Animal-derived foods provide many essential nutrients, so following a vegan diet could put you at a higher risk of deficiencies if you don’t take active steps to replace them. These are the key ones
Essential for a healthy immune and nervous system. It’s crucial to maintain intakes as symptoms of a B12 deficiency may not show until it’s too late, at which point we can be left with irreversible nerve damage. It’s found in meat, fish, dairy and eggs, but the only reliable sources of B12 in a vegan diet are fortified foods and supplements.
Plant-based solutions: Include a fortified product, such as breakfast cereal or soya milk, or nutritional yeast flakes and yeast extracts such as Marmite at every meal. If you take a supplement, stick to doses below 2,000mcg.
Lack of iron can cause iron deficiency anaemia and make us tired, stressed and unable to concentrate. As well as meat and other animal foods such as fish and eggs, it’s found in plant-based foods (although the type in plant-based foods is absorbed less well). By planning carefully, you can reach daily recommended iron intakes with a vegan diet.
Plant-based solutions: sources include dark leafy green veg, wholemeal bread and flour, fortified cereals, beans, lentils and nuts (cashews offer the most iron gram for gram), pine nuts and sesame seeds. Vitamin C helps aid iron absorption from plant foods, while compounds in tea can hinder it. So swap tea for a small glass of orange juice with your fortified cereal, for example, and have some berries after a peanut butter sandwich. Getting into a good place with iron before you switch to a plant-based diet is a really good idea, as once you become anaemic through a lack of iron you can’t top up with food alone. See your GP to get a blood test – if you’re bordering on low iron status you can plan by taking supplements before cutting out red meat, for example.
This is all about building and maintaining healthy bones. Dairy is a good source but not the only one.
Plant-based solutions: nuts and fortified alternatives to milk are your biggest ally. Dried ready-to-eat apricots and figs also provide calcium, or try tahini (sesame seed paste), thinned slightly with water to drizzle over salads. Chickpeas provide some calcium, too, making hummus with bread a good snacking choice.
Omega-3 fatty acids
These polyunsaturated fats are especially vital for regulating blood clotting, brain and heart health and controlling inflammation. It’s the long-chain fats EPA and DHA (eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acid) that have the most direct health benefits. These are found in oily fish such as mackerel, salmon and sardines.
Plant-based solutions: short-chain fats called ALA (alphalinolenic acid) are found mainly in rapeseed and flaxseed oils, nuts such as walnuts, pecans and hazelnuts, seeds such as pumpkin seeds, soya and soya products, and green leafy veg. ALAs can be converted into long-chain fats but only small amounts are formed from plant food sources. You could consider a plankton-based supplement – it’s the plankton fish eat that makes them so rich in omega-3s.
Top minerals to include
Zinc from bread and cereal products such as wheatgerm and fortified breakfast cerealsIodine Sea vegetables like edible seaweed (take care when pregnant, breastfeeding, weaning and in childhood because levels in some seaweed could be harmful). Vitamin D, which is only found in a small number of foods, such as eggs. Consider a daily supplement containing 10mcg.
Words of caution…
Avoid junk food
Products labelled as being vegan-friendly may still be high in calories, sugar and/or fat, so read labels as you would with any other product.
Limit coconut oil
Often assumed to be healthier than other oils, it contains more saturated fat than any other type. Use all oils in moderation, but push coconut oil to the back of the queue!
Seek help from a registered dietitian…
Or registered nutritionist if you have a compromised immune system, are pregnant or breastfeeding.
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