Veganuary has increased in popularity over the past few years, in 2021 half a million pledged to go Vegan for January. There are an estimated 1.5million vegans in the UK.
There are many different types of plant-based diet, the Oxford dictionary defines vegan as ‘a person who does not eat any food derived from animals and who typically does not use other animal products.’ The most common reasons why someone may choose to follow a vegan diet and lifestyle include animal welfare, health reasons, environmental reasons and personal preference.
Vegan diets are often thought to be a healthier option, but they do require quite a lot of planning and consideration to ensure you’re still getting a varied and balanced diet to prevent risk of deficiencies, ensure that they meet our nutritional requirements and support healthy living. It is also worth noting, that just because a food is vegan, doesn’t necessarily mean that it is healthy. A recent study highlighted concerning levels of salt in plant-based meat alternatives compared to meat.
If you are vegan, or considering switching to a vegan diet there are a few nutrients that you need to consider more carefully:
Sources: lentils, beans, chickpeas, seeds, nuts, nut butter, tofu, tempeh, mycoprotein, soya-based alternatives.
Single plant foods don’t contain all the essential amino acids. Many plant proteins are low in one essential amino acid, so the key is to combine plant foods and ensure that you have a variety of sources in your diet. This is called protein complementation. For example, legumes are a poor source of the amino acid methionine, but high in lysine. However, grains are a good source of methionine, but low in lysine. Therefore, a vegan diet should combine legumes with grains for a more complete mix of essential amino acids. Dishes you could make include curries using lentils with rice or chickpeas as well as beans and rice. Or to keep it simpler, you could opt for a peanut butter sandwich or beans on toast.
Vitamin B12 can only be obtained by eating fortified foods and supplements (e.g., breakfast cereal, yeast extracts, soya yoghurt, plant based dairy alternatives).
If you are not eating fortified food regularly then you may need to consider a supplement.
Omega 3 fatty acids
We can convert the essential fats found in plant-based foods, such as walnuts, flaxseeds (linseeds) chia seeds and hemp seeds, into long-chain omega-3 fatty acids.
Oils such as rapeseed (vegetable oil), hemp, and flaxseed oil provide essential omega-3 fats.
Omega-3 supplements made from algae are also available and are suitable for vegans.
The UK population is recommended to supplement 10mcg Vitamin D over the winter. The majority of supplements (Vitamin D3) are not vegan friendly; therefore you need to look for Vitamin D2 supplements which are derived from lichen. You can obtain vitamin D from some plant-based sources (although these aren’t absorbed well) and choose fortified products.
Calcium is important for bone health, ensure that you choose fortified plant-based dairy alternatives. Sources include fortified plant-based dairy alternatives, dried fruit e.g. figs, nuts such as almonds, leafy green vegetables (e.g. kale), red kidney beans, sesame seeds, tempeh and calcium-set tofu.
Iron from plant-based sources is absorbed by the body less well than animal-derived sources, therefore try taking your iron sources alongside fruits and vegetables rich in Vitamin C to improve absorption. Plant sources of iron include dried fruits, wholegrains, nuts, green leafy vegetables, seeds, peas, beans and lentils.
Zinc plays a role in the immune system and growth and development in childhood. Some plant choices include wheat germ, beans, nuts, seeds, mushrooms and some breakfast cereals are fortified.
Iodine plays a role in thyroid function. Main sources included fortified plant-based dairy and seaweed. But is important to note that having an excess can be dangerous.
There are some great websites and resources to support a vegan diet:
British Dietetic Association – Food Fact Sheets
NHS – Eat Well
Book recommendation: Vegan Savvy: The expert’s guide to nutrition on a plant-based diet by Azmina Govindji (Registered Dietitian)