Veganuary, don’t forget…
If you haven’t already heard of it, Veganuary is a charity campaign where individuals can sign up to follow a vegan diet for the month of January. Following a vegan diet is something being spoken about more and more in recent years, with the number of vegans quadrupling from 2014-2018. There are roughly 600,000 vegans in the UK, which is just over 1%.
What is a vegan diet?
A vegan diet is a diet which contains only plant-based food sources, and therefore excludes any produce that comes from an animal directly or indirectly. The diet is based on vegetables, nuts, wholegrains, fruits, vegetables and legumes, and excludes meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk, dairy and honey.
A vegan diet can be an amazing opportunity to increase the number and diversity of plants in your diet, which can be transformative for gut health. However, equally, a vegan diet could largely rely on chips and bread.
Every 6 seconds someone new signs up for Veganuary. This may due to various reasons including:
- Environmental concerns
- Animal welfare
- Taking on a new challenge
Whatever the reason and motivation may be to turn to a vegan diet, I wanted to highlight some key nutrients vegans will need to pay more attention to, to ensure they are consuming a healthy balanced diet.
Some of the key nutrients to be more mindful of when following a vegan diet
Iron is required for the production of our red blood cells, and is involved in the transportation of oxygen around the body. Therefore if we are deficient in iron symptoms can include fatigue, weakness, pale skin, headaches and weight loss.
There are 2 forms of iron. Heam iron (from animals) and non haem iron (plant sources). The former is easier for the body to absorb, and the later aren’t as easily absorbed. Therefore it is recommended it consume a wider variety of plant based iron rich foods such as:
- Wholemeal products
- Dried fruits
- Iron fortified products
- Sesame seeds
Top tip: combine these foods with a source of vitamin C (orange juice, kiwi, tomato, red pepper) as this can increase absorption rates. Avoid consume iron rich foods with tea, coffee and red wine as these contain tannins which can decrease the absorption.
Although dairy products such as milk and cheese are the most well known sources of calcium, there are many plant based sources which also contain this mineral which is vital for strengthening our bones and teeth as well as playing an important role in healthy blood clotting.
Plant based sources include:
- Green leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale
- Dried fruit such as apricots and figs
- Calcium fortified plant based milks (always check the labels)
- Sesame seeds
- Pulses such as beans, lentils and chickpeas
When adopting a vegan diet, the main concern to many is getting in enough protein to sustain energy, growth and repair. In fact, many of us do achieve the recommended daily intake of protein, which for an average, non-body builder is about 0.8-1g per kg of body weight.
You may need to consume more plant based sources of protein to achieve your recommended intake. Sources include:
- Nuts and seeds
- Lentils, chickpeas and beans
- Vitamin B12
This vitamin is mainly found within animal products, therefore may become deficient when going vegan. Unlike all the other B vitamins which we can’t store within the body, we do store some vitamin B12, so I would advise waiting a few months of switching to a vegan diet to get your levels tested.
B12 is important for making red blood cells and a healthy nervous system.
The main plant based sources are:
- Nutritional yeast flakes (which can be sprinkled onto foods or used for it’s cheesy flavour is sauces)
- Fortified products such as plant based milks
- Yeast extracts (marmite)
Some may require a supplement, so make sure you get your levels tested with your GP
- Vitamin D
Although generally known as the sunshine vitamin, there are some foods such as milk, mushrooms and oily fish which contain small amounts of vitamin D. Whether you are vegan or not, the government now recommends that everyone over the age of 1 in the UK should take a supplement containing 10µg of vitamin D daily during the winter months (October-March).
Vitamin D plays a crucial role in many bodily systems such as the immune system, the reproductive system, hormonal systems and has links between mental health and sleep too.
I advise you get your vitamin D levels checked with your GP too as a deficiency may be underlying some of your symptoms.
- Omega 3 fats
Omega 3 fats are a type of fat called polyunsaturated and there are 3 main omega 3 fatty acids; DHA, EPA and ALA. You may be more familiar with EPA and DHA as these are found within oily fish, but ALA is the main plant based source. It can be converted to EPA and DHA, but only very small amounts. Therefore, I recommend trying to include a source of ALA in your diet daily.
Omega 3 fats are important for brain development, heart health and supporting our vision. They are also very anti-inflammatory, so great for joins, aches and inflammatory conditions.
Sources of ALA include:
- Chia seeds
There are now vegan omega 3 supplements available which are derived from algae, and some may choose to supplement their diet this is, if they are not getting enough ALA from food.
Vegan diets can be a wonderful way to nourish your body and provide it will all the goodness, fibre, diversity and colour it requires, but please be mindful of the nutrients mentioned above. Please note this is not an exhaustive list of nutrients, but the main ones to highlight.
Head over to the recipes page of my website to find my LENTIL DHAL recipe for a good hit of plant based iron and protein!
The Food & You surveys, organised by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and the National Centre for Social Science Research (Natcen) and Ipsos Mori survey, commissioned by The Vegan Society, 2018