What nutrients should you be focusing on if you are vegan?


Emma Thornton
Qualified Nutritionist (ANutr)
@EmmaThornton
Ask Emma


11 January 2018

Are you thinking of going vegan?

It’s now almost the third week of January and we are well and truly in 2018. While January can give rise to the usual swell of low-fat diets and health promises, in recent years one movement in particular has grown astronomically.

Veganuary, conceived in 2013, had only 3.300 participants during its first run but this number quickly grew and last year almost 59,500 signed up, with 2018 predicted to bring out even more numbers.1 In fact veganism as a whole has seen an enormous boom in past few decades and it’s now thought that around 542,000 people in the UK subscribe to the lifestyle – that’s over 1% of the total population!

Whether you choose to go vegan for health or moral reasons, the diet does certainly have its benefits, however, it can be tricky to get right, at least if you’re a novice. Going vegan overnight is next to impossible which is why most experts recommend a more gradual transition, however, with the popularity of Veganuary, the chances are many awoke on January the 1st and declared themselves ‘vegan’ without properly doing their homework.

Plenty of sceptics will tell you that getting all the nutrients you need on a plant-based diet is difficult. The German Nutrition Society certainly seemed to take this attitude elucidating that it would be impossible to get an adequate supply of some nutrients2,  and, while I don’t necessarily agree with them, I do think it is important that potential vegans do take care with their diets and find ways of incorporating the nutrients that they need into their new regime. 

That’s why today I’m here to help with vegan-friendly recipes and advice on how to make sure you’re getting all the nutrients you need!

1 - Iron

If you’re thinking of going vegan, the chances are you’ve already been warned about incurring low iron levels. This fundamental mineral is essential for the formation of red blood cells, helping to transport oxygen around your body.

Low levels of iron are common amongst even non-vegans, particularly menstruating and menopausal women and can incur symptoms such as fatigue, mood swings and light-headedness.

Since iron is usually found in red meat and other animal by-products, such as pork, chicken or fish, you’ve probably heard that you won’t be able to get all the iron you need from your diet. However, there’s plenty of iron in plant-based sources such as leafy green vegetables like kale and broccoli, potatoes, tofu and even tomatoes.

Providing you balance your diet properly, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t get the iron you need from your food. If you’re new to veganism, though, it might be a good idea to take an iron supplement for the first few months. I’d recommend Floradix’s Floravital Iron Liquid, which contains a blend of iron, B vitamins and vitamin C, making it gentler on your stomach and easy to absorb.

Food sources: Kale, broccoli, spinach, lentils, quinoa, cashews

Recipes:

Kale Smoothie
Tofu & Vegetable Satay Stir Fry

2 – Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is usually associated with supporting a healthy nervous system, however, you also need this B vitamin to maintain your energy levels and mood too! As you may have heard, though, getting enough of this nutrient on a vegan diet can be tricky.
This is because, unlike iron, vitamin B12 has very few plant-based sources so, despite only needing a small amount (around 1.5-2.4mcg) it’s easy to become deficient in which case, as I note in my article ‘Struggling to stay awake? You could need more vitamin B12!’ you will start to feel the side-effects, such as fatigue, mood swings, sore muscles and dizziness.

Although I always recommend trying to get the nutrients you need through your diet, in this case supplementing may be your best option. I’d opt for BetterYou’s Boost B12 Oral Spray, which delivers 1200mcg of B12 as well as chromium, with every 4 sprays. Convenient to take and readily absorbed, it’s 100% vegan-friendly!

Food sources: Fortified foods, nutritional yeast,

3 – Protein

The biggest claim that is usually hurled at vegans is that their diet lacks good protein sources. Protein is an essential nutrient and is imperative for human survival but it is has earned an unfortunate reputation of being associated with animal by-products.

While it might be true that lean sources of meat are also excellent sources of protein, claiming that vegans have no way of getting enough protein into their diet is simply untrue. One cup of cooked lentils, for example, could give you as much as 18g of protein!3 

Again getting the right balance is important, though, and while getting all the protein you need from a vegan diet is possible, you do have to be aware of your own individual protein requirements, which can vary from person to person. This is why some novice vegans do initially turn to vegan-friendly protein powders.

Thankfully there are a wide variety of plant-based protein powders available, from hemp protein to soy protein to pea protein. One of my favourite protein brands, SunWarrior, source all their protein from raw, sprouted wholegrain brown rice and it contains all essential and non-essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein).

Of course protein powders aren’t the only way of increasing your protein intake. Spirulina and blue - green algae have definitely risen in popularity in past few years due to its astounding nutritional content, being rich in copper, iron, potassium, magnesium and manganese. It’s also a good vegan-friendly source of protein, with two tablespoons providing approximately 7-9g of protein. Definitely one to add to those super-green smoothies! 

Food sources: Lentils, quinoa, beans, nut butters, chickpeas, hemp seeds, spirulina

Recipes:

Cacao & Peanut Butter Porridge
Lentil Ragu with Zucchini Noodles

3https://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-4771/10-Vegan-Sources-of-Protein.html

4 – Zinc

Zinc, as a nutrient, is often overlooked which can be a real problem. This mineral can be found within all bodily tissues and acts like an antioxidant, preventing free-radical damage. It’s also important for your hormonal balance as well as your digestion and muscles and joints. However, despite only needing small amounts of zinc, zinc-deficiencies are still surprisingly common with the World Health Organisation estimating that the global presence of zinc deficiency is around 31%!4

So perhaps we could all do with boosting our zinc intake just a little bit and vegans are more than capable rising to this challenge. Foods such as tofu, tempeh, sunflower seeds and beans like kidney and pinto beans all contain good amounts of zinc.

Nevertheless, if you do feel as though a zinc supplement might be necessary it’s good to note that certain forms of zinc, such as zinc picolinate, are generally better absorbed. A little zinc can also go a long way so make sure your supplement doesn’t contain ridiculous amounts of zinc – around 40mg is considered to be the tolerable upper intake level for adults!

Food sources: Tofu, almonds, kidney beans, oatmeal, chia seeds, broccoli, lentils

Recipes:

Curried Lentil Potato Casserole
Marinated Tofu Stir Fry

4http://www.who.int/publications/cra/chapters/volume1/0257-0280.pdf

5 – Vitamin D & Calcium

If you’re native to the UK, the chances are you’ve adjusted your expectations of summer accordingly and are already perusing travel magazines for your 2018 vacation. However, a few weeks of sunshine each year aren’t enough to maintain your vitamin D intake which is why so many of us rely on dietary sources.

Since vitamin D is needed for the healthy absorption of calcium, the two are extremely interlinked. Unfortunately, while both nutrients can be found in plant-based sources such as mushrooms, kale, chia seeds, fortified milks and tofu, meat and animal by-products are generally considered to offer a better helping.

This is why, during the darker winter months at least, I’d recommend considering a vitamin D and calcium supplement. Now, as I mentioned in my ‘Are you getting too much vitamin D’ the supplement you choose is critical. Generally, experts recommend a 10mcg supplement during winter and certainly no more than 600IU.

With this in mind, sourcing a vegan-friendly vitamin D supplement can be tricky so I’d opt for Viridian’s Organic Vitamin D 400IU Vegetable Capsules. Not only do these capsules provide a vegan-friendly form vitamin D2, they also provide a range of antioxidants and B vitamins. This increase in vitamin D should also help your body to properly absorbs and utilise calcium.

Food sources: Tofu, fortified nut milks, kale, mushrooms, dried figs, almonds, chia seeds, pak choi,

Recipes:

Curried Kale
Gluten Free Buckwheat & Mushroom Risotto

6 – Omega fatty acids

When you think omega fatty acids, the chances are the first thing that pops into your head is oily fish and, while oily fish is undoubtedly a good source of omega fatty acids, it is not the only source. Omega-3  and Omega-6 fatty acids are crucial for regulating your blood pressure, combatting inflammation and supporting your cardiovascular health.

There are three main forms of omega fatty acids associated with these health benefits – eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). While ALA can be readily found in plant-based sources such as chia seeds and flaxseed oil, DHA and EPA are more readily found in animal by-products.

This may mean that your body has to convert ALA into EPA and DHA, so it becomes vitally important that you are getting enough sources of ALA in your diet. This may mean incorporating more vegetable oils into your cooking but sometimes it might mean turning to a vegan-friendly omega-3 supplement.

Thankfully, once again, Viridian is able to provide with their Vegan EPA and DHA Drops. An alternative to traditional omega 3 oils, this product is formulated using chia seed oil and helps to provide a spectrum of omega-3, 6 and 9 fatty acids along with natural orange oil.

Food sources: flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts

Recipes:

Spicy Nut Roast
Coffee Chia Seed Pudding

7 – Selenium

Selenium doesn’t seem to get as much press as other trace minerals like potassium and manganese, but it still remains essential for your immune system, partaking in antioxidant activity and even helping to support fertility.

When it comes to a vegan diet, it’s important to try and keep selenium top of mind.  While it can be found in animal by-products such as eggs, fish and chicken, there are plenty of plant-based sources available, ranging from mushrooms to selenium-dense sunflower seeds.

A well-balanced vegan diet should incorporate plenty of these food products; however, the content of selenium in these plant-based sources can depend on the soil in which they were grown. This is where going organic can pay off as organic produce isn’t exposed to the same pesticides as ordinary produce and therefore may contain more trace minerals like selenium as a result!

Food sources: Brazil nuts, sunflower seeds, chia seeds, mushrooms, brown rice, spinach, broccoli

Recipes:

Easy Broccoli Stir Fry with Sesame and Chilli
Cinnamon & Chia Seed Energy Balls

8 – Iodine

Another mineral that doesn’t get the publicity it deserves, iodine is crucial when it comes to your thyroid hormones and metabolism. As I discuss in my blog, ‘Are you getting enough iodine?’ iodine-deficiencies are becoming increasingly common, particularly in young women and those with restricted diets.

While plant-based sources of iodine, such as beans, potatoes, seaweed and even cranberry juice are widely available, their iodine content can vary. This is why I often recommend one of our oldest nutritional supplements, Kelp, to those that are concerned about their intake of iodine. Kelp is one of the richest dietary sources of iodine and it’s easily absorbed by the body for better utilisation. Our Kelp Tablets are prepared using Pacific Sea Kelp and they are completely suitable for vegans.

Food Sources: Potatoes, beans, cranberry juice, seaweed, spinach, prunes, strawberries

Recipes:

Strawberry & Pear Smoothie
Spinach & Potato Curry (Saag Aloo)

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