Record numbers have signed up to "Veganuary" this year – a movement inspiring people to try a vegan diet.
If you google 'plant-based diets', you will come across a minefield of nutrition information. Where do you even begin?
This article provides information on how to achieve a healthy and balanced vegan diet.
What is a vegan diet?
A vegan diet contains only plant-based foods such as fruit, vegetables, grains, legumes, beans, nuts and seeds. It excludes meat, fish, dairy, eggs and honey.
Why are so many people going vegan?
After conducting a poll on social media, we found that the main reasons included:
Environmental concerns or sustainable eating
To become "healthier"
But, Vegan doesn't always mean healthier...
Vegan foods are not necessarily healthier options.
Many of the pre-made, supermarket options (i.e. vegan burgers, sausages, and pies) contain high levels of salt, saturated fat and sugar.
Generally speaking, we should try to limit our intake of foods which are high in salt, fat and sugar. Therefore, it's important to check the ingredients or nutrition label to help you to make healthy decisions.
It is possible to meet your nutritional needs on a vegan diet
A well-planned vegan diet which is healthy and balanced can provide you with all the nutrients you need.
However, excluding dairy and animal products means that you could miss out on certain nutrients. These will need to be replaced elsewhere in your diet.
These nutrients include:
Omega 3 fatty acids
We will discuss these nutrients in more detail below.
Getting enough protein
People are often concerned about whether it's possible to get enough protein on a plant-based diet.
Rest assured, the majority of healthy people get more than enough protein from their diets in the UK (1).
Try including some protein in every meal and snack – protein is known to keep you full for longer and it is essential for building and repairing tissue (2).
Here are some tips to ensure that you are eating enough protein on a plant-based diet.
Pulses – beans, lentils, chickpeas and peas are healthy, low-fat, high-fibre options. Three heaped tablespoons counts as one of your ‘five-a-day.’
Soya & soya products – tofu and soya mince (made from soya beans) are great meat-alternatives and contain all the essential amino acids our bodies need from food. An average serving size (100g) of tofu can contain over 13g protein - the equivalent of 2 eggs!
Wholegrains and cereals might not spring to mind as protein sources, but two slices of wholemeal bread contains over 9g of protein! Other sources include rice, oats, barley, rye, maize.
Nuts and seeds – try a handful of mixed nuts and seeds or a teaspoon of nut butter with piece of fruit for a nutritious and satisfying snack.
Omega-3 fatty acids
When it comes to fat, you don't want to cut back on these poly-unsaturated fats.
The three main omega-3 fatty acids are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). They are important for brain development, vision and heart health.
ALA is found in plant foods such as nuts and seeds. EPA and DHA are found in fish and seafood. Your body can convert some ALA into EPA and then to DHA, but only in very small amounts.
Therefore, try to include some sources of ALA in your diet each day. Good sources include: chia seeds, linseeds, hemp seeds, rapeseed oil and walnuts.
Eating a lot of omega-6 fatty acids can cause your body to convert less ALA into EPA and DHA, meaning less omega-3 in your blood.
If you regularly cook with omega-6 rich oils such as sunflower, corn and sesame oils, you could try and replace with rapeseed oil, which is rich in omega-3.
In terms of omega-3 supplements, in the UK there isn't much evidence to support their use and nutritionists prefer to recommend a "food-first approach". That said, some vegans prefer to take micro algae supplements. We recommend that you discuss this with a healthcare professional.
Nutritionist's Top Tip: Try a tablespoon of flaxseed on porridge, cereal, fruit or in smoothies for added omega-3 goodness – you won’t even know it’s there!
We need calcium in our diets to maintain strong bones and teeth.
Calcium is also important for muscle contraction and blood-clotting.
Plant-based sources include:
· Pulses (beans, lentils and peas)
· Sesame seeds
· Dried fruit
· Calcium-fortified foods (i.e. breakfast cereals, plant-based milks and yoghurts)
· Green leafy veg (i.e. kale, greens and broccoli)
Contrary to popular belief, raw spinach is not a good source of calcium as it contains biologically unavailable calcium which your body cannot use.
Both white and wholemeal carbohydrate foods will provide some calcium. In the UK, white flour is fortified with calcium, iron, and vitamins B1 and B3. These nutrients are naturally present in wholemeal flour.
Nutritionist's Top Tip: Check the nutrition label to see if a product has been fortified with vitamins and minerals. Some types of non-dairy milk (i.e. organic brands) don’t add in calcium and other key vitamins and minerals.
Vitamin D helps the body to absorb calcium from food and promote bone growth.
You can get vitamin D through three ways: the food we eat, the action of sunlight exposure and supplements.
Otherwise known as the 'sunshine vitamin', most of our vitamin D comes from sunlight exposure. When your skin is exposed to sun light, a reaction occurs whereby vitamin D is made from cholesterol.
Vitamin D levels are often low in both vegans and non-vegans, since it is difficult to get enough vitamin D from food alone.
Plant-based sources of vitamin D include:
Vitamin D-fortified foods (i.e. non-dairy milks, margarines, and breakfast cereals)
Sun exposure - varies widely between individual
Vitamin D supplements
People who are at higher risk of vitamin D deficiency include those with limited exposure to sunlight or people who cover their skin when outside. These people are advised to take a vitamin D supplement every day of the year.
If untreated, it can lead to fatigue and reduced immunity, making you more prone to infections or illness.
Plant-based iron (non-heme iron) is less bio-available than iron in animal foods (heme iron), so it’s important to eat a variety of plant based sources.
Here are some good examples:
· Pulses (beans, lentils and peas)
· Wholemeal bread and wholegrain rice
· Sesame seeds
· Iron-fortified breakfast cereals
· Dark-green leafy veg
· Dried fruit and nuts
Nutritionist's Top Tip: To maximise iron absorption from meals, try to include vitamin C-rich foods (e.g. a glass of orange juice) during your meal. Avoid drinking tea, coffee and red wine at the same time. These drinks contain tannins, molecules reducing iron absorption from food.
Similar to iron, animal foods are particularly good sources of zinc.
Plant-based zinc has low bioavailability as these foods contain inhibitors (known as phytates) of zinc absorption. Again, eating a variety of foods can help overcome this.
Try to include:
Pulses - beans, lentils and peas
Fermented soya – e.g. tempeh and miso
Nuts & seeds
Nutritionist's Top Tip: Soaking/sprouting dried pulses, grains and seeds may increase the body’s zinc absorption.
Iodine warrants more attention - too much or too little can be harmful for us.
Iodine is important for production of thyroid hormones, regulating metabolism and growth and development in children.
Cow’s milk is a rich source of iodine, hence why vegans may have low iodine levels.
If considering a supplement, the recommended daily requirement is 150 micrograms, which should be in the form of “potassium iodide” or “potassium iodate”.
Plant based dietary sources include:
Cereals and grains – iodine levels vary depending on soil iodine content
Leafy green vegetables & fruit
Small amounts of iodised salt
Nutritionist's Top Tip: Seaweed supplements are not recommended as the amount of iodine can vary greatly from what the label states. If concerned, discuss your iodine intake with your GP who can offer more advice on supplementation.
Vitamin B12 is mainly found in animal foods despite the fact that vitamin B12 is made by bacteria, fungi and algae!
B12 is essential for making red blood cells and maintaining a healthy nervous system.
The British Dietetic Association (BDA) recommend eating vitamin B12 fortified foods at least twice a day, or taking a supplement – 10 micrograms daily, or at least 2000 micrograms weekly.
Plant-based dietary sources include:
Vitamin B12-fortified yeast extract (i.e. marmite)
Vitamin B12-fortified foods (i.e. plant-based milks, yoghurts and breakfast cereals)
Nutritionist's Top Tip: Speak to your GP for further advice on supplementation
This antioxidant helps to prevent cell damage in our body and promotes immunity.
Dietary intake of selenium is essential, as the body doesn’t make selenium itself.
Meat and fish are particularly good dietary sources of selenium. However, Brazil nuts are a great plant-based source as the soil they are grown in is rich in selenium.
Nutritionist's Top Tip: Don't eat more than 3 or 4 brazil nuts a day, as high levels of selenium can be toxic. Try chopping Brazil nuts onto porridge, eat with fruit or add to smoothies.
So there we have it!
If you wish to follow a plant-based diet, plan ahead! This means you won't miss out on essential nutrients.
It certainly is possible to achieve a healthy and balanced vegan diet.
Written by Harpreet Sohal, RD. Edited by Harriet Smith, RD.