Wondering what to eat instead of fish, or where you’ll get your iron from? Charlotte Willis shares her essential vegan food swaps for new vegans
“So tell me, where do you get your _ _ _ _ from?”
I’m pretty certain every vegan can relate to the above. Whether questioned out of spite, or queried out of curiosity, your answers lie within a balanced and healthy vegan diet. One of the biggest misconceptions about veganism is the nutritional profile and healthiness of the diet.
It’s pretty common for people to believe that protein is found exclusively in animal products, and that calcium deficiency is almost certain to be on the cards for every vegetarian, let alone milk-dodging vegans.
But oh, how wrong they are. Done right, by eating a Dr Greger-level nutritionally-balanced vegan diet, the only deficiency you’ll notice is your patience with answering the above question.
Why: B12 is a vitamin which is made by micro-organisms, and isn’t produced by plants, nor commonly found in most soils due to mineral leaching and intensive farming practice.
This water-soluble vitamin is needed for a healthy functioning nervous system and blood-oxygen transportation.
- How much? 1.5 micrograms per day.*
- Where: Vitamin B12 is typically found in yeast products, such as Marmite and nutritional yeast, or in fortified foods, such as some plant-based milks and cereal products.
- Swaps: Ditch 100g steak in favour of 8g of Marmite, which will provide 76% of your required intake* of vitamin B12.
You should aim to eat these foods approximately two times per day.
Why: Essential for healthy blood oxygenation, iron is the most common mineral deficiency (anaemia) presenting around the world. Many plant-based foods contain iron, so there’s no need to become concerned about getting enough. Enhance your absorption by including a source of vitamin C alongside your iron-rich food stuff.
- How much? between 8.7-14.8 milligrams per day.*
- Where: There are plenty of sources to choose from: chickpeas, lentils, tofu, chia seeds, cashews, kale, dried apricots, pumpkin seeds and quinoa to name just a few.
- Swaps: Swap 100g of beef mince for 100g chickpeas, which will provide around 2.8mg.
Why: Calcium is synonymous with strong bones and teeth, but it’s a lesser-known fact that dairy products can actually leach calcium from your bones. This mineral also maintains your nervous system and healthy functioning of the muscles.
- How much? 700 milligrams per day.*
- Where: Again, lots to choose from: calcium-set tofu, calcium-fortified milks, yoghurt alternatives, kale, spring greens, chia seeds and almonds.
- Swaps: Swap 100ml cow’s milk for 100g calcium-set tofu, which provides half of your daily requirements.*
Why: Proteins are the compounds from which we, and in fact all living beings, are made. Proteins are essential for our immune health, general cellular functioning and, of course, muscle repair and upkeep. Eating a whole food plant-based diet, and sufficient calories, will ensure you get enough protein from a variety of vegan sources.
- How much? Your requirements will vary based on your activity level, exercise goals and age.
- Where: Plants provide all of the essential amino acids.
- Swaps: Tofu is a fantastic substitute for eggs, while meat can be substituted by a range of beans and pulses, such as black beans and split peas.
Balance your meals by consuming wholegrains alongside beans, legumes and pulses, to ensure you obtain a complete set of amino acids at every meal.
Omega Fatty Acids
Why: Essential for hormonal health and the maintenance of a healthy brain, eyes and skin, omega fatty acids are all very easy to substitute in a vegan diet. Be sure to get a balance of omega-3, 6 and 9 in your diet by eating fewer processed foods and cooking with rapeseed oil rather than corn or sunflower oil.
- How much? You’ll need approximately 250 milligrams per day of omega-3.*
- Where: Chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts and avocados are all brilliant sources of omega-3.
- Swaps: Chia seeds are the best source of plant-based omega-3, and can be used (preferably ground or pre-soaked) as a substitute for oily fish.
Why: Zinc helps your immune system function to the best of its abilities, as well as helping to support your skin, hair and nails.
- How much? Around 7 milligrams per day for women and 9.5 milligrams per day for men.*
- Where: Beans, lentils, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, quinoa and linseed are all fantastic sources.
- Swaps: Switch out shellfish for two slices of wholemeal linseed bread, or half a tin of chickpeas.
REFS: 1 https://www.vegansociety.com/resources/nutrition-and-health/nutrients *required intake based on an average adult consuming 2000 calories per day.
Wholemeal linseed bread is a great source of zinc for vegans
Supplement or not?
If you find that you are experiencing any symptoms of a deficiency, consulting a GP is your first port of call. However, it is very common for vegans to supplement B12 and iodine with a tablet or spray, which can provide a daily/weekly dose of these essential vitamins and minerals.
The UK government also recommend that everyone supplements with vitamin D3, but make sure you check that all supplements you decide to take are certified vegan (look for the Vegan Society Trademark sunflower), in order to ensure they are free from animal ingredients.
Charlotte Willis is a freelance journalist and health writer who has worked with Veganuary and The Vegan Society and other online vegan publications. Her fields of expertise and interest include vegan nutrition, holistic healthcare, mindfulness and fitness.