NUTRITIONAL NEEDS TO CONSIDER WHEN FOLLOWING A VEGAN DIET
Plant-based eating is on the rise and for good reason as such a diet can offer significant benefits to your health and to the health of the planet.
There are now over half a million vegans in Great Britain: that’s a 350% increase over the last 10 years!
A plant-based diet can however potentially lack some important nutrients so, in order to make sure that we are brimming with healthy and energy, we need to be aware of what they are and find out how to maximise nutrient intake as we reduce animal products from our diet. Consider the list below to ensure that you are including the following nutrients in your diet.
Iron plays an important role I our bodies through its role in making haemoglobin which carries oxygen in the blood. Iron is most abundant and absorbable in meat so as a vegan you will need to source other options which include dried fruit, beans, seeds, vegetables and whole grains. However, absorption form plant sources is less than from animal products and it is important to be aware that tea and coffee inhibit the absorption of plant iron.
Consuming iron-rich foods with a source of Vitamin C (like peppers or citrus) will enhance iron absorption
Obtaining enough calcium in a vegan diet can be achieved by eating a balanced diet full of nutrient dense foods and also by incorporating calcium fortified foods into your diet.
Plant sources of calcium include bokchoy, figs, kale, mustard greens, turnip, watercress, broccoli, chickpeas, sesame seeds and fortified milks such as coconut and almond.
Iodine is vital for healthy thyroid function and is needed for metabolizing food into energy. Iodine is mainly found in seafood and so vegans are considered at risk of iodine deficiency and need to make a conscious effort to consume enough.
Kelp (kombu) is very rich in iodine and should only be consumed on occasion, Nori (sushi wraps) have more moderate levels (3 sheets per day contain almost all of you recommended intake) and can be eaten regularly. Iodised salt also boots levels.
Essential Fats (Omega 3 and 6)
Ideally, we should have a balance of Omega 6 to Omega 3 of a close to 1:1 ratio. However, the average western diet has a ratio of anywhere from 15:1 to 50:1. A high Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratio is linked with many inflammatory diseases such as arthritis, diabetes, depression, heart disease and cancer.
For a vegan to achieve the ideal ratio the solution is to first cut back on Omega 6 food sources by reducing the intake of processed foods and vegetable oils. Boost your intake of Omega 3 rich plant based sources such as flaxseeds, chia seeds and walnuts and you can also take a supplement of algae oil if needed.
If you eat a wholefood plant-based diet and avoid processed foods, your levels of these 2 essential fatty acids should be balanced at healthy levels.
More and more research is being done on the importance of Vitamin D for our health. Amongst other things, Vitamin D helps enhance the absorption of calcium and influences many other bodily processes such as immune function, mood, memory and muscle recovery.
As a vegan, there are not many foods containing Vitamin D, and Vitamin D fortified foods are often unable to meet the daily requirements.
It is therefore a good idea to have your blood levels tested and those unable to get enough from fortified foods and sunshine (the prime source) should take a daily vegan Vitamin D supplement.
It is important to have small amounts of zinc on a daily basis as it helps with hormone production, growth and repair, it improves immunity, supports digestion and has the ability to act as an anti-inflammatory agent in the body.
To maximise your intake, eat an abundance of zinc rich foods including whole grains, wheat germ, organic tofu, legumes and nuts and seeds.
Vitamin A is only available from animal sources. However, our bodies convert beta carotene (a red-orange pigment found in many fresh fruit and vegetables) into Vitamin A.
To maximise this conversion, it is important to eat beta-carotene rich foods such as carrots and sweet potatoes, with a little healthy fat.
Vitamin B12 keeps the body’s nerve and blood vessels active and helps make DNA. A lack of it can result in low energy, feeling weak, constipation, appetite loss, weight loss and depression.
It is however only available from animal sources. So along with including B12 fortified foods in the diet, supplementation is highly recommended.
Protein is an essential part of the diet and is found throughout the body in muscle, bone, skin hair etc. It makes up the enzymes that power many of the body’s chemical reactions as well as the haemoglobin that carries oxygen in the blood.
The amount we need is set at 0.75g of protein per kilogramme of body weight per day for an adult.
Vegetables sources of protein such as beans, seeds and whole grains are excellent choices as they offer healthy fibre, vitamins and minerals. Here are some examples of plant based proteins around which to base your diet
• Quinoa – 8 grams of protein per cup and full of fibre, iron and magnesium
• Spirulina – 4 grams of protein per tablespoon
• Kidney Beans – 13 grams per cup
• Chickpeas – 14 grams per cup and also high in fibre
• Sunflower seeds 7grams per ¼ cup
• Raw spinach 2 cups – 2 grams of protein
It is important to remember to choose whole food sources of protein and not to get swayed by the ever-booming protein bar market. While protein bars can offer a substantial amount of protein, they also often contain additives and can cause sugar crashes, stomach problems and even lead to weight gain.
REMEMBER THAT YOU DON’T HAVE TO CHANGE EVERYTHING AT ONCE
Successful transitioning into a healthy vegan takes consideration, planning and time. If you are just starting out, begin by including more plant-based foods in your diet, whilst simultaneously cutting back on animal products, especially those that are processed and refined. Make gradual changes and assess how you feel along the way.
Alyson Carter is a Nutritional Therapist having graduated from the College of Naturopathic Medicine in London. She is registered with the Nutritional Therapy Council (NTC) and is a member of the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CHNC) and the British Association of Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT).