All the nutrients we need are available from plant based sources and vegans are often at an advantage as we consume less saturated fat and more fibre – both important in reducing our risk of disease.
Increasing numbers of people are going vegan for their health. Research tells us that unhealthy diets which include meat and processed foods are one of the leading causes of chronic disease.
Healthy diets include whole grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts and seeds with vegans having the lowest rates of obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers. One of the reasons for this is that vegan diets are high in antioxidants and contain lots of fibre that help to prevent disease. Vegans also consume less saturated fat and none of the cancer causing components of a meat based diet.
We all need to plan our diets though to make sure that we stay fit and healthy and we’ve included some tips to help you to do that. Please also read the Vegan Society’s guidance on nutrition, as this provides more detailed information based on research evidence, and if you have any particular health concerns check with a health professional.
So what do we need to eat on a daily basis? The answer is easy:
- vegetables and fruit – eat a rainbow of at least 5 portions
- starchy foods e.g. wholemeal bread, brown rice, oats, sweet potato
- protein rich foods e.g. beans, tofu, peanuts, lentils and soya milk
nuts and seeds e.g. walnuts, chia seeds
- calcium rich foods e.g. fortified plant milks and tofu
Most nutrients such as protein, fibre and vitamins are easily obtained on a balanced vegan diet but there are a few which need a little planning and these are:
There are many sources of calcium in a vegan diet, but make sure you are getting a regular supply of these in sufficient quantity. Broccoli, green leafy veg, tahini, almonds, calcium set tofu and white beans are all good sources and fortified plant milks contain as much calcium as dairy.
Good daily sources of Omega 3 are chia seeds, ground linseeds (flax), hemp seeds, walnuts, and rapeseed oil (vegetable oil) to cook with. It is also possible to supplement with EPA and DHA from microalgae and this may be important for pregnant or breastfeeding mums and infants.
All the iron we need is available on a vegan diet and studies show vegans are at no greater risk than omnivores of iron deficiency. When people ask you where you get your iron from you can say: lentils, chick peas, beans, tofu, cashew nuts, chia seeds, ground linseeds, pumpkin seeds, kale, dried apricots and figs, quinoa and some cereals.
The absorption of iron in these foods is increased by eating them with something that contains vitamin C e.g. peppers, oranges, kiwi fruit, broccoli, grapefruit. It’s also a good idea to avoid drinking tea and coffee with your meals as this decreases the absorption of iron.
It is important to include a regular supply of B12 in your diet as it’s made by micro-organisms, and isn’t produced by plants. Omnivores get this from eating the B12 stored by animals, often an inadequate source, so B12 deficiency is common in the general population, especially amongst older people. Most farmed animals are supplemented with B12, so by taking a supplement we are going directly to the source.
The only way to obtain vitamin B12 from plants is to eat fortified foods and/or take a supplement. Fortified foods include nutritional yeast flakes with added B12, yeast extract, fortified plant milks and some breakfast cereals. If you rely on fortified foods eat them at least twice a day and have at least 3 micrograms. If you don’t eat fortified foods twice a day then a supplement of at least 10 micrograms a day should be taken.
We obtain most of this vitamin from the sun, but absorb very little, if any, during winter months. Public Health England recommend that everyone in the UK takes a Vitamin D supplement in autumn and winter. There are two types of vitamin D; D2 and D3. D2 is always vegan but many types of D3 are derived from animal sources but there are some vegan versions.
The amount of selenium in food varies depending upon where the vegetables are grown. Brazil nuts have a lot of selenium and just two nuts a day will provide all the selenium we need. It’s important though to avoid eating too many Brazil nuts on a regular basis as this would exceed the upper limit. A reliable source of selenium is a supplement.
Plant foods, apart from sea vegetables (seaweeds), contain low amounts of iodine and as with selenium the amount varies depending upon where vegetables are grown. As with B12, cows feed is supplemented in the UK so that cows milk contains the iodine that is lacking in UK soil.
Sea vegetables can contain too much iodine and for this reason aren’t a reliable source. Some plant milks are starting to be supplemented with iodine but most aren’t (yet).
A supplement is the best way of ensuring the correct amount of iodine in a vegan diet. The Vegan Society markets a supplement called Veg1, and this provides reliable daily intakes of vitamins B12 and D and the minerals iodine and selenium.
The Vegan Society’s Nutrition app is a really useful free self assessment tool to track your daily nutrition, aimed at new vegans.So now you know about being a healthy vegan, it’s time to take the next step and find places to eat out as a vegan.