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Nutrition on a Vegan Diet

Although Vegan diets have been around for many years, there is no denying that they have become dramatically more popular in the last few years. A diet that used to be a very hippie, alternative lifestyle has become very mainstream. Most restaurants and shops now cater to vegans and there are many that now only cater to vegans, something that would have been unheard of in prior years!

While everyone has their own personal reasons for becoming vegan, there is an underlying assumption that it is automatically healthier than a standard diet. Many people become vegan purely because they perceive it to be healthier or they feel better when they are eating vegan foods.

This can be completely true, a plant-based diet is undoubtedly a healthy way of living if done correctly, but too often it is not. Let's explore the fundamentals of a vegan diet and what you need to consider to be healthy on such a diet.

The Basics


The concept is pretty simple, but a vegan diet means no animal meat or products whatsoever. This rules out the obvious products like meat, eggs and dairy, but animal products are in so many foods - anything baked in the supermarket likely has eggs in it, sweets have gelatine, lots of sauces have eggs and chocolate has milk. Automatically this means the diet becomes a lot more plant-based because many foods are ruled out, so it innately does become healthier if more fruits and vegetables are eaten. However, it can actually become unhealthier. You can be vegan and survive off of lots of carbohydrates, vegan processed products, vegan pizzas etc. You also can be vegan and just simply not eat enough of the vitamins and minerals you need to be healthy. Many people do become vegan for ethical reasons and give no regard to their nutritional intake.


Nutrition Concerns

The main concern with vegan diets is that you are cutting out several big food groups that provide the body with essential nutrients. A carefully balanced vegan diet definitely can provide you with everything that you need, but it is much harder to get that balance than it is with a normal diet and it is not a given, it must be thought out and you may need to supplement. 

Iron

Iron is essential for our blood cells to be able to carry oxygen to our tissues and not having enough iron often causes anaemia, which leaves you feeling tired and short of breath. The best sources of iron are red meats, but it can also be found in spinach, kale, chia seeds, lentils, beans, chickpeas, pumpkin seeds and quinoa. One thing to keep in mind is that our body cannot absorb iron from plant sources nearly as well as it can animal sources so you may need even more to meet your requirements. It is also worth regularly getting your iron levels checked as it is common to need a supplement.

Zinc

Zinc is important for cell function, skin health, wound healing and our immune system. It is found in high amounts in meat and shellfish, but there are some plant sources available. Pumpkin seeds, beans, lentils, chickpeas, cashews, oats and nuts and seeds in general are good sources.

Vitamin B12 

This vitamin is involved in many processes in our bodies, a lot of them related to our metabolism. We normally get it from eggs, cheese, milk, fish and poultry and it cannot be found in many plant-based foods. Vegans and vegetarians are usually encouraged to supplement as the vegan options for getting B12 are very limited. Some flours and milks are fortified with B12 and nutritional yeast contains B12.

Calcium 

Calcium is important for strong bones and teeth to help prevent things like osteoporosis. Dairy is our main source of calcium so vegans have to get a little creative with this one. The good news is that most branded alternative milks such as almond milk and soya milk are fortified with calcium, so be sure to buy your plant milks from a supermarket brand. Dried fruit, pulses, dark leafy greens, tempeh and tahini are all good sources. 

Omega-3

Omega-3s have so many amazing functions in the body, they are great for our brains, have anti-inflammatory properties and help our cells stay healthy in general. EPA and DHA are the two that are particularly important, however they are mostly found in fish. Plenty of vegan sources are rich in a different omega-3, ALA, but our body isn't great at converting this to EPA and DHA. Nuts, seeds and oils are the richest sources of ALA, but a vegan omega-3 supplement may be advisable.

Protein

Cutting out meat and dairy removes a lot of the protein from the diet. Protein is essential for all of our tissues and to make the various enzymes our body needs to function. Most animal proteins are complete sources of protein, meaning that they contain all of the essential amino acids we need. Many plant sources aren't complete, instead they each have different amino acids present. This means that on a vegan diet, variety is key to make sure you are covering all of these amino acids. Soy, buckwheat and quinoa are some complete vegan sources of protein. It is also important to make sure you are getting enough protein, lots of beans, lentils, tofu and grains does the trick!

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