Choosing to eat a purely plant-based diet whether for a month or for the longer term is an exciting lifestyle change to make. Done well, it can be beneficial not only for the environment but for your health. However, there are a few key nutrients to think about to make sure you improve or maintain the nutritional value of your diet, and to get those health benefits you’re no doubt chasing!
The following nutrients are important to consider as they are found more readily in animal sources and may not be as widely available in a solely plant-based diet so some careful planning may be required.
Protein plays a vital role in the structure of our muscles and bones, in fighting infection and helping the body to grow and repair. It’s actually quite easy to get enough protein on a vegan diet with a little planning. In each meal include foods such as:
- soya drinks and yoghurts
- nuts and seeds
Essential fats – Omega 3 (ALA) & 6 (LA)
These fatty acids are considered to be essential in our diet as our bodies cannot make them. They are important for the maintenance of normal blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels, heart function, blood pressure, and vision and brain function.
Most plant-based diets will enable you to get enough omega-6 fatty acids from foods such as vegetable oils, nuts and seeds (including sunflower and pumpkin seeds). A little more care may be required to get enough omega-3 fatty acids, which are richly found within oily fish.
Plant-based sources of Omega 3 (ALA) include chia seeds, ground linseed, hemp seeds, walnuts, and rapeseed oil.
It may be appropriate for people with higher requirements e.g. in pregnancy or when breastfeeding to take an ALA supplement due to its role in brain health.
Needs little introduction but calcium is vital in keeping our bones and teeth strong and healthy. It also has a function in muscle control, nerve system function and blood clotting. The best sources on a vegan diet are calcium-fortified plant-based kinds of milk and yoghurts, fortified soy and linseed bread, calcium-set tofu. Some calcium is also present in foods such as kale, watercress, tahini, dried figs, and almonds. By eating lots of fruits and vegetables, it is thought to help reduce calcium losses through urine.
An essential vitamin with a range of health benefits, including helping your body to absorb calcium. Everyone in the UK is advised to take a daily supplement of at least 10ug regardless of their diet. See our other blog post on vitamin D for more information.
Unfortunately, Iron deficiency is among the most common nutrient deficiencies in the world today leading to anaemia. Iron contributes to the normal production of red blood cells and haemoglobin, which is a protein that carries oxygen around your body. If low in iron and haemoglobin you can be left feeling fatigued.
The iron in plants is less bioavailable than that in animal sources therefore make sure you include plenty of iron-rich foods regularly:
- cashew nuts
- chia seeds
- ground linseed
- hemp seeds
- pumpkin seeds
- dried fruit
- fortified breakfast cereals such as bran flakes.
Avoid having tea or coffee with meals as they can reduce the amount of iron your body absorbs, but do include a source of vitamin C, like colourful fruit or veg, as this can help increase absorption.
Made by microorganisms in animal foods, vitamin B12 does not occur naturally in plant-based foods but is important to the function of our nervous system, production of red blood cells and DNA synthesis. To make sure you get enough of this essential micronutrient, you will need to include fortified foods such as plant-based milk alternatives, vegan spreads, nutritional yeast, yeast extract, and fortified breakfast cereals. It is also advisable to take vitamin B12 daily or weekly supplements, as it can be difficult to meet requirements from plants alone.
Essential for our thyroid function, studies have shown that vegans are at a much higher risk of iodine deficiency. However, getting enough iodine from a vegan diet can be challenging. We recommend considering a supplement containing 140mcg iodine per day for this one. Plant sources include fortified plant-based milk (not all of them have iodine added, and amounts do vary), and seaweed. Note however that as the iodine content within seaweed varies greatly, and can provide excessive amounts, it should not be eaten more than once per week. For this reason, it is also not recommended to have supplements made from seaweed or kelp.
Important for normal liver function as well as fat metabolism, choline is found within eggs, meat and dairy products. Vegan sources include:
- soya drinks
- edamame beans
- brussels sprouts
- kidney beans
- and pumpkin sunflower seeds.
More research is needed on whether certain groups should take a supplement of choline.
Selenium is an important nutrient because it contributes to the normal function of the immune system. It is also important when considering fertility, for both men and women. Two brazil nuts a day is likely to meet your requirements, although the content may vary depending on the soil they were grown in so aim for other sources in the diet too, which include:
- sunflower seeds
- brown rice
- cashew nuts
- tofu and quinoa
Required for multiple processes within the body, zinc can’t be stored so we need to include some within the daily diet. It can be found within foods such as fortified nutritional yeast flakes, whole-grains (e.g. pasta and bread), cashew nuts, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, tempeh, quinoa, brown rice and oats.
There are many benefits to following a vegan diet however it does require careful planning to make sure you’re actually benefiting from the changes you’re making and not eliminating sources of important nutrients from your diet without replacing them with suitable alternatives.
Also, it’s important to point out that you don’t have to follow a strict plant-only diet to get the benefits of eating more plant foods – including them alongside your animal products will bring considerable health benefits without having to label the way you eat!