You’ve probably heard about veganism or maybe you know someone who follows a vegan diet. Stricter than a vegetarian diet which excludes meat, a vegan diet also excludes all animal products such as milk, eggs and honey.
Because it excludes all animal foods and animal products, obtaining enough protein on a vegan diet takes some careful planning. It can be done by choosing from a variety of plant foods such as beans, lentils, whole grains and soy-based tofu.
The Benefits of Veganism
According to a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, “vegan diets tend to contain less saturated fat and cholesterol and more dietary fibre. Vegans tend to be thinner, have lower serum cholesterol, and lower blood pressure, reducing their risk of heart disease.”*
The study also points out that vegetarians typically enjoy a lower risk of:
- Cardiovascular Disease
- Type 2 Diabetes
- Some Cancers
One of the main challenges with a vegan diet is meeting protein needs. Dietary proteins are made up of building blocks, called amino acids, which the body uses to manufacture important proteins. Of the 21 amino acids that occur in foods, nine are considered essential because the body can’t make them – so, they have to come from the diet. Animal proteins are “complete” proteins because they contain all nine essential amino acids. But – with the exception of soybeans – most plant foods lack one or more essential amino acids, so they’re considered incomplete.
There is a relatively easy fix for this, however. Since different plant proteins have different amino acid profiles, consuming a wide variety of foods helps to ensure that the body will get all the essential building blocks it needs. The essential amino acid that tends to be lacking in beans, peas and lentils, for example, is abundant in whole grains. And, conveniently, what the grains lack, the beans can provide. The foods don’t need to be eaten at the same time, but you’ll often find these “complementary proteins” on the vegan plate – such as a pairing of rice with beans or a bowl of lentil soup with whole grain bread.
One of the great features of plant protein powders (from soy, pea, rice, quinoa and hemp) is that they offer a lot of protein for relatively few calories. They are also easy to add to foods such as protein shakes, oatmeal and soups to boost protein – and, you can individually tailor how much protein powder to use, depending on your individual needs.
Another challenge of a strict vegan diet is that certain nutrients may be lacking. Without dairy products for example, obtaining adequate calcium or vitamin D may be difficult. And since animal proteins are good sources of iron, zinc and vitamin B12, careful vegan food choices coupled with appropriate supplementation can ensure that these nutrient needs are met.