Although vegans still only account for 1.16% (1) of the UK population, the amount of people moving to a more plant based diet is increasing exponentially. As many as a third of people stating that they have reduced their meat intake (2). Where you sit on the spectrum of plant based to omnivorous diets is entirely up to you. Diets can be healthy with or without animal products. Vegetarian and vegan people are more likely to consume foods lower in saturated fat and higher in fibre than average. However, there are a few nutrients worth considering if you are choosing to eat an entirely, or predominantly plant-based diet. Where plant foods may be higher in some vitamins and minerals, animal products may be higher in others. Here are some you might want to check:
If you are going vegan, the general recommendation is to take a B12 supplement. Whilst we can store vitamin B12, serious complications can occur after time with deficiency. You can get B12 in some yeast extracts, fortified dairy products and breakfast cereals. However, as you’d need to consistently consume several portions of these to meet recommended levels, it is best to supplement. Cyanobacteria algae such as spirulina is sometimes marketed as containing vegan B12. As this is an “analogue” with a different molecular structure to real B12, our bodies cannot use it. Keep it simple with a B12 supplement!
Vegetarian sources of iron come in the “non-haem” form, which is less bioavailable than haem iron found in animal products. Our bodies absorb as little as 10% of non-haem iron (3) so you may need a little extra. There’s actually evidence to suggest that vegetarians and vegans can compensate for low iron intakes by becoming more efficient at uptake though -pretty clever right? If you are concerned that you have low iron speak to your GP for a blood test. Dark leafy greens, peppers, citrus fruits and other sources of vitamin C can help to increase iron absorption too. Try consume these with sources of iron. Breakfast cereals, flour and bread may also be fortified with iron. As tannins in tea and coffee can inhibit iron absorption, you might wish to drink these after your breakfast, if this meal is your main source of iron.
High levels of omega 3, especially in relation to omega 6, are associated with a decreased risk of heart disease. I’ve written a whole post about plant-based sources of omega 3, which goes into much more detail in here. The main recommended source of omegas 3s is oily fish. Vegan omega 3 can come from flaxseeds and some nuts, or even seaweed. If you’re struggling to get it in your diet, you can get omega 3 via a supplement, preferably algal-based.
Plant-based diets tend to contain less vitamin D than omnivorous. However, most people in the UK should take at least 10 micrograms of vitamin D per day in the winter months. If you can find it, take a vegan D3 rather than D2. You can increase the level of vitamin D2 in mushrooms by leaving them in sunlight for a short while, gills facing upwards. However, the main sources are (safe) sun exposure in the summer months and supplementation in winter.
Iodised salt, marine foods and (increasingly) some fortified plant milks contain iodine, which has a role in thyroid health. As too much iodine can impact thyroid function as much as too little, speak to a health professional if you’re considering supplementing.
If you are unsure if you are getting enough of these nutrients, see if your doctor can do blood tests. Or, speak to a registered nutritionist or dietitian to have a detailed look over your eating habits.
If you’re interested in talking about eating well on a more plant based diet, book in for a consultation with me -appointments available from September.