January 27, 2020 7:00 am Leave your thoughts
Is it possible to get everything your body needs on a vegan diet?
Is it easy?
Can NGF help?
The bottom line
‘With good planning and an understanding of what makes up a healthy, balanced vegan diet, you can get all the nutrients your body needs.’
It’s an important point. It’s entirely possible to eat healthily on a vegan diet, but you do need both good planning and good understanding. The advice continues:
‘If you do not plan your diet properly, you could miss out on essential nutrients, such as calcium, iron, vitamin D and vitamin B12. This is particularly the case if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding or if this is a diet for children.’
At the end of this blog, we discuss briefly the implications of a vegan diet for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding and for children.
What’s a healthy vegan diet?
Overall, the NHS advice is pretty similar to its standard advice for anyone:
- ‘eat at least 5 portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day
- base meals on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates (choose wholegrain where possible)
- have some dairy alternatives, such as soya drinks and yoghurts (choose lower fat and lower sugar options)
- eat some beans, pulses and other proteins
- choose unsaturated oils and spreads, and eat in small amounts
- drink plenty of fluids (the government recommends 6 to 8 cups or glasses a day)’
However, vegans do need to take more care than other people, to make sure they don’t miss out on the nutrients that are so easily obtainable from animal products. When you’re vegan, foodstuffs that are side-dishes for meat-eaters – the take-it-or-leave-it vegetable options alongside a steak or burger, for instance – become absolutely vital. So here’s our quick guide to the essential nutrients vegans might miss out on – and information on how to make sure you don’t. All essential ingredients are, of course, available from Naturally Good Food: check out our Wholefoods and Vegan ranges here!
Get enough vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is the vitamin that helps us maintain healthy blood and nervous systems. It’s easy for meat-eaters and vegetarians to obtain this from meat, fish and dairy products. If you’re vegan, you’re going to need to think about eating breakfast cereals or non-dairy milks that have been specifically fortified with vitamin B12, and yeast extract (or flakes, such as these from Marigold). If none of those fit easily into your diet, then you’re likely to need a vitamin B12 supplement.
This is a vitamin you really don’t want to miss out on – it’s linked to good eyesight and a strong cardiovascular system, among other things.
Get enough Vitamin D
Vitamin D is the element that helps us absorb calcium and phosphate in our bodies, and we need those to keep our bones, teeth and muscles healthy. A shortage of vitamin D can lead to bone tenderness and deformities (rickets in children; osteomalacia in adults), along with problems with teeth and gums, lethargy, tiredness, greater susceptibility to illness and depression. We get vitamin D from sunlight, but in the winter months (and that’s from October right up until April in the UK), we need to obtain it from food instead.
We can find vitamin D in cod liver oil, eggs and oily fish, and, for vegans, in fortified margarines and cereals, but it’s actually not present in any foodstuffs in great quantities, and even meat-eaters might find they need to take a supplement. Vegans should make sure any supplements they take aren’t derived from animal products.
Or, of course, you could just go on lots of sunny holidays….
Get enough calcium
We need calcium to builds bones, help our blood clot, allow our muscles to contract and let our nerves send messages. Non-vegans get most of their calcium from dairy foods, but vegans need to look elsewhere.
Good sources of calcium for vegans include:
- dark green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale
- dried fruit
- fortified non-dairy milks
- wholewheat flour (for example, in bread)
- sesame seeds (and tahini)
Get enough iron
Iron is what our body uses to make red blood cells, which carry oxygen around our body. Meat is rich in iron, but vegans can get enough from plant-based foods, so long as they concentrate on:
- seeds and nuts (including nut butters)
- dark green leafy vegetables, like spinach and kale
- dried fruit (apricots, figs and prunes are especially rich in iron)
- wholegrains (including wholemeal bread and brown rice)
- fortified products, such as some cereals
Get enough Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega 3 fatty acids are mainly found in oily fish like salmon and mackerel. They help our bodies fight inflammation, lower our blood pressure, promote proper sleep and soothe our skin. Good vegan sources of Omega-3 fatty acids include:
Get enough protein
It goes without saying that a vegan diet needs to replace the protein element of meat. For this, make sure your diet includes plenty of:
Other vitamins and minerals
We all – vegan or not – need a diet that brings us all the necessary vitamins and minerals. Sources put the number of essential vitamins at 13 and minerals at 16 – and we really do need them all, even those that don’t hit the headlines! Vitamin B2, for example, also known as riboflavin, helps the body absorb and activate iron and folic acid and the other B vitamins. Choline – an element that was the subject of a recent vegan-nutrition ‘scare’ recently – is essential for brain health. Meanwhile, to properly absorb vitamin D, we need other ‘cofactors’, which include vitamin K2, magnesium, zinc and boron.
It’s a good illustration of why we need to make sure our diets cover all the bases, rather than just concentrating on one particular element. All the elements work together to protect us from nutritional deficiencies.
How will you make sure, vegan or not, that you get enough of all of them?
The answer is really quite simple (and rather predictable):
We may never know the exact quantity of each vitamin and mineral in our bodies, or the exact interaction of each of these with the others, but by eating a balanced and proper diet, we can be sure we are doing all we can to give our bodies what they need.
Special vegan diets
There are a few special factors that apply to women who are pregnant or breastfeeding and following a vegan diet, and to vegan diets for children. The following advice is again taken from the NHS:
Iodine is particularly important during pregnancy and for small children, for bone and brain development. In the UK, meat-eaters get their iodine requirements from fish and dairy products. Iodine is also found in many plant foods, but the levels of this vary depending on the amount of iodine in the soil where the plants are grown. Seaweed products contain iodine, but sometimes far too much, which is harmful. The NHS therefore recommends an iodine supplement for pregnant and very young vegans.
If you’re breastfeeding, continue to take vitamin B12 and vitamin D supplements.
From birth, breastfed babies should be given a daily supplement containing 8.5 to 10 micrograms (mcg) of vitamin D. Daily vitamin A, C and D supplements are also recommended for infants from the age of 6 months until 5 years of age (unless they’re having more than 500ml of infant formula a day).
You can give your toddler unsweetened calcium-fortified milk alternatives, such as soya, oat or almond drinks, from the age of 12 months. However, children under 5 years should not have rice drinks as a substitute for breast milk or infant formula, because they may contain too much arsenic.
To see the full NHS advice, click here.almond milk, apricots, baby vegan, beans, breastfeeding vegan, calcium, chia seeds, chickpeas, choline, cold-pressed oils, dairy alternatives, dairy-free milk, dried fruit, Engevita yeast flakes, figs, Fish4ever, flaxseed, ground seeds, healthy vegan, hemp seeds, iron, lentils, linseed, mackerel, Marigold, minerals, NHS advice, non-dairy milk, nut butters, nutrients, Nuts, oat milk, oily fish, omega-3 fatty acids, pasta, plant-based oils, pregnant vegan, prunes, Pulses, riboflavin, Rice, salmon, seed butters, seed oil, Seeds, sesame seeds, soy milk, soya milk, tahini, toddler vegan, unsaturated oils, vegan, vitamin B12, vitamin B2, vitamin D, vitamins, walnuts, Wholefoods, wholegrains, wholemeal flour, wholewheat flour, yeast extract
This post was written by Yzanne