A couple weeks ago, we published Part I of two entries explaining our transition to vegan living. There, we shared a bit about our experience so far and the reasons motivating our switch to a fully plant-based diet. Touching briefly on the actual ‘how to’ of the switch, we mentioned in passing the type of changes this transition has brought forth to other areas of our lives and committed to posting another entry going deeper down the rabbit hole of useful tips in a balanced and fully nutritious vegan lifestyle.
Part II today will dig a bit deeper into the ‘tips and tricks’ of healthy veganism and share some of the pearls of wisdom we have gained by trial and error up until this point. But before we jump to it, let’s just stress once again the takeaway from Part I: you have to choose going vegan for your own reasons. What those are can vary from individual to individual, but it’s important to know why you are choosing a vegan lifestyle over any other possible alternative and what committing to it brings to your world. With this point in mind fully clear, we can move on!
Digesting what you read is a must!
Veganism is a lot older than all the fuzz and buzz going on lately about it in different media might reveal. In the west, already in the 70s and 80s, and even earlier than that –the Vegan Society was founded in England in 1944– many ‘pioneers’ were already committed to finding more ethical ways of tending to our alimentary needs that had plants at the center of the experience. In fact, archaeological research suggests that our first ancestors were on a plant-based diet for quite some time!
Still, because trial and error is truly a thing, over-skinny and unhealthy-looking vegans were part of the process in the west during this lifestyle’s earlier years. Fortunately for us, however, time has worked in such a way as to make it easier than ever for anyone to access valuable nutritional information; so much so that, with a simple click, a whole world of useful and relevant food advice is readily at our disposal.
On the one hand, this allows us to go vegan without necessarily undergoing any of the risks that an unbalanced diet entails; on the other hand, it also requires something of a critical eye: the type of eye able to differentiate reliable and important information from noisy (and often commercially interested) clatter. So putting in the work necessary to make a truly informed decision about transitioning to an entirely new lifestyle is priority number one.
Indeed, a vegan diet isn’t necessarily a healthier diet. A diet based on nothing but chips, cookies, cola and/or coffee is also a vegan diet, albeit not a very healthy one. So priority number one in the vegan path is to educate yourself about nutrition.
The vast majority of us have, at best, a rather rudimentary idea of which foods are best for us, and often lack actual insight on the ways in which what we eat actually influences our health or more abstract aspects of our being such as our mood and overall mindset. In fact, one look to some of our ideas about the supposed ‘(un)healthiness’ of some foods reveals that many of the truths we take for granted stand on very shaky ground.
This is the reason why some longevity experts such as Dr. Longo –a researcher mainly focused on getting to the core of what makes some regions of the world live healthier, longer– recommend a pescatarian-vegan diet over a purely vegan one for most of us. The reasons for this are not so much connected to the nutritional properties of fish (even when that is to some extent part of it), but mostly to the way in which the majority of us today lack proper nutrition know-how to go vegan without risking undernourishment.
And so, for some like Dr. Longo, a pescatarian-vegan diet with its many downsides –such as the dangers of ingesting too much mercury and other pollutants or ethical questions connected to the consumption of animals– is still preferable to an malnourishing vegan one.
Nonetheless, we believe that getting up to speed on nutrition wisdom is not such a tough feat, and anybody really interested in learning to eat properly can have great results in not time if some of the tips here provided are properly followed.
A brave new (vegan) world
As mentioned in our earlier entry, going vegan is just not as easy as getting rid of meat, fish, and dairy and utilizing tofu or some other artificial substitute in their place. Whatever you cook as part of your vegan diet cannot (indeed, should not!) taste like its ‘original’ animal counterpart.
If truth be told, we don’t quite get the point of coming up with artificial vegan products that purport to taste ‘just like salami,’ ‘just like meatballs,’ or ‘just like cheese’ even though we are also used to the taste of most of these things.
In any case, we all have a list of roughly 15-20 dishes that we cook on rotation. So, if you really want to have a balanced diet, find alternative vegan ones! Try vegetables, grains, and cereals, for instance, that you haven’t tried before. Make you own spreads. Expand your horizons and make products like bulgur, oatmeal, or whole grains part of your weekly repertoire. Most importantly, try to eat as much seasonal fresh produce as possible.
Eating seasonal guarantees, first of all, that you will eat what’s most necessary for your body when you’re meant to. In an ideal world –and ours when it comes to food is as close to it as it gets– your environment will produce the products best suited for each season at any one point. That is, it will produce those products best suited for warm or cold temperatures and meant to nourish both your stomach and your immune system. So choose wisely and be conscious about what you’re eating, when is it at its best, and where it comes from.
Indeed, for those worried about supporting your local communities or the environmental consequences of long-distance food transportation, eating seasonal generally signifies that you’ll be eating ‘nationally grown produce’ more often than not, hence contributing to some extent to the local economy and lessening the pressure that the over exploitation of intensively harvested unseasonal crops triggers in far-flung countries. If only, doing so may renew your sense of connection to the place you live in by knowing where your food has actually been grown.
But in case you need some actual help figuring out what foods are in season near you, check these options out: the seasonal food guide website and app for those based in the US, and for those based in the EU, a somewhat more rudimentary but still useful aid-infodienst (Bonn) PDF file listing most foods in season in a calendar year.
The science of sprouting, pseudo-grains, and green-protein intake
An important part in your journey into veganism will have to do with learning about these three things. Animal products are extremely protein-rich. In an omnivore diet, there is basically no need for a person to pay attention to reaching the levels of what is considered a sufficient protein intake. In fact, exceeding the minimum is more frequently the norm.
Plants, on the other hand, contain mainly carbohydrates and very little protein, which means that, in a plant-based diet, special attention has to be paid to protein intake not to risk malnourishment –particularly so in the case of athletes. This is the reason why increasing your intake of fibrous greens, legumes, beans, pseudo-grains (amaranth, quinoa, buckwheat) is so important.
Legumes, for example, are an all-round source of protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals, and you can make the most of them if you learn to sprout them! To be fair, we didn’t know much about sprouting prior to going vegan. Connecting with a few fellow plant-based people on social media, however, was our door in, and it was relatively easy and quick for us to get up to speed on the topic and start enjoying the funny and delicious taste of the little herby things!
In fact –and at the risk of getting a bit too nerdy on the topic– little did we know, for instance, that it is precisely during the germination phase of a seed that the nutritional value of a plant is at its highest. Due to the intensive changes to the morphology and composition of the seed while in germination, free amino acids and other highly assimilable super-elements are released into the seed plant at this point. Amino acids are some of the most valuable building blocks of our bodies, helping our cells be what and how they are, and carrying nutrients and other valuable products from one cell of our body to another. Additionally, a germinated seed increases also its dietary fibre ratio, which is generally a good thing!
So, by sprouting your own inexpensive seeds at home –things like wheat, chickpeas, lentils, sweet lupine, sunflowers, beetroot, mung beans, or cress seeds, for example– you’re greatly increasing the nutritional quality and value of the foods you’re ingesting and taking baby steps down the home farming road!
The life aquatic; or, eating ocean plants
A rather pristine realm to explore here in the west is that offered by seaweed or ocean plants. We have not as yet had sufficient time to experience all varieties currently commercialized and offer sound personal advice on the topic. Indeed, careful research on the way they are produced needs to happen on our part. But we are really curious about them and, from agar or kombu algae, to wake, nori, or kelp, rumor has it they are some of the best foods out there with more Calcium or Iron than milk or meat and a great deal of minerals and electrolytes. So we will be doing our due part on the topic and publish an entry on our impressions and research as soon as we have relevant info to share.
Going ‘nuts’ about fats and oils
We warned you at the beginning that we’d be sharing more ‘in-depth’ bits and pieces of things to watch out for when going vegan, and nuts, fats, and oils rank pretty high on the ‘most-wanted’ list of plant-based nutrition.
Omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, for example, are polyunsaturated fats essential for our survival, and would be the types of fats to get a balanced intake of. Our bodies cannot produce them, which means that we rely on what we eat to provide the necessary intake.
Omega 6 plays a key role in the prevention of infection and injury, thanks to its inflammatory properties –it acts a bit like a fever, 'burning shit up' as the saying goes! Still, too much Omega 6 can lead to chronic inflammation. This means that Omega 6 –something most people consume in excess– must be kept at a minimum. How can we do this? Eating more Omega 3-rich foods instead.
The best vegan omega 3 sources out there are walnuts, hemp, flaxseed, chia, either as oils or, why not, sprouted! Omega 3 is essential for us to metabolize fat. Unfortunately, however, we eat many more bad fats than good ones... For those not familiar with fat, let’s say that it can be divided into three main categories: saturated, unsaturated, and trans fats.
Saturated fats are essentially found in animal products such as milk, cheese, or meat, and their proportion should be of around 10% or less of a person’s daily caloric intake. These are not necessarily ‘bad fats’ so long as they are reasonably consumed.
Unsaturated fats, on the other hand -–such as those found in vegetable oils, olives, and nuts and seeds– can be really healthy when consumed in moderation, helping to reduce cholesterol as well as the risk of heart disease.
Trans fats, on the contrary, are the real bad deal. They are found in most industrial foods, generally added to prolong their life, and are closely connected to fatal coronary disease and other disruptive metabolic conditions. They’d be the ones you generally get from frozen pizza, processed crackers, biscuits, and most deep-fried foods.
So the goal here would be opting for plant-based, unsaturated (and ideally polyunsaturated) oils/fats like those found in walnut-, hemp-, sunflower seed, or flaxseed oil; even though, generally speaking, if you’re on a plant-based diet you’ll most probably be on the safe side.
Next in line: Sufficient Caloric Intake
Much as with protein ratio, plants are also not as calorie-dense as animal products. But hey, one man's trash can be another man's treasure, right?!
This means that, if your goal is to lose weight, choosing a plant-based diet will allow you to eat as much as you want and still see a certain degree of rapid weight loss. Contrarily, however, if you are something of a skinny-prone type with a tendency towards easily losing weight, or are involved in intense long-distance or pro sports training where there is high energy consumption, things can get tricky.
A stomach filled only with veggies amounts to roughly 500 kcal. Not much considering the amount of veggies you have to eat and the amount of chewing you have to do to put all that in! The best trick we’ve come across so far to guarantee sufficient caloric intake is consuming more smoothies, more oils, and more nuts. Still, we are looking forward to discovering other sustainable ways of building up a healthy waistline!
The science of the smoothy is pretty straightforward and does not need a great deal of explanation. If you’ve ever had a green smoothie before you’ve probably already been surprised by the amount of fruit and veggies you can fit into a big tall glass. Easy to prepare, and even quicker to drink, some plant-based bodybuilders consume more than half of their daily calories this way.
In our case, though, we use smoothies as part of our ‘morning ritual’ and add nuts and different oils to them to make sure we hit the right caloric benchmark. Indeed, protein and carbohydrates both have around 4 kcal per gram. Fat (as in nuts and oils) has about 9 kcal per gram. So whenever and wherever you need to increase your foods’ caloric intake in a healthy way, add a bit of good quality, unrefined (and if possible cold-pressed) oil (as in extra-virgin olive-, walnut-, hemp-, chia-, or sunflower oil) or some walnuts, almonds, or cashews to your smoothie and you body will feel the difference.
Vitamin D and B12. Needed or not?
Accepting the need for supplements was probably the hardest bit in our vegan journey, which is the reason we left it for last. To be fair, we were slightly sceptic about the need for any supplements when we first started toying with the idea of going plant-based. Used to previously eating a diet where no ‘extra help’ was necessary, we thought we might be able to do without the supplements.
Careful research, however, proved us wrong, particularly with regards to our need for vitamin B12. Essential for “proper red blood cell formation, neurological function, and DNA synthesis,” a plant-based diet, nevermind how well-balanced, cannot supply a key nutrient mostly found in animal products. So, as you may have already imagined, we added this supplement to our diet and currently take one tiny drop a day.
Vitamin D became our second supplement to consider. Jonas takes it on the regular, for example, while Alba doesn’t –one of the many perks of being a Spaniard with a sunny abode on demand!
Vitamin D was for a long time considered to be only 'an assistant’ for Calcium absorption and thus mainly necessary for skeletal and bone stability. Time, however, has proved Vitamin D to be involved in a multitude of similarly important metabolic processes; it helps prevent cardiovascular diseases, cancer, high blood pressure, multiple sclerosis, diabetes (Type I), and is responsible for the proper functioning of our immune system. So, a lack of Vitamin D, if prolonged over time, will definitely make you sick.
Vertebrates, including humans, usually cover some of their Vitamin D production autonomously (aka, producing it on their own). But to do so, sufficient sunlight (ultraviolet wavelengths) is needed, and this is exactly the catch. Many regions of the world (particularly those in the North) do not receive enough sunlight for a large portion of the year. An omnivore diet covers only about 5 - 20% of a person’s Vitamin D needs, particularly for those living North of 42° latitude –North of Rome. Which means that, those of us living ‘up North’ should keep an eye out on our vitamin D levels.
Supplementation, or a long holiday in a sunny area during the winter months are two great ways of getting a quick refill on our Vitamin D storage to ensure optimal health. And being quite honest, who doesn't like an-almost-tropical vacay in the middle of the winter if the wallet allows?!
And where to from here?
For us, this has only been the beginning of the journey. While it's true that baby-steps take a long time to get you anywhere, they are also one of the best ways of making solid and long-lasting progress towards your goal, which, in our case, is in part conscious and sustainable plant-based nutrition.
Our aim is to go on learning and sharing with you all what we feel are useful ways to stay healthy and make informed lifestyle decisions. They say knowledge is power, and this goes as well for nutrition! Because a healthy, balanced, and informed diet gives you the power you need to thrive in other facets of your life. So stay green and leafy and have an awesome plant-based life!