Important Nutrients to Know About if You Follow A Vegan Diet
There is a lot of hype around decreasing animal products and choosing a diet rich in plant foods, but is this safe for your health? With increasing evidence on the negative health effects of eating too much red and processed meat as well as the benefits to the planet’s health, it is no surprise more people are turning to a vegan diet. So, what exactly is a vegan? In short it means someone who does not eat any product which comes from an animal. This not only includes the meat (a vegetarian) but also the milk and any other products made from an animal like honey.
Following a vegan diet can be safe and healthy for your body in the short and long term. It is important to know and include the nutrients that animal products can give your body but are potentially lacking in plant foods. There are several vitamins and minerals which animal products give your body and once specific vitamin which is vital for your health is called B12. B12 has many roles which include red blood cells production as well as forming new nerve tissue and brain function. Anyone who follows a vegan diet needs to take a B12 supplement to meet your daily B12 needs. It is also a good idea to try to include products like nutritional yeast or products fortified with B12 like soy milk, some cereals and Marmite. It is important a B12 supplement is taken whether or not fortified food and drink products are part of your diet.
There is a common misconception that protein can only be found in animal sources like meat or eggs. This is not true, and protein can be found in particularly good amounts in vegan sources like nuts, legumes, textured vegetable protein, whole grains, amaranth grains, and seeds and even in vegetables! The average person needs 0.7-1.2g of protein per kilogram of body weigh a day. If you are following a balanced diet this is very achievable without taking protein supplements.
The other key nutrients which you may be at risk of deficiency if you become a vegan include:
Omega 3 fatty acids.
Omega 3 fat protects your body against disease and promotes good health. Your brain needs omega 3 fat to function as 60% of your brain is made from fat and the main type being omega 3 fat. Omega-3 fatty acid is also needed for a healthy heart, arteries, and vision as it supports your retina. As an anti-inflammatory fat it may also assist reducing symptoms associated with rheumatoid arthritis.
Typically most people get their omega-3 from seafood but vegans can still get this nutrient from plant sources including seaweed, flaxseed oil, hemp seeds, walnuts, canola oil, soybeans, tofu, chia seeds, linseeds when stored in the fridge and fortified milks like soy milk.
Calcium is needed for strong bones and teeth, muscle contractions, allowing your blood to clot and for nerve function.
Yoghurt, cheese, and milk from animals is off the menu so vegan’s need to get their calcium from other sources. This can include calcium-fortified soy, rice or nut milks and fruit juices, almonds, brazil nuts, amaranth grains, dried apricots, figs, soybeans, calcium-set tofu, kale or other Asian greens or broccoli. Try to avoid caffeine when having these calcium foods as it stops the mineral being taken into the body’s cells.
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin which plays many roles including assisting a normal functioning immune system and to allowing calcium to absorbed properly into your bones and teeth. Vegan sources of this can be found in vitamin-D fortified margarine as well as some soy milks and other plant-based milks. Mostly you can get your needs for vitamin D from adequate sun exposure.
Why bother having enough zinc? To make sure you have good immunity, strong skin and can effectively heal. This nutrient can be found in foods like legumes including whole grains, or whole grain containing foods like Corn Thins™ slices, chickpeas, lentils, or red kidney beans, also nuts, seeds and soy products e.g. milk, tofu or yoghurt.
Iodine is needed to support normal growth in your body and to produce thyroid hormones, which play a role in how fast your metabolism is. You can find iodine in iodised salt or seaweed.
Iron is a vital mineral needed to help transport oxygen around your body. Vegan forms of iron include whole grains, or whole grain containing foods like Corn Thins™ slices, legumes, green leafy vegetables, fortified foods and drinks, tofu and tempeh, quinoa, nuts, seeds. To increase the amount if iron your body gets, try having these foods with a vitamin c source and not include caffeine, calcium supplements or tea as these can stop the iron being taken into the body’s cells.
Take home message: There are many health and planetary benefits for following a vegan diet. You just need to be careful you meet all the nutrition needs your body requires to stay healthy. If you do not understand how to include all these things, see an Accredited Practising Dietitian who can help you manage being a vegan in your lifestyle!