When I first went vegetarian at 14 I had no idea what I was getting into. My parents were right because, alas, I did in fact know nothing about nutrition. (Don’t you love it when your parents are right and it takes thirteen years for you to admit that?) As I veered into veganism in my early 20’s I did my heavy share of research to be sure I was doing it right this time. And now as a Certified Nutritional Coach I feel I can really point those who want to be compassionate AND healthy in the right direction. These are the ten things I wish I would have known that could have saved me from muscle loss, memory loss, anxiety, depression, chronic fatigue, and other mental and physical issues.
- What a complete protein is. The importance of getting these complete proteins into our diet is one of the main components of a plant based diet. Although I was doing this by accident almost every day, there were days that I’m sure I wasn’t nailing this must do. In a vegan diet you must pair a legume (nuts or beans) with a grain (rice, corn, wheat, etc.) to make a complete protein. This means peanut butter toast, rice and beans, black bean and corn chili, etc.. There are also a few foods such as quinoa or tofu that are a complete protein in itself. A complete protein will ideally be present in AT LEAST one of your meals per day depending on the amount of protein your lifestyle demands.
- B12 supplementation. This is extremely important in helping maintain mood, memory, and health of your blood cells, DNA, and nerves. There are very few natural sources of B12 outside of animal products so it is recommended to get your daily dosage by consuming B12 fortified foods like cereals, nut milks, nutritional yeast. If you do decide to supplement make sure you look on the back at the ingredients label. If it says methylcobalamin, this is the real naturally derived form of this vitamin. Cyanocobalamin is the synthetic form and is not as effective in being absorbed and can have some negative side effects.
- Fat soluble vitamins. Determining which foods are fat or water soluble will determine how well you absorb the nutrients into your body. On a vegan diet, your fat sources are more limited so it is important to prioritize consuming enough fats throughout the day so as to retain the nutrients your body is intaking. Some good sources of healthy fats are avocadoes, coconut oil, raw olive oil, seeds, or nuts.
- Omega fatty acid supplementation. After 12 years of the vegan/vegetarian diet, I began to eat self harvested mountain lake trout on backpacking and camping trips up to the mountains. It wasn’t until I started this that I realized what I have been missing for years that was so incredibly important for my mental health and clarity. You don’t have to sacrifice your vegan or vegetarian lifestyle to get these omega-3 fatty acids, however, incorporating spirulina, walnuts, ground flax seed, chia seeds, and other potent omega-3 fatty acid sources into your diet on a daily basis will make a profound difference in your life. I personally like to make a smoothie with all of those things in it first thing in the morning. There are also a few supplements out there that are vegan.
- Whole foods are better than supplementation. The first step in your bodies digestion starts with the eyes. The second step? Your mouth. When you salivate, this is the first step in your DNA bonding with these foods. When it comes to supplementation, your body doesn’t have the opportunity to bond with these foods the same way that they would if you were chewing these foods yourself. Not to mention, most supplements contain the lab made form of the vitamin or mineral, which is not retained as effectively in the body. Furthermore, some of you may not know that the gel capsules that many supplements come in are not vegetarian because they contain gelatin, which is derived from animal bones.
- Limit your use of processed pre-packaged soy products. Especially if you are going vegan because of health purposes, I would highly recommend avoiding these pre-packaged processed soy foods. They tend to contain high amounts of carcinogens and ingredients you can’t pronounce which is never a good thing. Instead try implementing tofu, tempeh, and beans, beans, beans! Instead of buying pre-made veggie burgers you can make some great homemade black beans burgers or lentil meatballs and freeze them in bulk.
- Soaking your legumes. When eating beans or nuts, it is important to soak them to break down the protective layer on the legumes, if they are not pre-soaked already as canned beans are. This will prevent the nasty gas and poor digestion that many people often associate with legumes by breaking down the phytic acid and anti-nutrients. Most beans are best soaked for 24 hours and nuts for around 8 to 12. It is important to dump the water the legumes have been soaked in. Also remember to refrigerate nuts or they will become moldy if left out.
- High protein vegetables. There are lots of veggies that contain high amounts of protein so you don’t have to sit there eating beans and nuts day in and day out. Some of my favorite high protein veggies that I eat on a regular basis are broccoli, kale, peas, brussels sprouts, cabbage, spinach, and asparagus.
- Track your calories at first. If you’re doing vegan the right way, you’re going to have to track your calories to make sure you get enough calories. With the standard American diet its so hard to keep your calories from creeping up on you, but with the vegan diet its the opposite. Track your calories until you feel you have a grasp on how much food you need to eat a day to keep your bodily functions and biological processes going.
- Don’t be alarmed by bloating and gas. You may get bloated and experience more gas at first due to the major influx of fiber you’re going to get in your diet. Don’t be alarmed by this, your body will adjust with time. Upping your water intake will help you digest things, but make sure you’re drinking your water 15 minutes before your meals and at least an hour after your meals or it will dilute the hydrochloric acid in your stomach which could interfere with your digestion and the breakdown of fiber.
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