Vegan diets are becoming increasingly popular. Whether it is for ethical, sustainability and/or health reasons, a vegan diet takes some consideration and is not necessarily a healthier choice. Dietitian Ruth Harvey explains the key nutrients that you must retain in your diet when considering going vegan.
• Vitamin B12 is essential for the function of our nervous system and is only available from animal sources. Unless you eat a lot of B12 fortified foods you will need to take vitamin B12 supplements. 10 μg daily of cyanocobalamin is recommended.
• Iodine is important for thyroid function and reproductive health. Iodine levels in plants are unreliable due to levels in the soil being variable, therefore an iodine supplement can help ensure you get the correct amount.
• Calcium for bone health and blood clotting. If you are using a plant milk, such as soya, rice, almond or coconut, make sure that it is fortified with calcium and vitamin D. You can also get calcium from many plant sources such as calcium-set tofu, green leafy vegetables, nuts especially sesame seeds, dried fruit such as figs, raisins and apricots and bread.
• Protein for cell growth and repair, hormone production and cell signalling. It is important to include protein sources at every meal and these can include plant milks (nut milks are low in protein), beans and pulses, edamame beans, tofu, soya protein, nuts and seeds and Seitan (a vegan meat-alternative made from wheat gluten).
• Iron for transporting and storing oxygen and a healthy immune system. Vegan sources of iron are much lower in iron than red meat and not as easily absorbed, therefore you should ensure that you include iron-containing vegetables as often as possible, including beans and pulses, green leafy vegetables, wholegrains and nuts and seeds. Eating vitamin C containing foods with these will increase iron absorption e.g. peppers, tomatoes and citrus fruit.
• Omega 3 to reduce inflammation and for neurological health. Vegan sources of omega 3 include chia seeds, linseeds/flaxseeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, soybeans, tofu, as well as bread and spreads which have been fortified with omega 3. For Omega 3 supplements vegans can take an algae supplement, but evidence on the health benefits for taking these is lacking.
Many of us would benefit from increasing our intake of vegetables, pulses and wholegrains, and reducing our intake of processed meats, but you do not necessarily need to be vegan to do this. If you are interested in vegan food why not choose a day of the week to try out some vegan recipes and see what you think. You don’t have to go all in from the start to change the way you eat!
For more dietitian advice and information, visit www.graysnutrition.co.uk