Gone Vegan

Lindsay Hutton discovers the politics and pragmatics behind a meat and dairy-free diet.

My body seems to rolling right along with veganism. I had heard whisperings of vegans talking about a sort of body high one realizes a couple of weeks after making the leap. I think I’m there: I’m bounding around like an exasperating three-year-old. From what I gather, my body has likely cleansed itself of a lot of the junk associated with processed foods and animal products. 

In this entry, I want to talk about iron and vitamin B12 – two important nutrients of which our bodies, vegan or no, require a steady supply. 

Iron

Iron deficiencies are one of the most common diet-related problems in our culture, whether you eat meat or not. It plays a key role in the body’s ability to produce energy and transport oxygen. In the past, I have experienced stress-induced anemia, and it wasn’t pretty: I was horribly fatigued, would wind easily and my pallor was similar to Marilyn Manson’s. Ghastly on a redhead.

Several studies indicate that getting iron is often not the issue with vegans, but maintaining adequate stores of it can pose a problem. Humans ingest two types of iron, heme and nonheme. Heme iron is found in animal flesh, and has greater bioavailability to our systems, meaning it’s easier for our bodies to access and process. Nonheme iron is found in both plant and animal sources, and is absorbed best in our bodies when it is aided by various other nutrients, like vitamin C. 

As vegans ingest iron from plant-based sources, it’s suggested that we gobble up almost twice the amount as non-vegans. Ideally, between 15-30 mg is recommended, with women requiring closer to the high end due to iron loss from menstruation. Yet another unparalleled joy of womanhood.

Good sources of iron? Legumes are chock full of the stuff, as are nuts and leafy green veggies like swiss chard, kale and spinach. Note that these greens contain oxalic acid, which some studies have shown to fiddle with iron’s ability to absorb properly. Most soymilks and faux vegan “meats” (like offerings from Tofurkey and Yves) are fortified with iron as well. As with protein, the key to getting enough iron is sourcing it from a variety of foods and getting your hands on a good multivitamin. 

B12

The only tricky issue bit with veganism in terms of nutrition is vitamin B12. If vegans were Superman, B12 deficiencies are like kryptonite; if vegans were Nicole Kidman, B12 deficiencies are like a worldwide botox shortage – they must be avoided at all costs. It’s integral to being a lean, mean vegan to ensure your B12 is on the up and up. 

B12 is nifty stuff. It aids in the production of our genetic material and our red blood cells. It also helps maintain the integrity of our nerve fibres, carbohydrate conversion and the metabolism of fatty acids. Several studies show that a small, yet significant number of vegans can experience a B12 deficiency, and not getting what your body requires can be a real horror show on the nervous system. B12 deficiencies aren’t only of concern to us wacky vegans, either – over 90% of these deficiencies occur in non-vegetarians. Here’s a good roundup on B12 online. 

B12 is sourced from bacteria found in animal flesh in secretions. Leafy greens, seaweeds and nuts carry tiny amounts of B12, but it is essential to vegan health to get B12 from fortified sources and with the help of a supplement (we require approximately 3-6 mg a day). As with iron, many soymilks, soy products, cereals and nutritional yeasts are fortified with B12. 

For good measure, here's a link to Health Canada's nutrient tables of several common foods. 

Next on Gone Vegan: Lindsay gets a good zap of vegan sweets. An introduction to the ins and outs of vegan baking.