A varied vegan diet that is rich in whole-foods is a highly nutritious way of eating. Even though more and more people are now adopting a vegan diet, misconceptions about nutrient deficiencies are still common. However, provided a vegan diet is well balanced, it is certainly possible to obtain good levels of all the essential nutrients and eating this way can have many health benefits. The average vegan diet has been shown to provide more than the national average of vitamin C, magnesium, copper, folate and beta-carotene. Total fat intake is about 25% lower than average (and 50% less saturated fat) and fibre intake is much higher than the national average. Diets that are rich in plant foods such as fresh fruit and vegetables, grains, pulses, seeds and nuts, as in a vegan diet, are also associated with a reduced risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer and obesity.
The key to experiencing the health benefits of a vegan diet is to make sure that it contains a good balance of macro (carbohydrate, protein and fats) and micro (vitamins and mineral) nutrients. Therefore, as with any healthy diet, it is important to focus on whole unprocessed foods, rather than refined convenience foods, as well as taking care to obtain good levels of nutrients that may otherwise be restricted. Particular attention needs to be given to vitamin B12, vitamin D, iron, calcium, iodine, selenium, protein and omega 3 fats, which can sometime be lacking in a vegan diet. The suggestions below outlines how best to obtain some key nutrients in a vegan diet.
Protein consists of basic ‘building blocks’ called amino acids, and is essential for many body function including muscle growth, healthy skin, hair and nails, and for the production of energy, hormones and enzymes. There are 20 amino acids, of which 8 are essential and must be obtained through the diet.
Protein requirements differ widely depending on our biochemical individuality but the average requirement, based on Government recommendations, is 36-44g a day for women and 44-55g a day for men. To give an indication of how much this is, 200g of beans, lentils of chickpeas contains an average of 15g of protein and a large handful of nuts contain around 5g of protein.
To make sure you get all the essential amino acids needed, it is important to eat a wide variety of protein foods, trying to include some with every meal. Good sources of plant protein include: beans, lentils, pulses, soya beans, tofu, tempeh, nuts and seeds (sunflower, hemp, pumpkin, sesame).
Vitamin B12 is needed for the formation of red blood cells, proper digestion and maintainance of a healthy nervous system. Low B12 can cause problems, such as anaemia, depression, chronic fatigue and digestive problems. B12 is therefore an essential vitamin and it is the only one that can cause problems for vegans, as it is not naturally found in plant foods.
Foods such as mushrooms, miso, and algae’s are often reported to provide some vitamin B12 due to contamination by bacteria. However, many believe that any B12 they contain is in a form that the body cannot use and it may prevent the absorption of utilisable B12. The only truly reliable source of B12 for vegans is therefore fortified foods, such as brewers yeast, fortified cereals and soy products, but for adequate levels supplementation of B12 through a multi or B complex supplement is recommended.
Calcium is the most abundant mineral in our body and is essential for our bones and teeth and is involved in muscle contraction and relaxation, blood clotting, nerve function and regulation of blood pressure. If we don’t get enough calcium in our diet, our bodies draw if out of our bones. Most people with an average western diet obtain their calcium requirement through diary products. Therefore, it’s important to include alternative calcium rich foods (some of which actually contain more available calcium than milk) in a vegan diet to meet requirements.
Foods rich in calcium, which should be included in the diet include: dark green leafy vegetables (spinach, kale, cabbage, watercress), nuts and seeds (especially almonds and sesame seeds), tofu, tempeh, parsley, pulses and prunes.
Iron is essential for forming haemoglobin, which transports oxygen around the body, for producing energy and is an essential component of many enzymes. There are two types of iron – haem iron, which is found in animal foods, and non-haem iron which is found in plant foods. Haem iron is absorbed more readily than non-haem iron and therefore it’s important to increase intake and to help maximise absorption of non-haem iron.
Good plant sources of iron to include in the diet are: legumes, lentils, beans, whole-grains and enriched cereals, tofu, green leafy vegetables (spinach and broccoli), dried figs, raisins, prunes, nuts and sunflower seeds. To help maximise absorption, eat foods that are rich in vitamin C (most fruit and vegetables, especially oranges, peppers and berries) at the same time as iron rich foods. Some compounds, such as tannins in tea and coffee can also inhibit iron absorption, so if drinking tea or coffee have them away from meals.
Iodine is a trace mineral that is vital for normal development and is required by the thyroid gland for healthy metabolism. A lack of iodine in the diet can therefore lead to an underactive thyroid. In the west, most of our iodine intake is from milk, eggs and iodised salt. It is therefore important to make sure a vegan diet is rich in alternative iodine sources. The best plant source of iodine is from sea vegetables, such as kelp and nori.
Selenium is vital for the immune system and for thyroid health. Selenium levels in foods are dependant on soil levels and eating organically grown foods can help increase levels. Good food sources of selenium include: Brazil nuts, mushrooms, lentils, brown rice, wheat germ and molasses.
Vitamin D is essential for many processes including bone and teeth health, blood clotting, immunity and muscle function. It plays an important role in assisting calcium absorption, and hence it’s role keeping bones healthy. Vitamin D can be lacking in a vegan diet, but can be obtained from some fortified cereals and soy milks, and by spending time outside in the sunlight (at least 20 minutes per day). It is because much of our vitamin D is actually produced in response to sunlight on the skin.
Omega 3 fats
Omega 3 fats are vital for the nervous system and good brain health, as well as for numerous other functions including for good skin and heart health. Omega 3 fats, and the derivates EPA and DHA are found predominantly in oily fish, and can be lacking in a vegan diet. Good sources of omega 3 to include in the diet are hemp oil, flaxseed oil, walnuts and spirulina. Omega 3 fats are very heat sensitive and therefore should not be used in cooking, but can be added to salads and cooked food.
Some meal options
[intlink id="495" type="post"]Porridge with berries and mixed seeds[/intlink]
[intlink id="491" type="post"]Muesli[/intlink] with soya yoghurt and half banana
[intlink id="1861" type="post"]Fresh fruit with oats and soya yoghurt[/intlink]
Jacket pot with hummus and mixed green salad
Salad hummus, falafel wrap
Salad including beans, nuts/seeds and advacado
Veggie curry, dhal and brown rice
Lentil burger, salad and new potatoes
Veggie chilli with brown rice
Tofu stirfry with cashew nuts
Fresh fruit with seed/nuts
veg crudites with bean dip
Our nutrition page has been prepared by Julia Alderman (firstname.lastname@example.org) a qualifed nutritionist at The Nutrition Coach, we would suggest you always get expert advice before making any changes to your diet.