What Is A Healthy Vegan Diet?
A vegan diet is often touted as healthy, but like any diet, it is only healthy when it’s balanced and contains the correct amount of nutrients. If you are considering a vegan diet, it’s advisable to plan ahead and learn which foods provide recommended nutrients. To give you a head start, we’ve outlined some of the key nutrients you should look to include in your diet and where you’ll find them.
Vegans are individuals who avoid consuming any food derived from animals, as well as any by-product of an animal. A vegan diet is often referred to as ‘plant based’.
A healthy vegan diet needs to combine various proteins at each meal as vegan proteins don’t contain all the amino acids required by the body. Vegan proteins include beans, lentils, tofu, quinoa, tempeh, soy, seeds, nuts and nut butters.
When planning food for a vegan diet, each meal should contain sufficient protein, complex carbohydrates, lots of vegetables and some healthy fats to ensure adequate levels of both macronutrients and micronutrients. A vegan diet reliant on lots of ready-made meals or heavily processed foods could lead to some nutritional deficiencies.
There are some nutrients that are often found to be low in vegans, including vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, omega 3, iodine, iron and zinc. Below we’ve explained why these nutrients are important and how you can introduce some of them into a vegan diet.
Vitamin B12 in particular is often very low in vegans as it can only be naturally found from animal sources. Studies suggest that up to 92% of vegans are deficient in vitamin B12. While it is particularly important for the formation of blood and brain function, a deficiency in vitamin B12 can leave you feeling tired and lacking in energy.
In order to get enough of this vitamin in your daily diet, look for foods that are fortified in B12, such as breakfast cereals and some dairy free milk alternatives.
Vitamin D plays a role in the health of the immune system, and the best way to absorb it is through the sun – but many people can be deficient, especially if residing somewhere with little exposure to the sun. A simple finger prick blood test can be ordered online to assess your vitamin D levels, and ideally you would be looking to achieve levels between 80-150nmol/L.
Consider looking for fortified milk alternatives and fortified orange juice to boost levels of this crucial vitamin.
Iron is required to make new DNA and red blood cells, carry oxygen in the blood and to help our energy metabolism (generating energy from nutrients). Too little iron can cause anaemia and fatigue.
Often lacking in a vegan diet, iron sources derived from plant sources are not as well absorbed by the body, especially when there aren’t adequate levels of vitamin C to help increase the absorption of iron.
To meet the recommended daily intake of iron, good sources include: dark green vegetables; such as broccoli, dried fruit; such as raisins, pulses: such as beans, lentils and peas, wholegrains; such as brown rice and breakfast cereals fortified with iron.Chlorella and spirulina are green algae powders, best taken in a smoothie or tablet form, that can also be used to help iron levels, they also contain some protein and vitamin C, which helps enhance absorption of iron.
Iron supplementation should never be undertaken without consulting a doctor or health practitioner who can check your blood levels. Unnecessary intake can do more harm than good.
As fish cannot be consumed in a vegan diet, it is difficult to get the essential omega 3 fats that would otherwise be provided. Plant based sources of omega 3 are those that contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), however, your body’s ability to convert ALA is very limited. Due to its poor absorption you need to make sure that you consume lots of food sources high in ALA.
Try to consume chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts and flaxseeds in a vegan diet to include sources of omega 3. These seeds can easily be incorporated in a smoothie, while walnuts make a lovely crunchy addition to a salad.
Calcium is perhaps best known for its ability to build and heal bones. However, it’s also important for muscle contraction and blood pressure regulation.
Vegan sources of calcium are dark green leafy vegetables; foods made from soybeans such as tofu, tempeh and miso; beans, peas and lentils; some nuts (especially almonds and brazil nuts); seeds (in particular sesame so consider tahini also) and grains such as teff and amaranth. Adding seaweed to your diet is also a good way to boost calcium. Wakame and kelp are your best options – but be careful not to add too much to your diet due to the high levels of some heavy metals. Some dairy-free milk and yoghurt alternatives are now fortified with calcium so check your labels.
Zinc is a mineral that is crucial for the immune system, metabolism and the repair of body cells. A deficiency can lead to hair loss, poor wound healing and developmental delays.
Few plant foods contain high levels of zinc and absorption can be limited. Zinc sources include whole grains, wheat germ, tofu, sprouted beans, legumes, nuts and seeds. Soaking nuts, seeds and legumes overnight, eating enough protein and also consuming fermented foods can help to boost absorption of this mineral.
Iodine is crucial for thyroid health, which helps control your metabolism. Symptoms of low levels include low energy, dry skin, tingling in hands and feet, depression and weight gain. Iodine levels in food depend on the iodine content of the soil where they are grown. Foods grown closer to the sea tend to have higher levels, such as seaweed flakes.
As with all diets, ensuring you eat a variety of fresh food and receive sufficient nutrients is key. If you are planning on cutting out certain food groups from your diet, make sure you know which nutrients you’re losing and how you can introduce them back into your diet.
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Author: Katherine Bright MBANT, CNHC