I’m currently traveling with my family in Europe, eating out a ton, and finding it challenging to incorporate enough vegetables in my diet. Not only are vegetables rarely featured on the menu, but I’m currently in Spain, where jamón rules the land, and many of the ensaladas I’ve encountered have a base of iceberg lettuce with a sprinkling of (frozen?) corn, with fish or meat on top.
At home, plants make up the majority of my diet. Dark leafy greens, seasonal produce, and plant-based proteins like nuts and seeds are consumed and enjoyed every day. With my Korean heritage, I find that what works best for me is staying mainly gluten- and dairy-free with rice as my staple starch, kimchi as my daily fermented food, and meat and fish as more of a garnish rather than the star.
Spain has been much the opposite of this. And yet... I feel fantastic. My digestion is great, my hair is shiny and healthy, my nails are strong and long, and my mood is awesome. Sure, being on vacation doesn’t hurt either, and I know that removing the daily stressors from my fast-paced life in NYC is having an enormous positive impact. But how can I feel so great without the daily dose of nutrients from all those veggies I usually eat?
The fact is, I’m eating a lot more nutrients of the kind that I don’t normally get in America. Right now, anchovies are a big part of my diet. So is cultured butter (the European method of adding live bacteria to the cream before churning), spread on bread made with regional wheat, not sprayed with Monsanto herbicide (as much of American wheat is before harvesting). One of my gluten-free lunch staples here, instead of the omnipresent ham and cheese sandwich, has been tortilla española, local eggs baked into a delectable omelet with potatoes, onion and real olive oil.
So what is it about these foods that are making me feel so good? Here are some of the nutrients I’m incorporating, and how you can get them too, even if you follow a 100% plant-based diet.
[Disclaimer: I understand that eating a vegan diet is often as much about environmental and ethical concerns as it is about about health. But from a health perspective, there exist certain nutrients that are difficult to get on a solely vegan diet. Vegan diets are perfect for cleansing the body when you’re in need of a reset. If you’re vegan and have enjoyed the benefits of a plant-based diet, but perhaps are struggling to feel as great you did when you initially went vegan, consider adding these nutrients to your diet and paying close attention to how you look and feel.]
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
We eat way too many omega-6 oils in America and are not getting enough essential omega-3s. Small fish like anchovies and sardines are a sustainable way to get your omega 3s. Achieving the right ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids can be difficult if you’re not eating fish regularly. Reduce the amount of omega-6 in your diet by avoiding high omega-6 vegetable oils, like soybean and sunflower oils.
- Flax seeds, chia seeds, and hemp seeds are high in Alpha Linolenic Acid (AHA), which converts into DHA and EPA
- Seaweed, especially Spirulina
- Take a vegan DHA and EPA supplement
Vitamin B12 is essential for many of the body’s functions, and if you’re experience fatigue or brain fog, you may be deficient. It’s only found in animal products like eggs, meat, dairy and shellfish, so finding a source is important if you’re following a plant-based diet.
- Take a vegan B12 supplement.
- Foods that are fortified with B12, such as nutritional yeast
Collagen is the protein that keeps you hair, skin and bones healthy. It’s the ultimate beauty food. But it’s only found in the skin, joints, cartilage and bones of animals. Grass fed bone broth is a great way to incorporate it into your diet as well as collagen protein powder from grass fed beef.
- Foods that boost the body’s natural collagen production, such as dark leafy greens, citrus, berries, garlic, avocado, carrots, sweet potato, tomatoes, and beets.
Vitamin K2’s benefits are many, include heart disease prevention, healthy skin, strong bones, healthy brain function, and cancer prevention, just to name a few. Cheese, egg yolks, butter, and chicken liver are all high in vitamin K2.
- Fermented foods, such as kimchi, sauerkraut, and especially natto, a Japanese fermented soy product.
- Take a vegan K2 supplement.
Vitamin D is essential for good health, and deficiency has been found to increase the risk of heart attack, cancer, diabetes, asthma, and autoimmune disease. You can find D in fatty fish like salmon, sardines, and mackerel, as well as in milk and eggs.
- Get into the sun! Sun exposure is a surefire way to boost your vitamin D. Here are some tips to “eat your sunscreen” and avoid sun damage.
- Get tested and supplement appropriately for your current levels.
- Certain mushrooms grown in ultraviolet light are extremely high in vitamin D
Avoid potential anemia by eating enough iron-rich foods. Nutrients in the body work synergistically, and combining foods high in iron such as red meat, seafood, beans, and dark leafy greens with foods high in Vitamin C will increase absorption. Eating iron-rich foods also aids the conversion of beta carotene into vitamin A.
- Swiss chard, spinach, beet greens, lentils, beans, and quinoa
- Maximize your iron absorption by eating with foods high in Vitamin C such as tomatoes, bell peppers, lemon, strawberries, oranges, papaya, kiwis, pineapple, and grapefruit.
A final word about grains, nuts and beans. These contain phytates which block absorption of critical vitamins like calcium and iron. I recommend soaking them overnight with a small amount of apple cider vinegar to neutralize phytates.
I fully intend to keep the benefits of this more European diet going when I return to the US, and I’m already making room in my suitcase for the many varieties of canned small fish I’m bringing back. I’m also craving kale salads and can’t wait to dig into my veggies again! But until then, the next stop for our family is France. I’ll continue to be on the lookout for fresh vegetables, and will also indulge as the locals do in foods high in nutrients that also taste delicious. Nutritious culinary pleasures await!
Caroll Lee - Founder of Provenance Meals
Caroll is an avid cook, mother of two, Board Certified Health Counselor and the founder of Provenance Meals. Her passion in life is to feed people real food -- food that is raised, grown and prepared in traditional ways that are good for your health and good for the planet. Caroll practices holistic nutrition, understanding that a healthy diet must be combined with other sources of nourishment—loving relationships, enjoyable physical activity, meaningful work and spiritual connectedness—to reach true health and happiness.