Last Updated on January 17, 2021 by Fiona Maclean
An expert’s guide to nutrition on a plant-based diet.
Veganuary is upon us and ever greater numbers of people have joined up this year. While not all participants will become full-time vegans, there is no doubt that the growth of plant-based eating shows no sign of slowing. During pre-Covid 2020, I did a month-long vegan challenge and, while I found it easier than expected to adjust my cooking and especially eating out, I did not know how to balance all my nutritional needs. I ate large volumes of fabulous vegetables throughout the month but did not know how to assess whether I had enough protein, iron and other nutrients. Eating out was sometimes restricted unless in a vegan restaurant. Ironically, the low point came during an evening out at a vegan fast food eaterie where most of what was on offer felt unhealthy. The need for a book like Vegan Savvy (Pavilion) is plain to see – being vegan does not necessarily mean that one is eating healthily; knowing your oats is important if you are to balance your meals well.
Registered dietician, Azmina Govindji, was inspired to write Vegan Savvy when her daughter announced she was following a vegan diet. As a dietician, she wanted to both inform herself and to provide her daughter with as much information as possible to remain in tip-top nutritional health. Govindji trialled a vegan diet herself in order to keep tweaking and refining her evidence-based advice. The result is a nutrient-dense and fascinating book. I am not a vegan but, following a flexitarian diet as I do, I am concerned about replacing the nutrients I no longer get having removed red meat from my meals. Vegan Savvy never beats a drum and is not evangelical. It is well researched, provides easy to read chapters on proteins, fats, carbs, calcium and micronutrients. Tips and advice for home cooks and how to eat out have their own chapters.
Vegan Savvy’s basic thesis is that vegans can easily upgrade from a ‘good plate’ to a ‘savvy plate’ by crossing a ‘nutritional bridge’. These nutritional bridges include ideas like adding lemon juice to hummus so that the body can more easily absorb the iron from the chickpeas. Adding nuts to dishes adds omega-3 fats while a few sheets of roasted seaweed provides iodine. Throughout the book Govindji provides ideas for these nutritional bridges, taking care to explain the micronutrients that can be lacking in a vegan diet and how this can be corrected with a few simple tweaks.
Govindji advises planning your plate when you prepare a meal. Divide the plate into quarters with two quarters being salad and veg, one being healthy carbs and the last quarter a plant-based protein. She then goes on to examine the various food groups with a fact-filled chapter on each. The book is illustrated throughout with charming drawings of suggested foods and lists of what to eat and how to combine in a savvy way.
In the protein section, Govindji points out that when people choose a vegan diet, they often replace meat with vegetables as the protein source. It is important to ensure that one is eating enough protein-rich vegetables which include peas, beans, lentils and sweetcorn. Making the case for eating high-quality proteins at each meal, Govindji reminds readers that a soup and salad may sound like a healthy meal but is not necessarily providing enough protein.
In the chapter on fats, Govindji debunks the idea that coconut oil is healthy as is promoted widely by wellness gurus. It is high in saturated fats which are associated with cardiovascular disease and she recommends alternatives such as rapeseed oil. One point I found particularly instructive was that we need to eat healthy fats not only for our overall health but to aid absorption of fat-soluble vitamins including vitamin A and E. Hence, Govindji recommends adding ‘good’ fats to vegetable dishes in the form of small quantities of nuts, tahini or avocado. As someone who regularly adds a stream of tahini to my vegetables, I can vouch for how tasty this idea is. Other tips I found helpful include stir-frying carrots and peppers which will provide more Vitamin A than in raw form as the oil improves the absorption of beta-carotene. In fact, stir-fried carrots provide six and a half times the amount of Vitamin A than raw carrots. Add a ribbon of tahini and a sprinkle of nuts and you won’t look at a cold, grated carrot salad again.
Insufficient iron intake is a well-known challenge facing non-meat eaters. Plant-based iron is more difficult for the body to absorb than haem iron which comes from animal products. Eating plant-based or fortified cereals is good, but be aware that these products may contain phytates that diminish the amount of iron available to the body. Phytates are compounds found in wholegrains, as well as some cereals, legumes, seeds and nuts. They bind to iron and make it more difficult for the body to absorb. Because Vitamin C aids absorption of iron, the nutrient bridge vegans can cross when eating plant-based iron is to have a small glass of orange juice with the meal or eat a side salad or add Vitamin C rich vegetables to the meal. Finish off with fruit. Remember too, that tea and coffee reduce iron absorption from plant-based iron so should be avoided with meals.
Govindji advises making one change at a time, moving towards the goal of improved nutrition. My take away tip that I have already implemented, is to take one’s daily Vitamin D tablet (recommended by the government to take throughout the winter and especially during lockdowns) with the fattiest meal of the day. This is because it is a fat-soluble vitamin. Now, instead of taking my tablet with my breakfast, I do so with my dinner or in the afternoon with a handful of nuts.
Vegan Savvy is the book you want if you are vegan yourself – or even flexitarian – and is the perfect gift for any of your friends who have vegans in their families. It is packed with evidence-based advice, is easy to understand and well-illustrated with useful lists. If you are following a plant-based lifestyle or are having to cook for someone who is vegan, Vegan Savvy is a book you will return to repeatedly.
Buy the book and find out more at Govindji’s own website www.azminanutrition.com