Hmm the vegan diet…Is it adequate? Should I become vegan? Will I be nutrient deficient? What can I eat? What can’t I eat? Will I lose weight? There is a lot of speculation and doubt out there on the vegan diet as its popularity grows. Many are choosing to become vegan recently for environmental and ethical reasons as more light is shed on the unfortunate production and effects of meat and dairy products and as environmental issues persist .Others simply want to reap the healthy benefits of eating an abundance of plants or manage a health condition. Some decide to have ‘meat-free days’ or even weekends to reduce their overall consumption of animal products; this is often a great place to start. Despite the motive for eating vegan, it’s important to plan and consider what you will eat in order to have an adequate diet as some nutrients will be lacking in vegan options. This is particularly important for those who are vegan full-time and can’t rely on other food sources for these nutrients. This mindful, vegan diet can include all the nutrients and nourishment an omnivorous diet can provide with a little careful planning.
What is Veganism?
The vegan diet lacks all animal products, that means no meat, poultry, fish, dairy and other bi-products like gelatin, honey, cheese and butter. It’s a more restrictive diet than the vegetarian diet, which restricts meat but allows other animal bi-products. If you want to become vegan, it may be best to switch to a vegetarian diet first and slowly reduce your intake of animal bi-products. However, as you transfer your diet to plant-based foods you stop getting the important nutrients which can be found, exclusively or in high quantities, in animal products. In order to not become deficient in these nutrients, you must either supplement these nutrients or make a conscious effort to include more dietary sources in your diet. Nutrients at risk of deficiency in vegans include protein, omega 3 fatty acids, vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, iron, iodine and zinc. In this post we will focus on 5 of them:
Protein is one of the 3 macronutrients required in a large quantity every day. It’s required for growth, repair and maintenance of the body. Excess protein is converted by the liver to provide energy and if this energy is not used, it is converted into fat. It is important to maintain a balance of protein intake as too little or too much is not favourable. Most protein in the UK comes from animal meat such as beef or fish, which is restricted from vegans, and so they must rely on other, plant-based sources.
Recommended Daily Allowance for adults(RNI): 0.75g per kg of body weight
High protein vegan sources: beans, pulses, nuts, seeds, nut butters, tofu
Omega 3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat, part of the macronutrient required in larger quantities every day. Some of these fatty acids are ‘essential’, meaning they cannot be made within the body and must be obtained via the diet. They are important for the maintenance of the heart and blood vessels and play a part in brain function and reduced inflammation. The difficulty with omega 3 fatty acids is that their most dense sources are fish and so vegans often supplement omega 3 along with dietary sources in order to get the beneficial ALA, DHA and EPA fatty acids.
Recommended Daily Allowance for adults: supplementation is suggested at 3g or less a day for those not eating omega 3-rich sources
High omega 3 vegan sources: seeds and nut
Vitamin B12 is a difficult nutrient to obtain from natural sources when vegan as it is absent in plants and only found in meat products. It is essential for energy production, growth and the maintenance of a healthy blood and nervous system. The energy it supplies is used for growth and division across the body. Deficiencies of vitamin B12 can lead to anaemia, fatigue, irritability and anxiety. It is extremely important for vegans to consume B12-fortified foods and/or supplement the vitamin.
Recommended Allowance for adults(RDA): 2.5mcg a day
High vitamin B12 vegan sources: fortified cereals, milks and yeast extracts
With the exemption of dairy, calcium is an obvious nutrient at risk of deficiency. It is important for the health of bones and teeth, including bone density and the prevention of osteoporosis. It also plays a role in immune functions and the regular heartbeat. Vegan must consume calcium-rich plant-based sources and/or supplement calcium in order to get an adequate amount. A deficiency of calcium can present as sleeplessness, muscle cramps and twitching, joint pain or tooth decay.
Recommended Allowance for adults(RDA): 800mg a day
High calcium vegan sources: green leafy vegetables, tofu, some seeds, bread, dried fruit
Iron is mostly found in meat products such as beef and liver but thankfully in a lot of plant sources as well. Plant-based sources of iron could easily be ignored in a vegan diet so it’s important to consciously include them, and possibly in a higher quantity than iron-containing meat products. Iron is important for producing energy and combatting fatigue as well as healthy growth, development and function of the immune system. An iron deficiency presents often in female teens and vegans due to the loss of iron through menstruation. Symptoms of deficiency include pale skin, weak or brittle nails, fatigue, sleeplessness, loss of appetite and frequent illness. If women have particularly heavy periods or struggle to eat iron-containing plant sources, supplementation may be necessary to prevent anaemia.
Recommended Daily Allowance for adults(RDA): 14mg a day
High iron vegan sources: beans, nuts, dried fruit, dark green and leafy vegetables
Here is a summary of vegan food sources high in these nutrients:
Vegan sources of protein, calcium and iron overlap with numerous sources such as dried apricots, which contain both calcium and iron, and beans and pulses which are good sources for all three. It is with omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin B12 where intake might be difficult. If someone doesn’t like seeds, they may find it difficult to get omega-3 in their vegan diet. There are some subtle ways to include these seeds into your diet without having to eat a handful!
- Sprinkle chopped seeds and nuts into salads
- Sprinkle onto granola or cereal
- Add to breads and cakes
- Add chopped seeds or nuts to a side dish of rice
When it comes to vitamin B12, it is impossible to obtain it through dietary plant sources when on a vegan diet, as they don’t exist! The best way to incorporate this vitamin in your diet is to drink and cook with fortified plant milks. These could be soy, rice, nut or oat-based milks that are usually fortified with vitamin B12, along with other nutrients such as calcium, iodine and vitamin D.
- Use plant milks to make sauces and gravy
- Add to smoothies
- Add to soups
- Add to drinks
- Use as a liquid alternative in some bakes
- Use with grains, cereals and oats
Another thing to note is that if plant milks are labelled ‘organic’, this means they are not fortified! So, make sure to check the label before buying.