Choosing to eat a vegan diet can be beneficial for both the environment and your health if it’s done well. There are a few key nutrients to consider when consuming a vegan diet in order to prevent nutritional deficiencies and optimise your health.
The following nutrients are important to include in your vegan diet as they are found more readily in animal sources and may not be as widely available in a solely vegan diet. Some careful planning may be required.
Protein plays a vital role in the structure of our muscles and bones, in fighting infection and helping the body to grow and repair. It’s actually quite easy to get enough protein on a vegan diet with a little planning. In each meal, try to include high-protein foods such as:
- Soya drinks and yoghurts
- Nuts and seeds
- Quorn (mycoprotein) and soya mince
Essential fats – Omega 3 (ALA) & 6 (LA)
These fatty acids are considered to be essential in our diet as our bodies cannot make them. They are important for the maintenance of normal blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels, heart function, blood pressure, vision and brain function.
You can get omega-6 fatty acids from foods such as vegetable oils, nuts and seeds (including sunflower and pumpkin seeds).
Omega-3 fats are commonly found in oily fish but vegan sources of include chia seeds, ground linseed, hemp seeds, walnuts, and rapeseed oil.
It may be appropriate for people with higher requirements e.g. in pregnancy or when breastfeeding to take an Omega-3 (ALA) supplement due to its role in brain health.
Calcium is vital in keeping our bones and teeth strong and healthy. It also has a function in muscle control, nerve system function and blood clotting. The best sources of calcium on a vegan diet are calcium-fortified, plant-based milk and yoghurts, fortified soy and linseed bread and calcium-set tofu. Some calcium is also present in foods such as bread, kale, watercress, tahini, dried figs, and almonds.
An essential vitamin with a range of health benefits, including helping your body to absorb calcium. Everyone in the UK is advised to take a daily supplement of at least 10ug regardless of their diet.
Lack of iron can cause fatigue and at an extreme, anaemia, Our body needs iron for muscle development during growth and to transport oxygen in blood.
The iron in plants is unfortunately less bioavailable than that in animal sources, therefore make sure you regularly include plenty of iron-rich foods. This includes:
- Cashew nuts
- Chia, pumpkin and hemp seeds
- Ground linseed
- Dried fruit
- Fortified breakfast cereals such as bran flakes.
Avoid having tea or coffee with meals as they can reduce the amount of iron your body absorbs, but do include a source of vitamin C, like colourful fruit or veg, as this can help increase iron absorption.
Made by microorganisms in animal foods, vitamin B12 does not occur naturally in plant-based foods but is important to the function of our nervous system, production of red blood cells and DNA synthesis. To make sure you get enough of this essential micronutrient, you will need to include 2 fortified foods a day such as plant-based milk alternatives, vegan spreads, nutritional yeast, yeast extract, or fortified breakfast cereals. It is also advisable to take vitamin B12 supplements daily or weekly, as it can be difficult to meet requirements from plants alone.
Essential for our thyroid function, studies have shown that vegans are at a much higher risk of iodine deficiency. Vegan sources include fortified plant-based milk (not all of them have iodine added, and amounts do vary), and seaweed. However, the iodine content within seaweed varies greatly, and can provide excessive amounts so should ideally not be eaten more than once per week. For this reason, it is also not recommended to have supplements made from seaweed or kelp. Since getting enough iodine from a vegan diet can be challenging, a supplement containing 140mcg iodine per day is recommended.
Important for normal liver function as well as fat metabolism, choline is found within eggs, meat and dairy products. Vegan sources include:
- Soya drinks
- Edamame beans
- Brussels sprouts
- Kidney beans
- Pumpkin and sunflower seeds.
More research is needed on whether certain groups should take a supplement of choline but it is not currently advised.
Selenium is an important nutrient because it contributes to the normal function of the immune system. It is also important when considering male and female fertility. Two brazil nuts a day is likely to meet your requirements, although the content may vary depending on the soil they were grown in so aim for other sources in the diet too, which include:
- Sunflower seeds
- Brown rice
- Cashew nuts
- Tofu and quinoa
Required for multiple processes within the body, zinc can’t be stored so we need to include some within the daily diet. It can be found within foods such as fortified nutritional yeast flakes, whole-grains (e.g. pasta and bread), cashew nuts, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, tempeh, quinoa, brown rice, oats and by eating fermented soya products such as tempeh and miso.