The popularity of vegan and vegetarian diets has increased massively in the last number of years, and it seems that this is not another diet trend. With more people taking on Veganuary and the vegan lifestyle, I thought it was time to discuss some important nutrient considerations for the vegan diet.
How many people follow a plant-based diet?
It is estimated that 2% of the Irish population are vegan & 8% are vegetarian, and that over half a million Brits follow a vegan diet, although these figures are continuously on the rise.
Why do people choose a plant-based diet?
There seem to be a myriad of reasons individuals choose to cut down or cut out animal products, from ethical/animal rights reasons, to health concerns and environmental worries.
We know that reducing out consumption of animal products, red and processed meat in particular, is beneficial for not only our health, but also for the planet.
A huge study assessing data from 38,700 farms globally, as well as data from processors and retailers, found that animal products produce significantly greater impact on the environment than vegetable products. They note that the "impacts of the lowest-impact animal products typically exceed those of vegetable substitutes"- meaning that even the "best" meat products have a greater affect on the environment than the "worst" veggie products.
Research such as this provides a great case for reducing meat and animal products in our diets- I'm not saying everyone has to or should go vegan, but opting for fewer meaty meals and increasing our plant-based meals should be on everyone's agenda.
If you have already, or are considering going vegan, please be sure to do your research and chat to a registered nutritionist or registered dietitian if you can. It is possible to have a healthy, balanced diet without animal products, but there are some nutrients that need special attention.
Some nutrients that need extra attention:
B12 is not found in plant-based foods, so those following a vegan diet must either take a daily supplement of 10mcg (or 2000mcg weekly), or include foods that are fortified with B12 at least twice every day. Foods that are sometimes fortified with vitamin B12 are breakfast cereal, milk alternatives, nutritional yeast and vegan spreads- check the food label to ensure they are fortified.
Everyone in the UK and Ireland should be taking a 10mcg supplement of vit D daily from late October to early May. Vitamin D supplements are available as tablets and as a spray. If you choose the tablet form, make sure to take it with/after a meal, but the spray can be used any time.
Calcium is available from some plant products, however it can be difficult to get enough. I would recommend seeking out dairy alternatives that are fortified with calcium (please don't bother with homemade nut milks!). Calcium-set tofu, kale, chia seeds, almonds, spring greens, pak choi and some dried fruits also contain decent amounts of calcium.
Plant foods do contain iron, however it is a different type of iron than that found in animal products. Plant iron has poor bio-availability, meaning that your body only absorbs a small amount of the iron. Therefore, it is important to include a variety of iron-containing plant foods regularly. Plant iron sources include lentils, chickpeas, tofu, seeds, dark leafy greens, quinoa, raisins and dried figs, and fortified foods.
Because plant-based iron can have poor bio-availability, it is important to eat plant iron alongside a source of vitamin C, as it helps with the absorption of iron. vitamin C is rich in citrus fruits, berries, broccoli, cabbage, peppers and pineapple.
Omega-3 fatty acids are important fats for heart and brain health. ALA (alpha-linoleic acid) is an essential nutrient, meaning the body cannot produce it so we need to get it through our diet. ALA is found in lots of plant products such as rapeseed, flaxseed, walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts and green leafy veggies.
EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) are long chain fatty acids that are made from ALA in the body. However, it takes the body a long time and lots of ALA to make these long chains. So for most omnivores, DHA & EPA are obtained from food (mostly through fish). Because this is not an option for those following a vegan diet, extra care must be taken to consume plenty of ALA rich foods. Sufficient omega 3 for one day can be found in 1 tbsp of chia seeds or ground linseed and in 3-4 walnut, although consuming double this amount may be beneficial for long-chain production.
Supplementation with omegas may be recommended for pregnant women and young children, but individual advice should be sought on this.
The nutrients mentioned here are important, but this list is not exhaustive and I would recommend getting personalised advice if you are transitioning to a plant-based diet.
The Vegan Society website has lots of helpful advice and is worth a look too.
Keep an eye out for a super tasty vegan recipe on the blog later today!
Lots of love,
Little O x