Choosing to eat a plant-based diet comes with many health benefits, but you need to make sure you’re getting a good nutritional balance. Registered Nutritionist Rob Hobson reveals how to get everything you need from a healthy vegan diet…
Research shows that non-meat eaters have healthier lifestyles compared to a typical omnivore diet. Plus a well-balanced vegan diet is more likely to contain a greater quantity of fibre-rich wholegrain foods and pulses. It’s also been shown that vegans are more likely to exceed the daily recommended fruit and vegetable intake, which means gleaning a greater quantity of certain key vitamins and antioxidants, such as those found in orange and dark green vegetables (carotenoids). A vegan diet is also more likely to include a higher level of phytochemicals, which are derived from plants and help to protect the body from disease.
If that’s not enough, studies show associations between meat-free eating and a lower incidence of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and digestive disorders such as constipation – although lifestyle plays a key role here and this doesn’t mean following a vegan diet will prevent you from developing these conditions.
The benefits of vegan eating extend to the environment as farming livestock causes widespread environmental damage from methane gases and deforestation, water scarcity and land degradation. A varied vegan diet requires about one third of the land needed for conventional Western diets.
As with any diet, following the basic principles of healthy eating apply to veganism and it’s still possible to be an unhealthy, overweight vegan. Ensuring you balance your calorie intake and eat a variety of foods from each of the different food groups, you should be able to get everything you need.
By avoiding meat and dairy, which are often high in calories, the vegan diet can be low in energy, which is why it often appeals to people trying to lose weight. Including plenty of nutrient dense foods such as avocados, oils, nuts, tahini and seeds can ensure you are getting the calories your body needs (as well as other valuable nutrients).
You don’t need to eat meat to get enough protein in your diet, as long as you’re eating a wide range of protein-based foods. There’s also no need to include complete proteins at every meal, as long as there’s a sufficient supply of each amino acid across the day.
High-protein plant foods with a complete set of essential amino acids include quinoa, buckwheat (such as soba noodles), hemp seeds, chia seeds, tofu, tempeh, edamame beans, Quorn (vegan products in the range) and Ezakiel bread (from Jerusalem, made using beans, lentils and grains). Other good sources of protein for vegans include nut butters, beans, pulses, lentils, spirulina, nuts and seeds.
Low iron is the most common nutritional deficiency across the globe. In the UK, nearly a quarter of women have insufficient intakes of iron, which puts this group at particular risk of deficiency.
Low intakes of iron can lead to tiredness, fatigue, low mood and anaemia as this mineral is required to make red blood cells that carry oxygen around the body. The type of iron found in meat is more easily absorbed by the body and present in high amounts, but less so in plant-based sources. On a vegan diet it’s important to include plenty of iron-rich foods, such as pulses, nuts, seeds, fortified breakfast cereals, tofu, tempeh, dark green leafy vegetables, dried fruit, molasses and dried spices. You can increase the uptake of iron from plant foods by eating with a source of vitamin C such as fruit juice with your breakfast cereals. Avoiding tea with meals can also help maximise the absorption of iron from your food.
This vitamin is involved in a number of processes in the body, including the conversion of food into energy, making red blood cells and maintaining a healthy nervous system (low intakes may lead to tiredness and fatigue).
Vitamin B12 is mostly found in foods of animal origin, although many meat-eaters are actually deficient in this vitamin, so vegans must turn to fortified products such as plant milks, breakfast cereals and yeast extract in order to absorb suitable levels of the vitamin. Contrary to popular belief, spirulina and other algae products are not reliable sources of this vitamin.
Calcium is essential for the good health of your bones and is involved in muscle and nerve function. It’s especially important for women as they experience bone loss during the menopause, which may put them at risk of osteoporosis in later life. Although dairy is often (falsely) thought to be one of the only sources of this mineral, for vegans there are plenty of other ways to obtain it – tofu, almonds, dark green leafy vegetables, sesame seeds, tahini and fortified plant-milks are all great sources. Try eating two or three servings of calcium-rich foods on a daily basis.
You can obtain zinc from foods such as sourdough bread, cereal products, dark green leafy vegetables, pulses and seeds (especially pumpkin). Like iron-rich foods, you should try to include plenty of these in your diet. Start to use seeds to sprinkle over dishes or eat them as a snack and include dark green vegetables like kale in your dishes – kale chips are also great and can be made by slowly baking the leaves in the oven.
Omega 3 fatty acids need to be obtained from your diet as they cannot be made in the body. The two most important are called eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexeanoic acid (DHA) and are found predominantly in oily fish. There is another Omega 3 called alphalinolenic acid (ALA), which can be found in dark green leafy vegetables, walnuts and chia seed oil. This Omega 3 (ALA) can be converted to EPA and DHA in the body, but the conversion rate is poor so vegans may want to supplement their Omega 3 intake with a vegan-based supplement.
Ensuring Nutritional Adequacy
Although there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to get everything you need from a vegan diet, some nutrients do appear to be a little more tricky to glean from a plant-based diet so may need a little more consideration when planning your meals. Some vegans choose to include a multi-vitamin and mineral supplement as part of their dietary regime to act as a ‘back-up’ and bridge any potential nutritional gaps in their diet.