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  • Aine

Important nutrients to look out for on a plant based diet

Updated: May 9, 2022

First off all I want to say that a vegan diet should not be used as a weight loss tool. You can eat healthy on a vegan diet but it requires a little more thought and planning.


No one diet or way of eating is perfect for everyone. You have to decide what is right for you and not feel pressure to eat a certain way due to social pressures.


Well organized vegan diets have been associated with a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, heart diseases and certain cancers.

Some of the reasons being for this is; lower intake of saturated fats, increased intake of fruit and vegetables and inclusion of more fibre, grains, beans and pulses.

If you are cutting certain food groups from your diet. You have to ensure you are replacing the vitamins and minerals you are missing with alternatives.

Do vegans get enough protein?


Everyone’s protein intake is different depending on your activity level, weight, age etc.


For the average person it is 0.75g of protein per kg of weight. The requirement will be higher if you are more active. Protein is not just for ‘bulking’ up it's an essential component of every cell in the body. Protein helps to build and repair muscle, skin, hair, ligaments and cartilage.


Animal protein is regarded as ‘complete’ protein, meaning proteins that have all 9 essential amino acids. Examples of complete animal proteins are meat, fish and dairy.

You can reach your protein targets on a vegan diet.


There is a wide variation of plant protein available.


Sources of plant based protein include:

  • Beans and pulses

  • Tofu

  • Tempeh

  • Lentils

  • Mycoprotein

  • Nuts and seeds

  • Quinoa

Soya, quinoa, hemp, mycoprotein and chia seeds are regarded as complete plant protein.


So once you’re eating a variety of plant proteins you will be getting an adequate intake of all the essential amino acids!


OTHER NUTRIENTS TO CONSIDER

Iodine


Iodine is something people tend to forget about even if you’re not on a vegan diet.


Iodine is very important for thyroid function. A low intake of iodine over a long period of time will cause your thyroid to work harder to try to keep the right amount of thyroid hormones in your blood.


Young girls and women of childbearing age don’t get enough iodine. Iodine is vital for the developments of baby’s brain development.


Iodine is found mostly in fish (mainly white fish) and dairy. Plant sources of iodine are in lower amounts. So if you are on a vegan diet you should look into supplementing.


Seaweed, has very high concentrations of iodine so is therefore not recommended to be consumed regularly as it can result in excessive iodine intake – which also leads to thyroid problems.


Plant based milks are fortified with iodine but not enough to reach your daily recommended intake. If you are changing to a vegan diet, I would recommend an iodine supplement.


It should not contain more than 140-150mcg per day, speak to your pharmacist regarding supplementation. Iodine in supplements should be in the form of “potassium iodide” or “potassium iodate” and should not exceed the daily adult requirement of 150 mcg.


Do not use seaweed or kelp supplements as an iodine source; the amount of iodine in such supplements can vary considerably from the value claimed on the label and can provide excessive quantities of iodine.


Calcium


Calcium is essential in our diet for muscle function and for our teeth and bones. Main sources from milk and dairy products.


Vegan sources include:

  • Fortified plant based milks

  • Tofu - if set with calcium carbonate (check the label)

  • Broccoli

  • Oranges

  • Tahini/sesame seeds

  • Vegan sources of calcium

Fortified dairy alternatives like oat or almond milks. Note that organic versions aren’t fortified – as the vitamins are considered an additive.


Vitamin D


Vitamin D plays a vital part in bone health, muscle function and immunity.

Everyone in the UK is advised to consider supplementation with 10mcg vitamin D per day over the darker months (Oct -April) – as we just don’t get enough sun in Ireland and the UK to maintain decent levels over winter.


As we’re advised to stay out of the sun and use sunscreen most of the time, we’re at risk of low levels. This is especially important if you have darker skin or routinely cover your skin throughout the year.



It’s not possible to get all of the vitamin D we need from food alone, so a supplement may be the best way to make sure you’re getting enough.


Vegan sources include:

  • Fortified dairy alternatives

  • Fortified cereals

  • Mushrooms – leave them on the window for 1-2 to absorb vitamin D from the sunlight

Iron

Iron is needed to help most cells in our body function correctly. Iron is essential in making haemoglobin which is a protein that transports oxygen around the body in the bloodstream.


Iron is found in two forms: heme iron (mainly animal sources) and non heme iron (mainly plant based sources). Plant based sources of iron is absorbed less effectively that heme iron.


Vitamin C helps the body absorb non iron more easily e.g. add red peppers into your curry or have a glass of orange juice with a meal.



Tea and coffee can inhibit heme iron absorption due to the phenolic compounds. So try to refrain from having a cuppa for about an hour before your lunch or dinner.


If you’re worried about your iron levels talk to your GP. Symptoms of iron deficiency can be tiredness, pale skin, dark circles around the eyes, lack of appetite, headaches/lightheadedness.


Non heme sources of iron:

  • Beans and pulses (lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans etc)

  • Tofu

  • Fortifed breakfast cereals

  • Dried fruit

  • Leafy green veg

  • Sesame seeds

  • Nuts

  • Fortified bread

Vitamin B12


Vitamin B12 is the first thing a lot of people associate with a vegan diet. If you are doing veganuary you do not need to worry about your B12 stores can last between 2-4 years.


Unfortunately vitamin B12 is only available from animal sources so if you are following a vegan diet than supplementation is needed.



The recommended intake is 2.4 micrograms a day - you can take this in a weekly or daily supplement and also comes in spray form. Vegan sources of B12 are nutritional yeast, fortified dairy alternatives and cereals.


B12 has many functions in the body – including keeping our nervous system working properly. B12 is vital in developing babies and deficiencies can cause lasting damage to our brain and nervous system.


As we age its harder for our bodies to absorb B12 if it is something you are worried about - get your B12 levels checked with your GP.


Omega 3

Omega fatty acids appear to play an important role in cardiovascular and brain health. The Omega 3 fatty acids: ALA (alpha-linoleic acid), DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) are classed as essential fatty acids – as our bodies cannot make them.

EPA and DHA are thought to have the most direct health benefits. The main source of DHA and EPA in Ireland and the UK is from fish.



Vegan sources of ALA include:

  • Chia seeds

  • Hemp seeds

  • Soya and soya oils

  • Flaxseeds (linseeds)

  • Walnuts

Our bodies then convert this ALA into EPA and DHA – but this process isn’t super efficient.


It’s also possible to obtain some Omega 3 from microalgae and this is what is used in most vegan supplements. You may choose to add these supplements to your diet to ensure adequate Omega 3 intake.


There still isn't enough research on these supplements to determine the health benefits of taking them.


Zinc

Zinc is important for regulating enzyme functions in our bodies. Phytates in plant foods reduce the absorption of zinc and so it’s important to eat a variety of zinc containing foods.


Vegan sources include:

  • Miso

  • Tempeh

  • Wholegrains

  • Beans

  • Zinc-fortified foods like cereal

  • Nuts and seeds

Soak your dried beans/lentils overnight to help increase zinc absorption


Selenium

This essential mineral acts as an antioxidant to help prevent cell damage in our body and support our immune system.


Selenium is usually found in animal products e.g. meats, eggs and fish. The amount of selenium in a plant foods varies depending on how much is in the soil the plant is grown in.

Brazil nuts are known for their high levels for selenium and just 1-2 nuts a day may meet your daily requirements.


At the end of the day


A vegan diet has it's health benefits - we all know eating more plants, fruit and vegetables is good for the plant and ourselves.


If you are considering a vegan diet, do your research and start slowly. Plan your meals and make sure if you are cutting out certain foods groups that you are replacing them in your diet.


If you'd like some advice on feel free to book a free 15 minute consultation with me or email me at aine@coleman-nutrition.com


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