for vegans, it’s almost impossible to get enough iron as it’s recognised that the body only absorbs about five per cent of non-haem iron, which is found in plant foods.
Regularly testing your iron levels and supplementing if necessary is recommended. “You can also be aware of how you eat: there are certain things you can do to help yourself, like eating vitamin C-rich foods with iron-containing foods to help absorption.”
An example of this could be serving orange, carrot and tomato in a chickpea and spinach salad.
Avoiding caffeine around meal times is also sensible, as it contains compounds which inhibit the absorption of iron.
Calcium is another key nutrient that women in particular need to ensure they’re getting enough of when on a vegan diet.
Most women need around 1300mg of calcium per day for bone health, which is particularly important in adolescence, when young women are laying down bone mass, and after menopause, when bone mass starts breaking down. Dairy products are a great source of calcium, with one cup of cow’s milk containing 300-500mg.
For vegans though, getting calcium from foods isn’t easy. “It’s really hard to get enough,” Emily says. “For example, half a cup of broccoli has 30mg of calcium.”
Eating a wide variety of foods, however, particularly tofu, almonds, dried figs and calcium-fortified milk alternatives, can help.
Again, supplementing could be the answer. “If you are prone to bone fractures or osteoarthritis, I would advise supplementing with calcium, but take them away from iron-rich meals.”
Vitamin D is also important to consider, not only because it’s commonly available in animal foods, but also because it’s crucial to help calcium absorption. Getting enough sun exposure while protecting your skin is good way to making sure you get enough of this vitamin.
B12 is another key vitamin that is mainly available from animal foods, although one serving of Marmite can provide about 25 per cent of your daily needs. However, most vegans, especially pregnant and breastfeeding women, will need to supplement, says Emily.
Omega-3s – those all-important fats that are so good for heart and brain health – are readily available in marine life but can also be found in plant-based foods like chia seeds. However, the body finds it difficult to convert plant-based omega-3s to the beneficial long-chain DHA and APA fats so again, finding a vegan-friendly supplement is worth considering.
Although supplementing can be useful in getting the best nutrition for vegans, Emily warns not to go overboard and to always get tested before you start. “You don’t want to over-supplement unless you’ve got a deficiency in something. If you’re not meeting that through food, then that’s when supplementation would be really wise.”
Having a good understanding of nutrition is important, agrees Megan, who’s mum to toddler Pepper, but like many vegans, she says she feels healthier than ever eating only plant foods. “If you do it right you should have more energy and see a lot of improvements to your overall health.”
No longer on an exclusively raw diet – she sings its praises as a health healing tool but thinks it’s unsustainable for most people – Megan starts off every day with a green smoothie containing grapefruit, kale, coriander, parsley, lemon and chlorella. “It’s like having a coffee but you don’t get the down effect. It makes you feel bright and energised.”
On the side she’ll often have a high-fibre sprouted buckwheat cereal or toast with avocado or sauerkraut.
Snacks may include fruit or maca tea with almond milk and lunch usually has lots of greens with a raw bagel and nut cheese. Dinner is based around cooked food such as roasted kumara, or a crepe made from fermented grains or legumes.
The odd raw cookie or macaron from her unbakery may feature but Megan says the fermented foods she eats keep sugar cravings at bay.
It doesn’t have to be that hard
Sandy Percival is also a busy mum and agrees that while being conscious of getting the right mix of vitamins is important, she doesn’t believe you have to be a nutritionist to be a vegan.
She gets herself tested for vitamin deficiencies annually and has never had a problem. In fact during her first pregnancy, her iron levels were shown to be as high as any meat eater’s, without supplementation.
“You can get the majority of your nutrition through your food. If you’re living out of a bottle, you’re doing something wrong.”
She also believes a vegan diet doesn’t have to be complicated, and that most meals can be easily ‘veganised’ with the many meat and dairy alternatives available. “Which is just well, as I’m not a super-organised mum or one of those over-achieving people,” she laughs.
Her husband Nic and children Lennox (7) and Drew (4) are also vegan, and she says they are never sick. “My daughter has had one 24-bug when she was 11 months old.”
Getting her kids to eat lots of fresh fruit and veg – you’ll find their lunchboxes loaded with cocktail tomatoes, hummus, cucumber, bread and frooze balls – has never been a problem. “They’ve grown up with these flavours and love them.”
Her advice to people considering a vegan diet is to research the topic thoroughly and be solid in your reasons for doing it. “Otherwise it will just be another fad.”
Promoting veganism is not something Megan focusses on, as she just believes everyone should eat more plant-based foods. “You can eat in a vegan-style without being vegan.”
Eating more plants is not going to harm anyone, agrees Emily.
“All nutritionists and dietitians agree it would be useful for all of us to eat more fruits and vegetables because they’re full of antioxidants and rich in fibre, which are so useful for overall health.”
A version of this article was published in Living Well magazine’s winter issue, 2017.