Find out how to maximise your nutrient-intake as you reduce animal products from your diet
If you’re planning to adopt a vegan diet, there are a few things to keep in mind to make the transition a bit easier and to keep your diet nutritionally balanced, so that the good intentions that pushed you to this change can be matched by feeling good physically and mentally.
Take it slow and at your own pace. Start by adding more plant-based foods and products into your diet before removing meat, dairy, eggs and fish.
You can opt for substituting your milk with a dairy-free one, have a vegan breakfast, maybe a whole vegan day, transitioning to a few a week. There is no set rule. Any kind of transition is about progress, not a timeline. Take your time with any dietary changes and let your body adjust.
When switching to a plant-focused diet, you may need to increase the volume of food you are eating to keep achieving your usual energy requirements.
Plant-based foods are lower in calories than meat, dairy and eggs, so if you don’t make a conscious effort to eat enough, you may end up not eating the essential calories that your body needs to function.
Of course this will vary from person to person, so eat until you are satisfied, don’t worry about having a few extra snacks if you are hungry until you figure out what is the right balance for you.
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Always pair a carbohydrate like whole grains or starchy vegetables with a source of protein (tofu, tempeh, nuts, seeds, beans and legumes) and fats (nuts and seeds, coconut, olive oil, avocado) to help you feel satisfied.
Also, if you’re not already used to eating beans, lentils and other legumes, start with a small portion (for example ¼ cup) and increase slowly, making sure to cook them well. If you can, soak them before cooking or rinse thoroughly if using tinned ones.
Meat eaters tend to have different gut bacteria to help break down meat than vegetarians who tend to consume more fibre from vegetables and protein sources like legumes and beans.
The digestive system can usually adapt to diet changes and the gas and bloating that you could experience at the beginning will regulate itself.
Beans and pulses contain prebiotic fibres, which feed beneficial gut bacteria through a fermentation process. So, don’t be put off if you feel bloated at first, it will settle.
Of course, if any symptoms persist you can always reach out to a medical professional that will help you understand what may be the best nutritional approach for you.
In terms of single nutrients, there are a few to pay closer attention to so that there is no risk of possible deficiencies later on having a negative impact on your health and wellbeing.
(daily requirement, 0.8 to 1 G for more active individuals per kg of body weight)
The first concern people always have is about protein, but do not worry because you can get sufficient with no animal sources in your diet.
To get all the amino acids that are essential for skin, bones, muscle, cell membranes structure and function and several other vital processes in the body, you’ll simply need to include a variety of sources.
Even the nine essential amino acids that we can only obtain from food will be found in plant sources.
Some may be lower in places but having a couple of different proteins in a meal or over the day will make up for it.
For example, grains like wheat and rice are lower in lysine, while beans, pulses and peas are lower in methionine, but if you include both in your meals there will be no problem.
Some plant protein sources are legumes and beans (about 20g protein per 100g), lentils, peas, peanuts, tofu and tempeh.
Also, whole grains like brown/wild rice, wheat, quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth; seitan (about 75g protein per 100g) and nuts and seeds (about 20g protein per 100g) like cashews, almonds, walnuts, Brazil nuts, pistachios, hemp, pumpkin, chia and sunflower seeds.
(daily requirement, 8.7 mg)
Iron is necessary for the production of red blood cells that carry oxygen around our body, which is so essential for hundreds of bodily functions and processes.
You can find this mineral in beans, lentils, chickpeas, tofu, broccoli, kale, cashews, chia, hemp and pumpkin seeds, flaxseeds, dried apricots and figs, quinoa, whole wheat and fortified cereals.
Iron absorption from food tends to increase when the stores in our body are low and decrease when levels are higher. There are a few factors that can affect non-heme (the type found in plants) iron absorption.
Phytates found in cereals and pulses, tannins in tea and coffee and calcium (especially from a supplement source) can bind to iron and reduce absorption in the intestine.
Try to soak and cook your beans and grains thoroughly, don’t have iron containing foods or supplements with tea and coffee and to increase absorption pair iron sources with vitamin C containing foods (citrus fruit, kiwi, strawberry, peppers, broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts).
(daily requirement, 700 mg)
Essential for growth and development, bone growth and rebuilding, nervous system and muscle function as well as for blood clotting.
There are numerous plant-based sources of calcium like calcium-set tofu, dark leafy greens (broccoli, pak choi, kale, collard greens, spring greens), dried figs, chia seeds, almonds and fortified plant milks, yoghurts, cereals.
Just like with iron, there are a few things to pay attention to in order to aid absorption. Combine calcium sources with protein-rich foods and reduce the effects of certain nutrients that can inhibit calcium to be absorbed properly.
The action of phytates found in whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds can be counteracted by soaking, discharging the water and then cooking properly.
The same with oxalates found in foods like spinach, beets and beet greens, rhubarb, almonds, cashews and peanuts that can be reduced through soaking and cooking.
(daily requirement, 1.5 mcg)
Vitamin B12 is vital for red blood cells and DNA production as well as necessary for development, nervous system function and to prevent megaloblastic anaemia.
Regardless of being an omnivore or a vegetarian/vegan, it may be worth checking your levels with a simple blood test through a GP, then it’s easier to decide if a supplement (tablets, spray, liquid, injection forms are all available) may be the best option for you or if it’s OK to rely on fortified food sources under the recommendation of a medical professional.
Try to eat these vegan vitamin B12 sources at least twice a day, aiming to have around 3 mcg, which will ensure you can absorb enough to reach the recommended amount.
Some of the plant-based sources are fortified plant milks, fortified cereals, fortified nutritional yeast flakes, Marmite or Vegemite.
(daily requirement, 10 mcg)
This vitamin has a key role in bone growth and resorption, aids absorption of calcium and phosphorus in the intestine so they can be utilised in bones and it’s utilised by parathyroid glands.
The body can produce vitamin D when exposed to sunlight. The recommended amount is exposure of face and forearms for 15 minutes each day around midday.
During autumn and winter months, and based on the location of where you live, this may not be possible or sufficient. This is why the NHS recommends taking a supplement in autumn or winter months of 10 mcg (400 IU) every day.
Vitamin D2 is suitable for vegans, but the active form D3 may be derived from animal sources, so check that the supplement you choose is derived from lichen.
There are also a few food sources that contain vitamin D, like mushrooms grown in the sun or fortified plant milks and cereals, but they will likely not provide you with sufficient amounts to reach the recommended daily requirements.
Omega 3 fatty acids
(daily requirement, 250 mg)
There are two types of essential fats that we can only obtain from diet – omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids. ALA (alpha linoleic acid) is the essential omega 3 that is needed by the body and converted into the active forms of DHA and EPA and LA (linoleic acid), an essential omega 6 fat.
These fats are essential for brain and nervous system health and development, immune system function, eye health, cell membranes structure and communication.
Good sources of omega 3 fatty acids are walnuts, flaxseeds, chia and hemp seeds. Try a tbsp daily of ground flaxseeds/whole chia seeds or 2 tbsp hemp seeds or 4-6 walnut halves.
Omega 6 fatty acids instead are found in sunflower, safflower and soya oil/spread as well as pumpkin and sunflower seeds.
The body can convert ALA from plant sources into the essential EPA and DHA. If LA omega 6 levels are elevated, conversion may be reduced, which can lead to lower levels of omega 3s in the blood.
Some doctors recommend doubling the amount of dietary ALA sources of omega 3s eaten during the day to ensure adequate amounts. Or you could look into an algae-based supplement, which is especially important during pregnancy, breastfeeding and childhood. Ask a medical professional for advice.
(daily requirement, 140 mcg)
This mineral is essential for the production of thyroid hormones that regulate the metabolism of our cells.
The amount of iodine in plant food sources like cereals and grains varies depending on how much is present in the soil where they are grown.
Seaweeds are rich in iodine, but their content may be too high and often they may be contaminated with heavy metals.
You could sprinkle kelp flakes from a trusted company a few times a week on a meal, have fortified plant milk daily or look into a supplement with 75-150 mcg every few days. Ask a doctor or a nutritional professional for advice on this.
(daily requirements, 7mg for women, 9.5 mg for men)
Zinc is essential for the function of our immune system, for cell growth and repair, wound healing and carbohydrates metabolism.
Good sources are beans, lentils, chickpeas, tofu and tempeh, nuts and seeds like walnuts, cashew nuts, chia seeds, ground linseed, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, whole wheat and quinoa. Make sure to have a serving of these daily.
(daily requirements, 60 mcg for women, 75 mcg for men)
Selenium is another mineral that is so essential as it’s involved in numerous pathways in the body.
A key component of antioxidant enzymes, involved in immune system function, protecting cells from damage and metabolic processes.
Just like iodine, the amount in foods depends on how rich the soil that these were grown in was. One of the best sources is Brazil nuts and, even though their content varies, it tends to be high.
One to two a day should meet your requirements. If you are already taking a multivitamin, there will most likely be an adequate amount included.
(daily requirements, 0.6mg for women, 0.7mg for men)
Maybe not one you would think about right away when considering a vegan diet, but as it’s a key vitamin for development and growth, for our eyesight and vision health and it’s involved in the functioning of the immune system, it’s important to include plenty of sources daily.
Plant foods contain beta-carotene, which is a precursor of vitamin A, meaning that it gets converted inside the body into an active vitamin A form.
Great sources are carrots, pumpkin and squash, sweet potatoes, mango, cantaloupe, apricots, kale and spinach.
(daily requirement, 1mcg per kg of body weight)
Such an essential nutrient for blood clotting as well as bone formation and growth and kidney function.
Plant sources like dark leafy greens (kale, spinach, chards, spring greens), broccoli and Brussels sprouts contain vitamin K1 that can be converted in the body into the active form K2 by gut bacteria.
Another reason why caring for our gut health by including plenty of fibre, variety of plant foods and fermented foods is important.
Alessandra is a nutritional therapist and medicinal chef, who trained with the Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts in New York and the College of Naturopathic Medicine in London.