23 Oct Vegan? Here’s 8 key nutrients you won’t want to miss out on.
More and more people are embracing the vegan way of life in a bid to boost their health, for animal welfare and ethical reasons and to save the planet – there are a few things worth looking out for if you do decide to go vegan though. Please remember that this is generalised advice, intended for healthy adults. It does not apply to children and is not intended to replace any advice or information that you’ve received from your GP, dietitian or other healthcare professional.
Let’s start at the beginning – what is a vegan diet? Is it the same as plant-based?
Plant-based is a term that’s being used a lot these days and doesn’t actually have a solid definition. It can mean vegan or it can mean basing the majority of your diet on plant foods.
A vegan diet typically doesn’t include any animal products at all – so no meat, fish, dairy or even honey.
So, is a vegan diet healthy? Short answer – it can be.
No one diet will cure all ills and turn you into a super-being, sorry. So a vegan diet isn’t automatically going to have tons of health benefits.
However, well-planned vegan diets have been associated with a reduced risk of type-two diabetes and certain cancers. This could be due to lower intake of saturated fats, increased intake of phytonutrients from fruit and veg and more fibre from grains and pulses.
That doesn’t mean that every vegan diet is healthy though, when cutting out whole food groups; you need to take care to replace the vitamins and minerals that you’re missing.
Let’s address this one first: Can vegans get enough protein?
Although it’s hard to pin down exact numbers for individual optimal protein intake, the current UK RNI is 0.75g or protein per kg of weight. In the UK, National Diet and Nutrition Survey data shows that on average in the Uk, we eat a fair bit of protein and it’s unlikely that you know anyone with a protein deficiency. As a general rule of thumb in the UK, if you’re eating adequate kcals to maintain a healthy weight, you’re likely to be consuming enough protein.
Older people, people who are unwell for long periods of time, are hospitalised or have higher than normal protein requirements due to these illnesses may require more protein – your GP, dietitian or health professional will address these issues with you if they are of concern.
Most people following a vegan diet can get a wide variety of high-quality plant protein from their diet – even plain old bread has protein in it. You don’t need to mix up your protein sources at each meal or even each day either; turns out that our bodies are pretty good at putting the amino acid jigsaw together.
Good vegan sources of protein include (but aren’t limited to): tofu, tempeh, beans and pulses – like lentils and chickpeas, nuts and nut butters and seeds.
8 key nutrients
Health problems like anaemia and other quite serious conditions can occur when some vital vitamins and minerals are lacking – here’s some you won’t want to be missing out on…
Iodine is important for healthy thyroid function. It’s thought that we’re not getting enough in the UK – particularly women of childbearing age. This is concerning as iodine is vital for the development of a baby’s brain. Deficiencies in childhood have lasting developmental effects. Deficiencies in adulthood (not just for women!) can affect mental function and has been indicated in thyroid cancer.
The iodine content of soil varies worldwide so it’s hard to assess the amount of iodine that will be in our food. Iodine content of sea vegetables varies greatly as well and as such it’s not a recommended source of dietary iodine. In a recent review of plant milks in the UK; though some plant milks were fortified with iodine; levels were significantly lower than those found in conventionally farmed dairy milks.
You can get some iodine from nuts, fruit and veg and bread but most of our iodine intake comes from dairy or fish sources. In other parts of the world, iodine is added to salt to increase intake. It’s tricky for those following a vegan or plant-based diet in the UK to get enough iodine from diet alone.
Supplements should contain no more than 140-150mcg iodine per day / the rest can be made up with diet. There are many vegan versions available – check out the Vegan Society’s page and the BDAs Iodine fact sheet for more info.
We need calcium for lots of things – from blood clotting to muscle function to laying down teeth and bones. Top sources of calcium come from milk and dairy products (check out the BDA calcium fact sheet here) but there are other good vegan options available.
Vegan sources of calcium:
- Fortified dairy alternatives like oat or almond milks. Note that organic versions aren’t fortified – as the vitamins are considered an additive.
- Tofu (only when set with calcium carbonate – not nigari, check the label)
- Broccoli, spring greens and oranges – these aren’t the best source but do contain some calcium
- Sesame seeds / tahini
- Dried fruit – figs / apricots
Vitamin D plays a vital part in bone health, muscle function and immunity.
Everyone in the UK is advised to consider supplementation with 10mcg vitamin D per day over the darker months (Oct -April) – as we just don’t get enough sun in the UK to maintain decent levels over winter.
Pub Quiz fact of the day: The active form of vitamin D isn’t actually a vitamin - it’s a hormone. It’s made by our bodies after sunlight hits our skin in summer months.
As we’re advised to stay out of the sun and use sunscreen most of the time, we’re at risk of low levels. This is especially important if you have darker skin or routinely cover your skin throughout the year.
It’s nigh-on impossible to get all of the vitamin D we need from food alone, so a vegan supplement may be the best way to make sure you’re getting enough.
Vegan sources include:
- Fortified dairy alternatives
- Fortified cereals
- UV ‘enriched’ mushrooms – These are occasionally available in M&S or Tesco in the UK, check the label to ensure that they are a source of vitamin D.
Iron is needed to help most cells in our body function correctly and it’s found in two forms: plant-based, non-heme iron and heme-iron – which comes mostly from animal sources.
Non-heme (veggie) iron is absorbed less efficiently than heme iron. Eating a source of vitamin C at the same time can enhance iron absorption. This could be a tomato-based cooking sauce or a glass of juice with your meal. Have a look at the BDA iron factsheet to see if you’re getting enough.
Phenolic compounds in tea and coffee are can inhibit heme iron absorption. This isn’t likely to have an effect on your iron status unless you’re already iron-deficient. If you do have poor iron status then it may be worth waiting an hour after eating to have that cuppa – speak to your GP or dietitian if you have any concerns.
Good plant-based sources of iron are:
- Beans and pulses (lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans etc)
- Fortifed breakfast cereals
- Dried fruit
- Leafy green veg
- Sesame seeds
- Fortified bread
B12 has many functions in the body – including keeping our nervous system working properly. B12 is vital in developing babies and deficiencies can cause lasting damage to our brain and nervous system.
The only reliable vegan dietary sources of B12 are from fortified foods like dairy alternatives and cereals. Eating these a few times per day should get you up to your recommended intake of 2.4micrograms per day – but check the label if you’re not sure.
Other claimed sources (like spirulina, tempeh, nori) are not reliable and so should not be depended on as a source of B12.
As we get older, it’s harder for our bodies to absorb B12 – Vegan vitamin supplements can be used to ensure adequate intake. Speak to your GP, dietitian or other health professional if you’re concerned about your B12 levels.
Omega fatty acids appear to play an important role in cardiovascular and brain health. The Omega 3 fatty acids: ALA (alpha-linoleic acid), DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) are classed as essential fatty acids – as our bodies cannot make them. EPA and DHA are thought to have the most direct health benefits.
Our main source of DHA and EPA in the UK is from fish. Vegan sources of ALA include chia seeds, hemp seeds, soya and soya oils and flaxseeds (linseeds). Our bodies then convert this ALA into EPA and DHA – but this process isn’t super efficient.
It’s also possible to obtain some Omega 3 from microalgae and this is what is used in most vegan supplements. You may choose to add these supplements to your diet (especially if breastfeeding) to ensure adequate Omega 3 intake but the jury is still out on the health benefits of taking these.
There is no set recommended amount for Omega 3 supplementation in the UK however the FAO (Food and Agriculture Association of the United Nations) recommend a daily intake of 250mg per day for adults.
Zinc is important for regulating enzyme functions in our bodies. Phytates in plant foods reduce the absorption of zinc and so it’s important to eat a variety of zinc containing foods like miso, tempeh, wholegrains, beans and zinc-fortified foods like cereal.
Meat and shellfish are our main sources of zinc in the UK – vegans can get zinc from nuts. Brazil nuts are a good source – but you don’t need many. Two or three per day should meet your requirements.
A vegan diet definitely can have health benefits – we all know that eating more plants can be good for us and for the planet.
If you are considering going vegan, enjoy your food – but have a little think about what you’re putting in your mouth. Make sure to check labels, including portion sizes, to ensure that you’re getting adequate amounts of fortified foods and get in a wide variety where possible. With a little planning you can avoid missing out on essential nutrients.
Got questions about your diet?