Welcome to Ask Doctor Zac, a weekly column from news.com.au.
This week Dr Zac Turner talks about veganism and where vegans get their protein.
QUESTION: Hi Dr Zac, I’ve been vegan for six months and it has been a breeze. What hasn’t been so lovely are the discussions with carnivores who accuse me of being protein deficient.
I know I’ve made a healthy diet choice but I’m not so flash hot at saying why.
Can you please give me some conversation points to explain why I still get the right amount of protein and other nutrients in my diet? This Christmas I need to be on the ball, deflecting all these pesky carnivore questions! – Sarah, 32 Adelaide
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ANSWER: Hi Sarah, I’ve heard it all before – the vegan being pounced on by carnivores at the Christmas lunch and, I must say, I used to be a fairly voracious critic of anyone but the most prepared vegan.
I appreciate your question, more people need to educate themselves about what they’re putting in their mouths, whatever your diet preference. Certainly the myth of the ‘malnourished vegan’ is completely false … well almost completely.
Next time someone who is stuffing their face full of gravy tells you you’re unhealthy, let them know that even some of top MMA fighters are vegan. Let’s see who is the healthier one now!
In Australia, and around the world, meat has been the main focus of our dinner plates as the protein portion of meals. We’ve become obsessed that the protein we get from meat is the best for us, often getting into heated arguments, refusing to believe we can live without it, or that any palatable or bioavailable protein options exists in any other food group.
I understand everyone has their own dietary needs and so I respect those who choose to be vegan and those who don’t, this is of course depending on your age as in my opinion children need to be closely monitored by a paediatrician if this is the path you as a parent wants to take.
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What I don’t respect is the misinformation that all vegans are nutrient deficient, and all meat eaters are ill informed. Personally I try to do three vegan days each week and two vegetarian. I’ve easily been able to fulfil the necessary daily required amount of protein in my diet. The reason for the change to my diet was partly around making better food choices when on the road. By eating vegan or veggo, I can’t just eat whatever is easiest.
A plant-based diet is commendable and a well-planned vegan diet can be adequate to achieve proper nutrition. Small changes to everyone’s diets to reduce some meat meals in the week and replace them for sustainable plant based options would make massive difference as a collective.
With regards to your Christmas lunch debate, your battle plan should be in two parts. Firstly, you need to point out where you get the proper amount of nutrients from in your diet. And secondly, you need to illustrate the health benefits of not eating red meat and other animal products.
A balanced vegan diet should be split into four food groups:
1. Legumes, nuts and seeds.
Now, let’s go through the four major nutrients you’ll be accused of being deficient in.
Ah yes, the sleepy vegan stereotype. You should concede that the body absorbs two to three times more iron from animal sources than plant sources. But then point out that iron intake is increased when it’s paired with vitamin C.
I recommend combining your meals with vitamin C rich foods (such as capsicums or spinach) with iron heavy foods (such as lentils, tofu, cashews or beans). One of the great points is that many nutrients found in one type of food or meat is not necessarily found in another, so it is important to keep on track of some of the physiological signs that you’re having too much or too little of a certain substance.
OMEGA-3 FATTY ACIDS
Carnivores may point out your lack of processed canned tuna intake may be impacting on your brain function. Be sure to remind them the chia seeds in your smoothies and walnuts in your salads offer plenty of omega-3 fatty acids.
Dairy is not the only thing that contains calcium! This is a myth often rolled out by the milk industry that many people fall for. There are heaps of calcium alternatives including kale, broccoli, bok choy, soybeans, chickpeas, black beans, and almonds.
Yes, a vegan’s kryptonite! That is until they add nutritional yeast to their diet. This gives vegans the required amount of B-12 to stave off fatigue and weakness.
It is very easy to find protein in your vegan diet, but you do need to eat more than the average meat eater does. Vegans have the advantage of eating a variety of sources of amino acids that make up protein. Meals such as bean burritos, tofu and vegetable stir-fry and lentil curries are great ways to get the right amount of protein.
Be sure to remind the carnivore at Christmas that reducing red meat intake lowers the risk of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and even cancer, and that you don’t even need to go vegan to gain a lot of the health benefits of increasing plants and fibre in our diets.
Good luck Sarah, and remember that your dietary choice is your decision. If you do find yourself struggling to meet all the dietary requirements, seek help from a nutritionist or your local GP. Drink lots of water and be prepared for battle this Christmas.
Dr. Zac Turner has a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery from the University of Sydney. He has worked as a Registered Nurse, both in Australia and internationally and is also a qualified and experienced biomedical scientist. | @drzacturner