The Nutrients I Care About Most Since Going Vegan (and Maybe you Should too)

If you’re following my vegan journey blog, then you know I have nutrient issues I’ve been trying to fix for a while now. It started when I found out I was anemic– specifically iron-deficient anemic. Then, once I finally took control of my health and fitness, I figured I should just pay attention to all nutrients because that could probably fix anything else I had (or thought I had) issues with.

But then I went vegan. And although I still feel like it was the best decision I could have made for myself, I knew I would have to go over my nutrients again. It was actually kind of funny because within a few weeks of going vegan, it hit me like a rock…

**Hmm, you know that thing that happens when you say something, or in this case type something, and it happens to be the title or lyrics of a song you really like? And then that song pops in your head and you can’t get it out? Well that just happened, so I had to put on CSS’s “Hits Me Like a Rock” — which is a great song by a great band, but I digress 🙂 **

… that I hadn’t eaten meat for some time and my first thought was “oh no, what’s happening with my iron?” I hadn’t taken iron supplements in over a year– in fact, I stopped way before I went to the doctor and found out that I wasn’t even anemic anymore (I know, I was the worst with taking my health seriously). I figured maybe my intake of iron through meat sources had been enough. Not to mention I was also lazy and forgetful when it came to taking supplements.

But in any case, I was no longer eating meat — so now what?

I looked up plant-based iron sources immediately and initially, I was both happy and sad at what I discovered. That led me to look up the top nutrients that vegans lack on a plant-based diet. Here’s what I found and what I felt was most applicable to me and possibly you too:

Iron

Iron was automatically at the top of my list because of the whole anemia thing (old deficiencies die hard). Iron is important because it helps transport oxygen through the body — it’s a major component of hemoglobin which is the part of red blood cells that takes oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. Too little iron means the body can’t make enough red blood cells. So, when I discovered that iron is found in tons of plant-based foods such as dark, leafy greens (kale, collards, swiss chard), many nuts and seeds (cashews, pistachios), tofu and tempeh, I was thrilled because I already consumed these foods. But then I found out that there are two different types of iron. Heme-iron and non-heme iron. Heme-iron is only found in animal meat sources, and it is more readily absorbed by our bodies. All of the plant-based foods I just mentioned are higher only in non-heme iron, which is the type found in plant-based foods and is not as easily absorbed by the body. But that doesn’t mean you have to lack in iron. Here’s what I started doing to ensure I was getting enough of the mineral:

  1. I increased my intake of non-heme iron foods, but in small increments over the course of the day. Apparently, eating too much can actually have the opposite effect on iron absorption–and absorption is the important part!
  2. I started consuming non-heme iron foods with vitamin C rich foods — this increases absorption a whole bunch.
  3. Also, I try not to eat this non-heme iron and vitamin C combo with any caffeine which can cause absorption interference.

So there you have it — A few changes and now I have complete control over my iron — just call me Magneto 😉

Calcium

Most people think of milk as the only calcium source, but this isn’t true! There’s a ton of plant-based calcium sources — some of which might be better than milk. Calcium is very important when it comes to building strong muscles and teeth, and in supporting our skeletal structure– so making sure we are getting enough of it is key. Most dairy-products do contain the mineral but not naturally– they are actually fortified with calcium. Plant-based sources like edamame, tofu, black-eyed peas, kale and mustard greens, and sesame seeds contain a decent amount of calcium in each serving, ranging from about 10% to 33% of the daily recommended value! Plus the mineral occurs naturally in all of these foods.

Check out this page to get the percent breakdown as well as see other calcium-rich foods you should add to your diet! **The page does include some non-vegan calcium sources– it only omits dairy sources.

Vitamin B-12

Vitamin B-12 is the vitamin that vegans tend to lack the most– it’s super important for our nerve cells and also helps with DNA production among the many other important functions it contributes to. But the sucky part is that it is only naturally occuring in animal sources, hence the widespread need for vegans (and vegetarians) everywhere to get more of it. The annoying part is that it isn’t found in the animal itself, but is actually found in the soil that the animals eat — and that is how it gets into the animals. So can we get some scientists working on making this soil edible for us vegans?

Well, they sort of have been working on it. Plant-based sources of B-12 are only found in foods that have been fortified with the vitamin, but there are also some foods that contain it in small amounts, such as mushrooms that have been grown in B-12 rich soil — woohoo! Some plant-milks are fortified with B-12, but not every brand fortifies their milk– check the label to be sure. By far, the most popular fortified vegan-friendly food that contains B-12 is nutritional yeast — the amazing nooch. I’d heard so much about it when I first went vegan, and didn’t understand the hype until I tried it. Yes, it’s yummy. And most fortified nutritional yeast contains the recommended daily amount in one serving. For example, Trader Joe’s nutritional yeast contains 3.1 mcg in the 1 tablespoon serving size — that’s 130% of the daily recommended amount!*

But like iron, absorption is key, and B-12 is best absorbed when consumed in smaller amounts. So go easy on the nooch in one sitting and consider using it throughout the day. Also, vitamin B-12 may be more easily absorbed in supplement form altogether, so do some research on it!

Protein

Okay, before all the vegans across the globe ban together to hunt me down, let me clarify what I mean by a necessity for protein!

I know, I know — it’s highly unlikely to suffer from a protein deficiency. In fact, one of the most popular types of vegan memes include the ones with jokes about the ignorance of the general public as to how much protein humans really need, as well as their perceived idea that vegans get absolutely no protein since we don’t eat meat.

Batman vegan protein meme

Vegans however, are aware that most plant-based sources of protein are actually higher in protein than some popular animal meat sources.

So why do I mention protein as a nutrient to be wary of lacking? Well when I started this blog post, I did mention that all of these nutrients were applicable to me (and maybe you too!). So I mention protein because I am physically active. I move around a lot, I run, and I use my muscles — while training but also in my everyday life because I currently work at a job that’s labor intensive.

So for me, making sure I get enough protein is a reality because I need to rebuild my muscles regularly so I don’t have to function in pain– and protein plays a key role in helping to rebuild and repair those tiny little tears that occur in your muscles after you workout (the tears are the reason you’re sore after you strength train!). If you are currently physically active or plan on incorporating more physical activity (particularly any form of strength training) into your life, you should probably make sure you are indeed getting enough protein. It’s an easy thing to miss because as an omnivore who strength trains, it is likely that you would eat eggs, chicken and beef daily, which are considered “healthy” and “high-protein” sources. But on a plant-based diet, you may not automatically consume some of the best protein sources such as tofu, seitan, beans, quinoa, chickpeas or peanuts daily. Some people do whether they are active or not, which is great. I try to consume a lot of these foods daily whether I’m training or not because I want to keep my diet varied. It helps not only in the nutrients department, but also keeps me from getting bored with what I’m eating– I hate eating the same thing everyday– unless it’s pizza… I could eat pizza every. day.

So the chances of you having a protein deficiency are very low, but just be aware that you might need to up your plant-based protein intake if you’re strength-training or super active!

And remember, I’m not a doctor so I can’t say what will work best for ensuring that you get all of these nutrients. It’s best to check with your doc before doing any of these things. Also, see if it makes sense to take a multi-vitamin or any specific supplements to get some of the daily recommended amounts of most of these nutrients. And of course, keep your vegan diet rich in fresh foods that are high in various nutrients and you should be good!

 

*For most adults the recommended daily amount of vitamin B-12 is about 2.4 – 2.8 mcg.

My Struggles with Going Vegan!

Going vegan is harder for some folks than it is for others. I admit, I contemplated if writing a full blog post on this topic made sense for various reasons — the main reason being that I thought maybe going vegan for me wasn’t “hard enough”. Why did I think this?

Well, since I went vegan, I’ve spoken to a variety of people who have both inspired and enlightened me. Here are a few archetypes I’ve had the pleasure of talking to over the past several months:

  • The “O.G” vegan: This is the person who went vegan way back in the sixties or seventies, long before it was trendy, cool, or even known to have such an impact on health,  or the environment. These are the veteran vegans — everyone thought they were crazy for doing it, and maybe they were because they didn’t have the wealth of food options that vegans have today. They were pretty much obligated to be raw vegans (well, they could cook their veggies too). Oh, but they also had tofu. Just tofu (and later seitan around the mid-1970s). I’ve heard their stories of feeling like outcasts because of their choice to go vegan, but I’ve also heard their stories of how going vegan was the healthiest thing they could have done — those were my favorite parts. And ya know, when you’re trying to save the planet and the animals, having a limited amount of food options and being judged by society can pale in comparison, because you know that what you’re doing is for the greater good. “O.G” vegans truly deserve our admiration — they were pioneers!
  • The small town vegan: This type of vegan also fancies a lot of raw goodies, but they have also mastered how to prepare cooked veggies about 100 different ways and to somehow turn about three different veggies into 40 different meals (I completely stole this skill and am still honing it!). They are also big on prepared foods like Daiya’s “mac ‘n’ cheez”. The main struggle here is access to and availability of vegan food options other than raw foods, pasta and peanut butter. Small town vegans don’t always have easy accessibility to products which have not become as popular in certain areas, like staple proteins such as tofu and seitan, and also vegan cheez, because not enough people consume them where they live. And even the larger supermarkets or big-box stores which are more likely to carry these products may not be easily accessible, so they have to make trips there every so often and stock up in bulk. **Disclaimer: I am fully aware that this is not accurate of ALL vegans who live in small towns, but is applicable of some!
  • The raw vegan: The classic raw vegan. I think this is what most people think of first when they hear the word “vegan”. These days, a lot of people adopt a raw vegan diet for a week or two, in an attempt to lose weight. But for true raw vegans, this isn’t a diet– it’s a lifestyle. So what exactly is a raw vegan? Well the name somewhat explains it: they’re vegan — so no animal products or animal byproducts. But they also consume the majority of their food fully raw or cooked very minimally for the purpose of achieving maximum nutritional value. For a food to be considered “raw”, it can not be cooked above a temperature of 105-120 degrees Fahrenheit. This type of veganism takes a lot of commitment and can be a struggle to fully change over to, especially if you’re going from a full carnivore and dairy diet to a raw vegan diet. And then you also have to worry about nutrition, maybe even more so than vegans who cook their food. But some people swear by it as a great way to improve health.

Each of these groups had or have it a bit hard when it comes to their vegan life. Their decisions were obviously motivated by something greater than themselves, because it took a lot of dedication and commitment to stick with something that may not have come easily. You could be motivated by being passionate about what you’re doing, by feeling obligated to do it, or simply by the main pillars of veganism which are health, animals, and the environment (in no specific order). Like I said, learning from these groups and talking to people within them has enlightened me as to what I can do to make my personal vegan journey better, in spite of any struggles I have had myself, which I still feel pales in comparison to the ones above.

So what have I struggled with?

Here are some that have come about since I went vegan:

  • Getting used to cooking all of (well, most of) my meals: Like most people, I have a very busy schedule. I work, I’m in grad school, and I have to take care of everything else that occurs in life — the daily monotonous stuff as well as the out-of-the blue things that always seem to pop-up at the most random times. I didn’t grow up loving to cook, and I actually didn’t start cooking until very recently. I have come to appreciate it now, but it is still in the “greatly admired hobby” stage — except it isn’t just a hobby. It’s a necessity. Being vegan kind of forces you to have to cook the majority of your meals. That is, unless you can afford to eat vegan take-out every night, which I can’t. Heck, even the places I’ve eat out at since I became vegan have been questionable on my finances. Lets just say that a lot of the great vegan fare I’ve been able to partake of has been paid for by some of my ever-growing student loan debt (mom, I apologize for that if you’re reading this). But it isn’t all bad. Learning how to cook is an essential survival skill, and if you can make food that actually tastes good, that’s even better. The issue is that I don’t always feel like cooking every. single. night. I know I can meal prep or make large meals at the beginning of the week, but I have another issue there. I’ve been very adamant about not using a microwave as much — I’m not super strict with it, but I have maybe used my microwave about three-five times in the past month. My goal is to not use it as often because of the radiation it emits when heating and cooking food. Supposedly it’s a very small amount, but I don’t trust that fully and so although I haven’t committed to getting rid of the appliance yet, I’ve been content with not using it as much. And who knows what I may end up doing with it in the future. But the point is, finding the time to actually make a meal when I’m feeling tired, lazy, or really don’t have the time can be difficult. But I’m still pushing myself to do it, and it does get easier with time.
  • Getting used to being around family/friends who are not vegan: Earlier this month, I went out with a group of friends to celebrate a birthday — it was my first outing to a non-vegan restaurant with non-vegan people. Yikes. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to eat anything, although my current go-to “non-vegan place” food is always there as my safety cushion — french fries. I looked up the menu before we went, and thank goodness they actually had not one but two vegan options! But I am dreading the time where I have to go out to a place that doesn’t have an online menu or doesn’t offer any vegan food. I am also still in the stage where I can’t expect all of my extended family to know about my new vegan life. Meat and dairy are in a lot of dishes that are common in my culture (when prepared traditionally), so until everyone knows I’m vegan, I might have to bring my own food. My mom has been very supportive — she made me a few things during the holiday season which came about right after I went vegan and I can’t wait to introduce her to the wonderful vast world of vegan food.
  • Beginning the transition to all vegan products: In my head I knew that being vegan would extend to other areas of my life, but initially, it still wasn’t a tangible concept. At first I was more focused on finding out what I could and couldn’t eat. Once I became more comfortable with the food part, I started to realize how many things we use in life are not vegan. Things like hair styling products, shampoos and conditioners, body products, makeup, and even floss; most waxed floss is coated with beeswax. I am still in the process of making sure I only use vegan products. Sometimes I forget to look at the ingredients on something, but it happens and I’m sure it will happen to all the other newbie (and even veteran) vegans out there. But soon enough it’ll be second nature to check the label.
  • Making sure I’m getting all the nutrients I need: I used to suffer from iron-deficient anemia. I went a decent amount of time without knowing this — being sick and suffering from dizzy spells and not knowing why. Because of this experience along with a desire to take better care of myself overall, I try to make sure I’m always getting all the nutrients I need. Going vegan made this even more important, because as a vegan, if you don’t eat a diverse array of foods it is all too easy to start lacking in key nutrients such iron and B-12. Iron is found in many plant-based sources such as dark leafy greens, quinoa, pumpkin seeds, lentils, and tofu just to name a few– but, there’s a catch. These foods are only high in one type of iron (aarrrgghh!). And getting enough B-12 is a whole other story. Vitamin B-12 is only found in animal meat sources. So for a vegan to get enough B-12, they have to either take supplements or eat foods fortified with the vitamin, such as plant-milks. For the full low-down on these two key nutrients, why they’re important and how I’m currently trying to fit them into my diet, check out this blog post.

* Vegetables cover image courtesy of pexels.com

Why I Went Vegan (and it Wasn’t to Lose Weight)

So here’s my “why I went vegan story”.

Every vegan has one, right?

It all started in the Fall of 2017.

Actually wait, no it didn’t.

It really started several years ago — when I tried to go vegetarian. I decided to do it on a whim and there was really no thought process behind it. I didn’t have any substantial reasons for doing it other than I thought it would help me “lose some weight”.

I didn’t conduct any research on how to properly transition to a vegetarian diet, including maintaining the vitamins and minerals I would need. I wasn’t doing it for the animals or for the environment, so I didn’t have  a mindset geared toward doing it for all the right reasons.

Then there was also a health dilemma I was unaware of. At the time, I didn’t yet know that I had severe iron-deficiency anemia. This made the whole process even worse. While trying to maintain my vegetarian lifestyle, I would get dizzy spells and didn’t know why (this sometimes happened way before I went vegetarian– I now realize also because of the anemia, but because I wasn’t taking care of my health, I didn’t look into it fully yet and brushed it off as random occurrences that would hopefully go away).

What I didn’t realize was that since I had stopped consuming meat-based sources of iron, and was now not consuming a decent amount of plant-based sources of iron, my body was being deprived of a lot of nutrients. I also hated dark, leafy greens at this time and thought tofu was a bland, tasteless food, and so spinach, kale and tofu were never dietary options for me, even though they are some of the most iron-rich plant-based foods around.

Instead of going to the doctor or trying to really experiment with my diet and food choices, I assumed any illness or weakness had something to do with my sudden change to a vegetarian diet. That was my tipping point. I threw in the towel pretty early and went back to eating meat.

And that was my life for the next few years. I still never felt healthy, and I wasn’t, but changing the way I ate never occurred to me as a viable option. I was unhealthy inside and out.

Then, in 2015, I went on a health overhaul. I decided to take charge of my health and started eating healthy and being more physically active. At this point, I was still eating meat (and dairy and eggs), and could never imagine a life without these foods.

In 2017, I was definitely feeling healthier. I was active and although I didn’t have the healthiest diet, I ate way better than I had in the past when it came to portion control and eating less junk. But I could feel that there was still change to be made– I sought out someone I had went to High School with who was now a yoga teacher. I thought that incorporating yoga into my life would help create a that change that would bring my spiritual and physical journey into alignment with one another.

However, once we were in contact, yoga ended up taking a backseat to me learning about her vegan lifestyle. I had mentioned to her that funny enough, I had recently completed a “vegan week” challenge not too long ago, just for fun to see if I could do it. But I never imagined actually becoming a vegan! I knew what it meant to be “vegan”, but like so many others, I immediately brushed off the idea, thinking things like:

“What about cheese?!”

“But I love eggs!”

“I have to give up burgers (and bacon)?!”

and my personal favorite, especially after going vegan:

“Where am I gonna get my protein?”

But the more I learned from her, the more the idea of going vegan intrigued me. I began to think this was something I could really do. And after doing my own research, I realized it was something I felt I had to do. For my health, for the health of the planet, and to serve as a voice for all the helpless animals who were being killed simply to satisfy my taste buds. I always loved animals, but I started to realize there was a disconnect in my association with some animals as being “okay to eat” and others not. I thought to myself, if something was sentient, why would it ever be okay to kill it for my well-being when there are other options available for me to achieve satiety and enjoyment through food?

Shortly after, I decided on a whim to just do it– to go vegan. With the help and support of my yogi pal, and with the knowledge I continued to gain through research and learning about a vegan lifestyle, how foods are created, how animals are treated, and the environmental impact of it all, I went ahead full-speed, and didn’t look back.

Now, I’m the Vegan Girl!

I’ve always enjoyed food, and I started my Instagram page dedicated to documenting my foodie adventures before becoming vegan, under the name “commelacuisine”– an ode to my love of the French language. Now, the page has been re-branded to reflect my new, amazing vegan lifestyle.

Check out what new recipe I’m making here in the recipes section, and see where I’m chowing down next on my Instagram page!