Vegan diets have become a popular way of eating in recent years. People choose to be vegan for many reasons, environment, animal cruelty, health and weight loss.
There is a lot of research that supports a plant based diet for improved health and reduced risk of heart disease, strokes and type 2 diabetes. But a vegan diet can lead to nutrient deficiencies if not done correctly.
So what do vegan’s eat?
Well, let’s start with what vegan’s do not eat: any foods that are made from animals or part of an animal, including, but not exclusive to:
gelatine (used in lollies and jellies)
dairy products such as: milk, cheese, yoghurt and butter
That being said, I know vegans who aren’t super strict and do eat honey and cheese!
So what do vegan’s eat?
legumes (chickpeas, lentils, kidney beans, lima beans etc)
grains such as quiona, corn, wheat, oats, rye, millet,
nuts and seeds
oils such as olive oil, coconut oil and nut and seed oils
spreads such as hummus, nut butters, tahini, baba ghanoush
fortified plant based milks or foods (particularly fortified with vitamin B12, calcium and vitamin D)
fermented foods such as kombucha and sauerkraut
nutritional yeast and sea kelp
Everyone benefits from eating nutrient dense whole foods, but this is even more true for those following a vegan lifestyle. And as with most processed foods which are often marketed as healthy, they’re often not as healthy as the label insists. Vegans are more at risk of certain vitamin and mineral deficiencies, which can lead to permanent damage, if left unchecked.
Vitamin B12 is only found in animal products, so it is essential that this is taken in supplement form and through fortified foods. B12 is essential for folate and homocysteine metabolism, DNA synthesis and maintaining the myelin sheaths that surround and insulate nerves. Lack of B12 can lead to these nerves being destroyed, if untreated, this can lead to permanent paralysis and can be fatal. Lack of B12 can lead to an increase risk of cancer, as DNA is unable to be repaired when needed.
Symptoms of B12 deficiency are: fatigue, weakness, numbness and tingling, memory problems.
Babies and children born to vegan mothers can also have deficiencies: symptoms include: anaemia, diminished brain growth and poor brain function.
B12 deficiency is not generally a problem for most people, eating animal based foods. For vegans and some vegetarians, supplementation is essential. Some foods, such as nutritional yeast and yeast spreads are fortified with B12, these should be regularly included in the diet.
You can get your B12 levels tested by your GP. it’s a simple blood test and it may be advisable to have your B12 tested on a regular basis.
Iron is a mineral in our food that is essential for carrying oxygen around our body. When we don’t have enough we can get tired, fatigued, be short of breath, get dizzy, get sick more frequently and if it goes on for long enough we can end up with iron deficiency anaemia. Some people are more at risk of getting anaemia, depending on genetics, gender, age, diet – for example, vegans and vegetarians are more at risk of iron deficiency as are athletes, infants, women with periods and people who diet or restrict their food intake.
Women that are menstruating and pregnant women need more iron than men and children. the RDI (recommended daily intake) for women is 18mg per day, pregnant women is 27 mg per day. Children and men have varying requirements depending on age and gender, but it varies between 8 to 15 mg per day.
There are two different types of iron, haem and non-haem iron. Haem iron is only found in animal products, it is more easily absorbed (around 30% of haem iron is absorbed by the body). Non-haem iron is found in plant foods, like spinach and lentils. Only 1 to 7% of non-haem iron is absorbed by the body and its absorption is increased by eating foods with haem iron in – which vegans can’t do! Other components of food, such as vitamin C can increase absorption, but caffeine, tannins in tea, calcium in foods and oxalates and phytates found in some plant foods all stop iron being absorbed in the body.
Vegan foods that are high in iron are:
Oat bran cereal
Spinach and other leafy greens
Peas and green beans
Prunes and prune juice
Nuts and Seeds
The main problem with getting enough iron, is absorption so when having iron rich foods make sure you have a piece of fruit with it. As this contains vitamin c which will help the iron to be absorbed. Avoid coffee or tea around meal times, aim for 1 hour gap between these drinks and meals.
Protein is important to help us feel full and for muscle growth and repair. Generally, animal foods are very high in protein, around 30 grams of protein for 100 grams of meat, depending on the source. Meat contains all the amino acids we need, but vegetarian sources contain less protein, and do not contain all the amino acids (the little bits that make up protein) necessary for health. But, protein intake does not have to be a problem on a vegan diet. Plenty of vegan foods contain adequate protein. What’s important is that you have at least 1 serve at each meal and the protein sources are mixed up, to ensure adequate protein (get all the amino acids you need). Vegan protein foods include: legumes such as: lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans, lima beans (etc), tofu, tempeh, nuts, seeds and grains such as quinoa. Make sure you get 1 serve of 1 or 2 different protein types at each meal. A serve of legumes is a bout 1 cup.
Calcium is an important mineral for our bone health, muscle contraction and for our nerves to work properly. Calcium deficiency can lead to and increased risk of bone fractures and bone disease, such as osteoporosis.
Current recommendations suggest kids have between 500 to 1300mg of calcium, every day, depending on their age and gender. Adults between 1000 and 1200mg per day.
Dairy products are a great source of calcium. 1 cup of yoghurt gives nearly half our daily calcium needs. BUT not having dairy does NOT have to be a problem.
Vitamin D and exercise are just as important for bone health. So make sure you get sun shine (arms, legs, face for 1/4 of the time it takes you to get burnt) and daily exercise. Especially weight bearing exercise, to help keep your bones strong.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of non dairy calcium sources, choose 3 to 4 of these each day:
Fortified almond/rice/soy/oat milk
Leafy greens: lettuce parsley, spinach (cooked)
Black Eyed Peas
Never take calcium supplements, unless advised by your Dr for a specific condition. Recent research has shown calcium supplements to be harmful and increase risk of heart attacks. Food sources are the best sources of calcium!
Omega 3’s are essential fats for our health, that means we need both of them in our diet, because our body can’t make them. Omega 3’s have many beneficial functions, like improving our heart and brain health and playing a role in reducing anxiety and stress and by reducing inflammation. Omega 3’s are mostly found in fatty fish, but can also be found in walnuts, linseeds, hemp seeds and chia seeds, include several serves of these in your diet every day and consider taking a vegan omega 3 supplement.
Moral of the story?
Vegan diets can be done healthfully, but daily food choices do need to be carefully considered to ensure optimum nutrition. It is important to make sure you are eating plenty of energy dense whole foods and avoid nutrient poor, packaged foods as much as possible – because too much of these will lead to deficiencies and poor health.
Wanting to know more about vegan diets?
Think it might be for you, but not sure how to get started?
Or already on a vegan diet and not sure if you’ve nailed it?
Contact me for a one on one consult and personalised advice and direction.