By Angela Poch, CN
For years people thought what you ate in your diet had no bearing on your health. Now we now that is a fallacy getting us heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and even cancer. So let’s look at some of the needs of your body in relationship to food as a vegetarian or vegan. What should a vegan eat?
The basic nutrients for anyone are carbohydrates, proteins, fats, and micro-nutrients. Each of these groups have subcategories, i.e. carbohydrates which include starch, sugar, and fiber.
The foods we eat have some or all of the different groups, i.e. pinto beans have some carbohydrates, lots of protein, and some fat. So the healthy vegetarian needs to eat a balanced diet based on these foods.
Carbohydrates are the main source of energy for our bodies. Yes, contrary to all the fad diets, we need to eat foods high in carbohydrates. There are refined carbs, such as white sugar and white flour, simple carbohydrates such as apples, and complex carbohydrates such as brown rice. We need both simple and complex carbohydrates, but we do not need refined. Refined carbs usually have the fiber removed, which is hard on blood sugar levels.
We need energy and we need calories, but you know what happens if we eat too many calories? The body stores it as fat, and when too much fat is stored we get overweight. Thus, carbs turn to fat if we eat too much for our activity level.
There are three forms of carbohydrates: sugar, starch, and fiber. We should get about 55 to 70% of our calories from carbohydrates. Carbohydrates come from vegetarian sources, so vegetarians are not limited in their sources.
Sugar comes in many types. There are natural sugars God put in the fruit and vegetables. And there are other sugars that are added to food, mostly refined, and lacking micro-nutritents. Without fiber, sugar is very hard on our system, causing the blood sugar levels to raise sharply and interferes with our immune system.
Starch is where we get most of our energy from. Our body turns starch into sugar. Starch provides long lasting energy because of the longer digestive period. It is also important to note, starches start being digested in our mouth. Saliva is vital for proper digestion of starches. Potatoes, pasta, and rice have lots of starch.
There are two kinds of fiber - insoluble and soluble. We need both. Insoluble fiber is what makes us feel full. When we eat foods without much fiber we can eat a lot more calories and thus gain weight quickly. Both insoluble and soluble fiber helps to slow down the digestion of sugar; but speeds up digestion of other nutrients thus preventing decay; and helps get rid of the waste. Soluble fiber is particularly good at lowering cholesterol out of the blood stream.
The building blocks for the body. Our body is made mostly of protein, in the form of amino acids. Our body makes protein so we don’t need to eat lots of it, but we do need a moderate amount, about 2 to 3 servings, or about 10% of our calories from protein. Beans, nuts, seeds, tofu, veggie meats, soy cheese, and so on all have lots of protein. Again, even the Vegan has no problem getting good sources of protein.
Often we get too much protein if we eat the “all America diet.” Animal protein has some big draw backs on our health. Too much saturated fat, too much cholesterol, hard to digest causing acidity problems and much more. Not to mention all the disease and hormones now prevalent in animals raised for food. Many doctors now recommend a diet free from animal products.
Fat, good or bad which is it? The fat in plant foods is good, just like God designed them. We need Omega-3, found in flax seeds and walnuts, for good brain health and Omega-6 found in olives and avocados for other benefits. But saturated fat, such as in chicken or beef, is not helpful to our bodies. It adds calories without adding benefits. Trans fat is another bad fat that is especially harmful, they are NOT found in foods naturally. They are created by high temperature and chemical processes, such as in hydrogenated foods. Excess fat is a major factor in heart disease. Without limiting animal products it is very difficult to avoid too much fat. We should aim for 15 to 25% of our calories in fat. Essentials If we eat a variety fruits and vegetables we will get most of the vitamins and minerals we need. But there are some we should be extra careful about such as vitamin D which doesn’t come from plant foods. (And is VERY limited in animal products.) The best way to get Vitamin D is to get sunshine. Calcium is also a very important mineral we should be sure to get enough of. Calcium is found in tofu, almonds, sesame seeds, and green leafy vegetables.