Mistake # 1: Eating too much vegan junk food
Many new vegetarians and vegans – and even some not-so-new ones – fall into the trap of relying on heavily processed substitutes for their favourite ‘omni’ foods, such as gluten-based faux meats, burgers and nuggets made from isolated soy protein, and vegan cheeses and ice creams loaded with saturated fat from coconut oil. These foods are fine as occasional treats or something to throw on your non-vegan friend’s barbeque, but relying on them as staple items in your diet will undermine your health and vitality.
Most of the vegans and vegetarians who come to me complaining of fatigue, low immunity and just generally feeling not their best, base their diets on heavily processed foods rather than whole plant foods – fresh fruit and vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds. ‘Fake’ foods and other heavily processed foods are high in salt, sugar, refined starches, inflammation-promoting omega 6 oils and trans fats; and low in health-promoting antioxidants, phytochemicals, vitamins, minerals, fibre and resistant starch.
Most people who abandon a vegetarian or vegan diet do so because they feel their health has suffered on it. Don’t let this happen to you – fill your plate with fresh, minimally processed foods every day, and watch your health and vitality soar!
Mistake # 2: Skimping on greens
When people reduce or cut out animal foods, they often worry about suffering a deficiency of protein, iron or calcium. But the most common deficiency I see in vegetarians and vegans (and quite frankly, in the population at large) is Green Leafy Vegetable Deficiency. GLVs, as I like to call them, have the highest nutrient-per-calorie density of any food you can eat, meaning you get more nutritional ‘bang’ for your calorie ‘buck’ when you pile up your plate with GLVs.
GLVs are rich in B vitamins – especially folate, the vitamin that helps prevent neural tube defects in babies such as spina bifida – along with vitamin E, vitamin C, vitamin K, iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, phytonutrients such as beta-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin, protein and fibre.
Many GLVs – especially those in the cruciferous or cabbage family – are also abundant in compounds called isothiocyanates, which fight cancer and help the immune system to more effectively target foreign invaders, while preventing the ‘mistakes’ that lead to autoimmune disorders.
And GLVs are also rich in sulfoquinovose, one of the most powerful prebiotics yet discovered. Prebiotics feed your beneficial gut bacteria, helping to defend you against bad bugs that can cause food poisoning, such as Salmonella and harmful forms of E. coli.
Both raw and cooked GLVs are nutritionally valuable, and should be eaten every day. I recommend eating a large green salad every day – be sure to vary your GLV intake by including different lettuce varieties, rocket, baby spinach, watercress, parsley and coriander – and steamed, stir-fried or soup-cooked GLVs such as kale, cabbage, chard, silverbeet and Asian greens. Green smoothies (blended salads) using raw kale, bok choy, baby spinach, and/or lettuce are a great option for time-poor people and those with dental problems that make all that chewing a chore.
Mistake # 3: Not eating enough healthy carbohydrates
In the last few years, a relentless campaign of misinformation has been responsible for spreading the false idea that ‘carbs make you fat’. Many people who go vegetarian or vegan have such a fear of carbohydrates that they try to live on fruits and non-starchy vegetables, and end up feeling hungry all the time and running out of energy.
While fresh produce contains an abundance of health-promoting micronutrients including vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other phytochemicals, there aren’t enough calories in fruit, salad and broccoli to fill you up and fuel your busy day.
In order to feel satisfied at the end of a meal, and have abundant energy throughout the day, you need the concentrated calories from starchy vegetables including potatoes and sweet potatoes; whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, barley and buckwheat; and legumes such as lentils, chick peas, black beans and kidney beans.
Many new vegetarians and vegans don’t realise that if you’re making your food choices from healthy whole plant foods, you actually have to eat a bigger volume of food to meet your calorie needs. I often see clients who complain that they don’t have enough energy on a plant-based diet, but when I read their food journal, it’s clear that they’re just not eating enough.
Of course, if you’re wanting to lose weight, this is a huge advantage – you get to eat generous portions of food while watching the kilos fall away! The slimmest, healthiest populations on Earth eat diets that get most of their calories from starchy plant foods such as rice, potatoes and beans.
Mistake # 4: Letting vitamin B12 levels slide
Vitamin B12 is typically thought of as a ‘carnonutrient’ – a nutrient derived from animal products – but actually it’s made not by animals, but by the bacteria that live in their guts. B12-producing bacteria also live in soil, and unpeeled mushrooms and organically-produced or home-grown vegetables that aren’t peeled or washed too thoroughly contain some vitamin B12.
However, the major dietary source of this nutrient is animal products, so vegetarians and especially vegans are at risk of developing B12 deficiency unless they take supplements or regularly use B12-fortified foods.
We get less efficient at absorbing vitamin B12 from food as we get older, so anyone aged over 50 should have a blood test for B12 every couple of years, no matter what kind of diet they eat.
Vitamin B12 deficiency results in 2 main problems: a type of anaemia that causes fatigue, shortness of breath during exercise, pallor (pale appearance) and even heart palpitations; and damage to nerves that results in numbness and tingling in the toes and fingertips, paraesthesias (strange skin sensations), clumsiness, lightheadedness and impaired taste and smell.
Babies born to vitamin B12-deficient mothers may suffer delayed development and even death if they don’t receive supplemental B12 in time.
B12 deficiency in adults is also thought to contribute to dementia.
As you can see, the consequences of B12 deficiency are serious, and no vegan should gamble with their health (or their baby’s health) by failing to get enough B12. I recommend sublingual sprays or lozenges which offer better absorption of this notoriously difficult-to-absorb vitamin. Savoury yeast flakes, also known as nutritional yeast or just ‘nooch’, is also a good source if eaten regularly. Most vegan foods that are fortified with vitamin B12 are highly processed and of poor nutritional quality.
Mistake # 5: Falling for the coconut oil hype
Coconut oil is the latest darling of health food stores and food bloggers. It’s claimed to have all sorts of health benefits, including helping you lose weight and preventing Alzheimer’s disease, and its promoters claim that, unlike other types of saturated fat, it doesn’t raise cholesterol because it has a high proportion of a type of fat called medium-chain triglycerides. It’s also claimed to be the best oil to cook with because it doesn’t oxidise when heated.
But how well do these claims stack up?
A randomised crossover trial (in which people were put on 2 different test diets, one with addedcoconut oil and one without, in random order) found that coconut oil significantly raised the level of ‘bad’ cholesterol.
The only trial in relation to Alzheimer’s tested an isolated component of coconut oil called AC-1202 (not coconut oil itself) and found it didn’t help.
In a study comparing coconut, olive, canola and safflower oil, coconut oil was found to generate the most cancer-causing aldehydes when heated.
As for weight loss, of the more than 1000 papers on coconut oil published in the scientific literature, not one has demonstrated any benefit of coconut oil for weight loss.
Coconut oil is also highly comedogenic (pore-clogging), which means it aggravates acne.
So what should you do with that tub of coconut oil you bought at the health food store now? Put it on your hair! A study comparing mineral oil, sunflower oil and coconut oil for prevention of damage to hair found that only coconut oil reduced protein loss from both damaged and undamaged hair. Just don’t eat the stuff! And don’t put it on your face either ifyou’re prone to break-outs.
Written by Robyn Chuter, a university-qualified naturopath, with a Bachelor of Health Science (and the Dean's Medal for Outstanding Academic Achievement) from the University of New England, and a Diploma of Naturopathy from the Australasian College of Natural Therapies.