As a nutritionist, I hold a relatively free rein when it comes to what foods I recommend at the buffet. In the same way that a specific food is made up of a rich complex of interesting components, so too is an overall diet made up of an astonishing consortium of factors. Without knowing what someone’s diet actually is, claiming that they absolutely must have FOOD X or Y (or else they’ll kick the bucket at 49) is a tad misguided. That said, vegans, because they rely almost entirely upon plants foods (and to a mostly insignificant extent upon bacteria and fungi) constitute a dietary cohort that is most liable to miss certain essential dietary components.
Of course, it is madness to talk about a vegan diet as if it is just one kind of diet. The number of possible permutations of a vegan diet are near infinite and the explorations to find high quality, richly, nourishing vegan diets is, it may surprise you to know, still in its infancy, at least in part because the scientific process to comprehensively study plants/microflora and food substances in relation to human health is so under-developed. Add to that, the fact that thousands of new plant species are “discovered” every year, and…, well you get the picture. Therefore, any proposed issues for the successful viability of a vegan diet, should perhaps not be thrown at veganism itself, but at the great shortfall in our knowledge of terrestrial plant food chemistry. Plants and microflora (and sometimes the divide between those two is hazy) constitute such a vast universe of possibilities, that it seems to me extremely shortsighted to presume that humans cannot be truly fed by this vast network of kingdoms. Vitamins B12 and Vitamin D3 are two excellent examples of compounds that were largely deemed the reserve of animal foods. But the more we study plants, fungi and microflora congregations (such as algae and lichens), the more these incredibly essential compounds are cropping up. Funny that.
In addition, the very remit of veganism can be extended even beyond the wild horizons of microbiology. After all, esoterica would clearly suggest that the art of ingesting bodily secretions has its own unparalleled virtues, and certainly vegans are in no way exempted from such practices. Indeed, in certain sects of esoteric advancement, forms of veganism, couched within conceptions of purity and devotion, were often encouraged. Rather than looking at veganism as a relatively staid, overly constrained dietary discipline, the fact of the matter is the true potential of veganism has scarcely been seen and at its fringes things are moving in a very promising, even surprising direction. Take my word for it, there is gold in them hills.
But lets get back to the basic question at hand – to good vibrant, nutritious food in the here and now. Here are five foods I would highly advise every vegan to incorporate into their diet in a bid to obtain some of the more elusive, yet darn right essential facets of robust nutrition. In fact, whether you are vegan or not, these are appropriately unique foods for most anyone to seriously consider bringing into the fray. To new oceans of discovery. Bon appétit.
Dulse (Palmaria palmata)
Dulse, a wild purple-red seaweed (seaweeds are the most complex group of marine algae) is an exceptional nutrient-dense food with some surprising secrets. Some vegetarians owing to its high umami or glutamic acid content have even compared it to bacon when pan-fried. Aside from its excellent concentration of all the cherished alkaline, bone-building minerals (calcium, magnesium, potassium etc), iodine, iron and over 80 other minerals, raw Dulse is a reliable source of two forms of Omega 3, normally considered extremely scarce in the vegan diet. Dulse contains Omega-3 DHA and EPA. In addition, Dulse typically contains an Omega-6 to Omega-3 balance of 1:1. Furthermore, it is looking promising for raw, naturally-dried Dulse to be considered a source of bioavailable B12. It turns out that at least half (perhaps much more) of all seaweeds require Vitamin B12 as an essential part of their metabolism. Whether the seaweeds make the B12 naturally or whether symbiotic organisms living on/within the seaweeds are responsible, I am not entirely sure at this stage. Early indication has shown that cooking/toasting seaweeds like Dulse strongly interferes with B12 absorbability and degrades a good percentage of the absorbable B12 into a non- or poorly absorbed analogue form. So fresh, air-dried Dulse is for many reasons the version you will wish to acquire. It would also appear that the harvesting and drying process is very important when dealing with Dulse (and other seaweeds) as the naturally-occurring community of microflora surrounding the seaweed carries out a good deal of predigestion after it has been removed from the ocean, thereby improving the bioavailability of nutrients (amino acids, minerals, phytochemicals, etc) throughout the plant itself.
Recommended daily dose: 10-20g a day.
See here for a high quality source of pure, raw, air-dried dulse.
Pumpkin Seeds (Curcubita pepo)
Get hold of the highest quality pumpkin seeds you can. By highest quality I am referring to seeds that are fresh and still alive (viably sproutable). They are a real treasure trove of digestible protein, most notably lysine which is so often one of the limiting proteins in many a vegan diet. In fact, as a rule of thumb, the lysine content is often more important than the total protein content of a vegan diet: if you are getting enough dietary lysine you will almost certainly be getting enough of the 8 other essential amino acids. Pumpkin seeds are a complete protein in themselves and contain more protein than steak per 100g. Another common limiting factor for successful veganism is the mineral zinc. Great food sources of zinc are relatively scarce in most vegan foods and pumpkin seeds are rich in the mineral, providing about 8mg per 100g. On paper poppy seeds and sesame seeds may have more zinc, but this is misleading as their anti-nutrient contents are much greater per 100g and relatively much higher amounts of zinc are bound up and excreted out of the body as an unusable salt. When you have tracked down viably sproutable seeds, soaking those seeds is highly encouraged as it improves protein bioavailability. And for those really wanting to get the most out of their seeds, sprouting for a few days offers excellent nutrition-enhancing rewards and absorbability increases once again.
Recommended daily dose: 20g-50g a day.
Sea Buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides)
Another wild or closely-related-to-wild-species, the gloriously rich berries of the sea buckthorn plant are another rallying cry for real, traditional, unapologetically potent food. Eaten for as long as there have been humans in many parts of North America and Eurasia (they are also native to the British Isles) sea buckthorn berries deserve your attention. The fat-rich, high energy-yielding sea buckthorn berries are brimming with fat soluble vitamins (something that, again, many vegans are often deficient in), numerous Omega fatty acids including, 7, 6, 3, and 9 and a broad range of other vitamins, minerals, antioxidants (e.g. 12 times more Vit C than oranges) and other acclaimed phytonutrients, even mood-boosting serotonin. Based on our current knowledge, sea buckthorn is also known to be one of the few plant foods to contain unusually high levels of Vitamins B12, though as far as I am aware no “gold standard” experimentation has been to done on humans to confirm just how well those B12 levels are integrated into the body (or different bodies for that matter), but again the science looks very promising. As the richest known plant source of Omega 7, Sea buckthorn has also been brought to the attention of the diabetic community as Omega 7 has been shown to increase insulin sensitivity, reduce inflammation and speed recovery. Unlike most foods, substantial scientific research has been carried out on sea buckthorn. So, for those inclined, there is a lot to discover about this hearty and hardy berry.
Recommended daily dose: 50ml-100ml of raw juice or 50g of fresh or frozen berries.
He Shou Wu (Polygonum multiflorum)
He Shou Wu (also known as Fo-ti) is one of the most famous tonic herbs in TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine). He Shou Wu has a broad range of uses but in general it is taken to nourish the liver, kidneys and blood and increase jing essence (life-force). In the West, He Shou Wu, is probably most known for its hair restorative effects, especially for helping turn grey hair back to its original colour. One of the important active agents within He Shou Wu (and very much relating to its hair rejuvenating abilities) concerns its high zinc content: around 30-40mg of zinc in 100g of the dried root. In fact, He Shou Wu root (especially the powder because of increased consumability) is the highest known plant source of zinc. To help you understand why this is so important you should know that sufficient zinc levels within the body are absolutely critical for darn near everything: healthy immune function, proper hormonal output, nerve function, stress adaptation, neutralization and detoxification of toxins, regeneration of new cells, protein and DNA synthesis, the healing of wounds, indeed the general building and reparation of the entire body. Yes, pumpkin seeds are an excellent source, but there are only so many pumpkin seeds a man or woman can or should eat in a day. Select organic powders made from the “prepared” root. This basically means the He Shou Wu root has gone through a traditional long simmer in black bean sauce, which helps to enhance its medicinal effect. To take as a daily supplement, simply simmer a teaspoon or so of the powder for 15-20 mins.
Recommended daily dose: 5-8g of powder made into a tea. The powder at the bottom of the cup should be consumed as well.
Japanese Water Crystals
Japanese water crystals also known as tibicos or water kefir (among many other names) are a wonderful, potentially life-long ally for every vegan, especially if we take the time to unlock their full glorious potential. The “crystals” often called “grains” are synergistic cultures of probiotic bacteria and yeast held together by a polysaccharide matrix (produced by certain strains of bacteria within the group). A well brewed kefir is literally “bizzing” and “buzzing” with protein-rich probiotic life and an incredible array of healthful metabolites, that in unison, facilitate everything from digestion, sound immune function and the generally useful ability to adapt and thrive. Water kefir can be made with a near infinite range of mediums. Many people report good results using the grains to culture coconut water or maple sap, grape juice, even sweetened lemon and ginger tea.
For those that are already au fait with kefir, it may still surprise you to know that every culture (or kefir colony) is different. Both in concentration and in sheer diversity of microorganisms present. Put plainly: some kefir cultures are much more health-imparting than others. And that qualitative difference could be true for a large general population of people, or it may simply be true more personally, as in this kefir suits me better (provides a better ecological fit for my own internal terrain say) than another kefir. Either way, when it comes to the evolution of the very highest quality kefir cultures, terroir is an extremely important component. The microbes in the environment: in the soil, the air, even of our own bodies, have long-since interwoven themselves into the consortium of microflora that makes any given kefir so unique. If you find one sample of kefir does not work for you, or causes, unwanted reactions, by all means try another. General advice about selecting water kefir grains, is to choose live fresh grains that are propagating quickly – a sign that they have been fed well the type of sugary medium that suits them. Small, slow growing cultures are not a good sign, and will likely impart no worthwhile value. In my experience, most people making water kefir, have been using poor quality grains in a less than ideal medium. Unlike dairy kefir, water kefir crystals seems to be a lot more fussy about how they are treated, but it’s good healthy fun finding out what works and what doesn’t.
Recommended daily dose: 250ml or more.
A good resource for finding Japanese water crystals (aka water kefir culture) of many disparate origins around the World can be found here.
Kyle Vialli (2016)