“Where do you get your protein”? “What about vitamin B12, calcium and iron?”
These are two of the questions I get asked by well meaning people and quite often. It surprises me when some people ask me these questions because I doubt they even know where vitamin B12 comes from or what the possible sources of protein are, yet alone, that dairy is not the best source of calcium.
Being a vegan requires a thick skin (something I do not have ) and a sense of humour (this is something I was blessed with). It does get to the point when I want to say that I am overweight hence I have to eat a restricted diet but even I know that will not work! It is that same blend of irritation that rises up inside me as when I am asked “But why don’t you have children?”. One day I will reply “They were allergic to the cats and we had to get rid of them because of this (the kids, that is)”.
Going back to the first question. I get my protein from the same place that many do. I get it from the shops. I wish we could say we grew our own produce but the reality is that our garden belongs to two eager rabbits and they have no mercy for any shrub or tree. I eat lots of green leafy vegetables, broccoli, good quality nuts, nut butters (with no added sugar or hydrogenated fat), grains, seed mixes, lentils and beans (like kidney beans). All these are good sources of high quality protein.
Proteins are made-up of chains of amino acids. Some are called essential amino acids because the human body cannot produce them. Those that are not classified as essential, can be manufactured by the body. Twenty amino acids are used to build protein.
Protein is important for maintaining muscle and bone mass. It is important for the immune system in that it keeps it strong and it prevents fatigue. Protein plays an important role in the functioning of hormones and enzymes.
A vegan diet with a variety of food will give you all the protein you need and if anything, you will be eating lean and better sources of protein compared to meat-eaters. This will also provide protein without cholesterol and will be low fat, with the bonus of getting ample fibre. Plants are thus nutritional powerhouses.
Vitamin B12 comes from bacteria and micro-organisms. It can be found in fortified vegan foods and supplements. It is needed for healthy blood cells and proper nerve functioning. It is best absorbed in small amounts but there is no harm in exceeding the recommended amounts; the body is able to store this vitamin. It is also wise to ensure that adequate folate is consumed. Surprisingly, if vegans follow this, they are likely to have better levels of vitamin B12 than meat-eaters. A great vegan tip: use dried deactivated nutritional yeast flakes on your savoury food. Tastes like parmesan cheese (assuming I can accurately remember what the real thing tastes like) and is packed with vitamin B12.
We were all most likely told at some stage that milk is the best source of calcium. The anomaly is that the highest bone fracture and osteoporosis rates are in the countries where there is the highest consumption of dairy products.
These products contain a protein called casein. This protein leeches calcium out of bones, making it harder to assimilate and use the calcium in dairy products. Human bodies absorb less calcium from animal sources than from non-animal sources.
We need calcium because it keeps the firmness in our bones, helps blood to clot and energises our muscle function. It also maintains strong teeth, metabolises iron, regulates our heartbeats and reduces the risk of chronic diseases.
Good plant sources of calcium includes: dark leafy green vegetables, broccoli, tofu, cooked spinach and white beans. There are also many calcium fortified vegan foods, for example soya milk. Magnesium and vitamin D are needed to ensure proper calcium uptake.
Then comes the vexed question of the mineral iron. The level of iron in your blood plays an important function in the amount of oxygen that is fed to cells, and also the carbon dioxide that is released and eliminated from the body. Iron is an essential part of hemoglobin which is the oxygen carrying part of blood. There are two forms of iron: heme iron and non-heme iron. The former comes from animals while the latter comes from both animal and plant sources. To enhance iron bioavailability, one should eat foods rich in vitamin C when eating iron-rich foods. Some foods have both iron and vitamin C such as broccoli, potatoes and swiss chard. There are also substances that limit the absorption of iron. Tannins found in tea is one such example.
For guidance, these are a few iron-rich plant foods: grains, cooked spinach, legumes, soybeans, tofu, beans, nuts, seeds, quinoa and certain dried fruits.
I take a good quality multi-vitamin supplement every day (Solgar V 2000) – I take half the recommended dose and have no deficiencies and can prove it based on a recent blood test. You see, people expect more from me health-wise than the average person. Vegans are not allowed to take sick leave (I currently out 29 sick leave days available to me) and we are not allowed to feel under the weather. This is because as soon as this happens, the retort will be: “But if you ate meat, you would not get sick”. The day will come when I tell someone that the reason for him/her being sick is because he/she eats meat. Why meat-eaters worry about taking antibiotics when they are ill also baffles me. If you eat animal products, you take-in antibiotics throughout the day. What harm can a little top-up be?
So, spare a thought for vegans with all the questions. Sometimes we just want to blend-in and be part of the wallpaper. Well, I do.