The vegan diet: essential nutrients

November 1st, 2017 - By gshorter
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Veganism has been gaining popularity over the last 10 years, with over half a million people in Britain opting for a plant-based diet in 2016 (three and a half times more than in 2006). Veganism excludes all animal foods including meat, fish, dairy, eggs and honey, as well as animal derived products like leather and those tested on animals. It was originally created as a way of living which excludes all forms of exploitation and cruelty to animals for food, clothing and any other purpose. However, today many people adopt the vegan diet for health reasons and for the impact the meat and dairy industry has on global warming.

Following a vegan diet has been shown to offer protection against high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some types of cancers.1 It’s also a great way to try new foods and flavours, and to take you out of your comfort zone. However, eliminating large food groups could mean missing out on essential nutrients. A healthy vegan diet should include a wide variety of plant foods including fruit, vegetables, beans, pulses, nuts, seeds and grains. Often vegan substitutes can be heavily processed and contain lots of ingredients.

As the 1st November is World Vegan Day many of you may be considering opting for a more plant-based diet. To help you on your way I have listed the top nutrients to be aware of and tips to include them in your diet.

1. Protein

Protein is the main structural component of all cells and provides the essential building blocks to grow and maintain muscle and bone. In the western diet we get most of our protein from animal foods such as meat, fish, eggs, cheese and yogurt. These foods are referred to as high quality “complete” proteins as they contain all of the essential amino acids our bodies need. Most plant proteins (with the exception of soya beans, quinoa and buckwheat) lack one or more amino acids and are therefore not considered “complete” proteins. Vegans (and vegetarians) are therefore recommended to combine proteins in order to create complementary proteins, such as grains and beans (for example rice and beans or pitta and houmous).

In the UK we are recommended to consume 0.75g of protein per kg of bodyweight, so if you weigh 70kg (154Ib/11st) then you should be consuming around 52.5g of protein per day. You should be able to get enough protein on the vegan diet by eating a variety of beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, soya products and grains. There are also lots of plant-based protein powders such as pea, soya and hemp, which can be added to smoothies, yogurt and porridge.

2. Vitamin B12

Our bodies need vitamin B12 to make red blood cells, for a healthy nervous system and to help release energy from food. It’s found naturally in animal foods such as meat, fish, eggs and milk products, and is fortified in some breakfast cereals, dairy-free milks and yeast extract (Marmite).

In the UK adults are recommended to consume 1.5micrograms (mcg) a day of vitamin B12. To get enough in your diet, you need to either eat fortified foods two or three times a day, or take a supplement.

3. Omega 3

Omega 3’s are essential fatty acids that our bodies cannot make and we must get them through food. They’ve been shown to reduce cholesterol levels and blood pressure, two risk factors for heart disease, as well as supporting the body’s immune system and mental wellbeing. They’re primarily found in oily fish such as salmon and mackerel but also in plant foods such as flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds and vegetable oils (rapeseed and linseed).

In the UK there is no specific recommendation of a dose for omega 3 so try to include lots of different plant-based protein sources in your diet.

4. Calcium

We need calcium in our diets to help build strong bones and teeth, for muscle contractions and normal blood clotting. Most of us get our calcium intake from dairy foods such as milk, yogurt and cheese. However, there are also lots of plant foods that contain calcium such as beans (soya and black), tofu, nuts (almonds), fortified milk-substitutes, fortified foods (cereals and bread), as well as small amounts in broccoli, kale and cabbage.

In the UK adults are recommended to consume 700mg of calcium a day, which you should be able to obtain through food and drink.

An adequate calcium intake is crucial during our growing years, as well as in older age. However, the popularity of plant-based diets in young females has led to deficiencies in calcium amongst teenagers. It’s therefore important at this age that you are getting enough calcium in your diet.

5. Vitamin D

We need vitamin D to keep our bones, muscles and teeth healthy. It also helps regulate the amount of calcium and phosphate in the body, and plays an important role within the immune system. We get most of our vitamin D intake when our skin is exposed to sunlight, the UV rays convert the cholesterol in our skin into vitamin D. However, in the UK from October to April the sun isn’t strong enough to stimulate this process. Vitamin D is also found in small amounts in foods such as oily fish like salmon and mackerel, eggs and plant foods that have been fortified such as cereals, milk-substitutes and bread.

Last year the government updated the guidelines and now recommends adults and children over the age of one to have 10 mcg of vitamin D per day. When the sun is not strong enough, it is difficult for vegans and non-vegans to archive the recommended intake of calcium through diet alone. I would therefore recommend taking a vitamin D supplement from October to April.

6. Iron

Iron is essential for making red blood cells which carry oxygen around the body and plays an essential role in the immune system. Animal foods such as red meat (beef, lamb and pork) are the richest sources of iron and are more easily absorbed by the body. There are also lots of plant-based sources of iron including beans, lentils, peas, dark green leafy vegetables (spinach and broccoli), tofu, nuts, seeds, dried fruit (apricots), wholegrains (brown rice) and fortified breakfast cereals. To increase the absorption of iron from plant foods try to include a source of vitamin C with your food. Soaking nuts and seeds, and using sprouted seeds and grains has also been shown to enhance the absorption of iron from these foods.

In the UK most adults are recommended to consume 8.7mg of iron per day, with menstruating women aiming for 14.8mg. Vegans may be at a greater risk of developing iron deficiency anaemia however if you're consuming a varied diet you should be able to reach your recommended intake.

Speak again soon,

Gemma, The Food Doctor nutritionist

  1. Le, L T. and Sabate, J. (2014). Beyond meatless, the health effects of vegan diets: findings from the Adventist cohorts. Nutrients, 6(6); 2131-2147.