Can you meet your body’s nutritional needs with a vegan diet?
With more people opting to follow a vegan diet for ethical or health reasons, it's important to highlight that a bit of planning is required to ensure that your diet is well-balanced and that you're not missing out on any essential nutrients.
Read on to help make your planning a bit easier, and to look out for some nutrients to which you may want to pay closer attention.
The key here is variety! You may have heard that you need to eat 'a complete protein', but you may be wondering what that means.
A complete protein contains all the essential amino acids (think of them as the building blocks of protein) which our bodies cannot make, and so, must be obtained through food. As most plant proteins don't contain this full range of amino acids individually, you must be combining different sources of these proteins at mealtimes.
Vegan options that are complete include:
- soy products
- chia and hemp seeds
- nutritional yeast
Note that gram for gram, in comparison with animal products, more is needed to reap the benefits.
Vegan options that are 'incomplete' and food pairing ideas include:
- rice and peas (e.g. vegetable fried rice)
- grains and nuts (e.g. nut butter on toast)
- grains and soya (e.g. Weetabix with soya milk)
- pulses and grains (e.g. bean chilli with rice)
Vitamin B12 is an important nutrient that cannot be found naturally in plant products. A lack of vitamin B12 can lead to fatigue, anaemia, nerve damage and cardiovascular disease.
It is advised to ensure you opt for vitamin B12 fortified foods (dairy alternatives, some breakfast cereals, yeast extract) or opt for a daily 10mcg supplement.
Vitamin D has undoubtedly been a hot topic in recent months! What we know is that vitamin D works with calcium and another essential mineral called phosphorus, to optimise bone, muscle and teeth health. Emerging research suggests that vitamin D plays important roles within other systems in our bodies, but we have no firm evidence at present to make concrete conclusions.
Even for non-vegans, it can be challenging to get sufficient amounts of vitamin D from our diet. Our body mainly relies on sunlight to produce vitamin D. However, as we live in a country known for its lack of sunshine, current UK Government guidelines suggest a 10-microgram supplement daily between October to April. Even in the summer months, when we aren't guaranteed sunshine, it may be beneficial to take a supplement. If you're unsure of what is best for you, consult a medical professional.
Calcium is important for bone and teeth health - vegans need to ensure that they opt for calcium-fortified dairy alternatives. If having tofu, opt for one that has been set with a calcium derivative (calcium sulphate or calcium chloride).
Be aware that calcium in plant-based sources such as spinach, dried fruits, nuts and seeds is not readily available for use in our body, so should not be considered as a primary means to increase calcium intake.
Omega-3 has emerged as a buzzword in recent years, but what is it? Omega-3 a type of essential fat that our bodies cannot produce naturally, thus we need to get it from our diet. Research has shown that it can have beneficial effects for our immune system, heart and brain health. Much of the evidence regarding the health benefits of omega-3 focuses on two types: DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid).
A good source of omega-3 is fish, but there are alternative options for vegans!
The precursor ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) can be obtained via a vegan diet. If you consume enough of it daily, you can help support your body to convert into DHA and EPA. Try consuming one of the following on a daily basis:
- Six walnut halves
- One tablespoon flaxseeds/chia seeds
- Use rapeseed oil for cooking
- Consider microalgae EPA and DHA supplement. Please note that more research is needed and if you are interested, discuss with a healthcare professional before consumption.
In addition to the above, other essential nutrients to consider when opting for a vegan diet include iron, zinc, iodine and selenium.
While it's so much easier to eat vegan these days, it's important you're providing your body with the nutrients it needs. If you are finding it hard to maintain a balanced diet while following a vegan diet, contact a qualified nutrition professional who can help provide tailored advice and guidance. Enjoy!