It’s January and traditionally the month when we look to change or improve our diets as we start a new year.
Moving to a vegan diet is also very popular during January. But what should you be eating on a vegan diet to remain healthy and ensure you are getting all the nutrients that you need?
Clinical Nutritionist Suzie Sawyer shares the five key nutrients you need to maintain a healthy vegan diet.
A lack of protein in the vegan diet is probably one of the most common mistakes people make. Whilst it’s very possible to have sufficient protein, it takes some work and planning and essentially you have to eat more food for it to be achievable.
Vegan protein sources include beans, chickpeas, peas, nuts, seeds, seitan, tofu, tempeh, edamame, and quinoa. Whilst plant-based proteins contain some of the essential nine amino acids, they are often lacking or low in one or two. These essential amino acids are termed ‘essential’ because the body can’t make them, so they must be eaten in the diet or supplemented. However, by eating a wide range of these foods, and at every mealtime, you should be getting what you need.
Vitamin B12 is essential for energy, red blood cell production and functioning of the nervous system, so it’s pretty important.
Essentially vitamin B12 is only found in animal produce, so it needs to be supplemented in the fully vegan diet. Vitamin B12 is available in nutritional yeast, which vegans’ often use as a protein source, and some may be made by the good gut bacteria. However, supplementation is advised to ensure you are getting enough.
Iron is also essential for healthy red blood cell production, energy, and cognition but its most easily absorbed form is in red meat.
However, iron is also rich in plant sources including green leafy vegetables, quinoa, lentils, dried apricots, and tofu. Plus, if you eat any of these foods with vitamin C, then the iron content is better absorbed. Thankfully, nature has already provided plenty of vitamin C in vegetables but having a little orange juice at the same time (or eating an orange, or other fruit) can really help too.
Vitamin D is not just a ‘watchpoint’ for vegans, it’s essential for the whole population. However, there is some vitamin D is foods, but mainly in eggs, dairy, and oily fish.
The main source of vitamin D is from the action of sunlight on the skin so obviously this is challenging during the winter months. We do store vitamin D from the summer months, in the liver and kidneys but not in sufficient amounts to last the whole winter, hence deficiency is widespread amongst all age groups in the UK.
Public Health England recommend a daily supplement of 10 micrograms for everyone during winter. Many people need more than this, so if you’re feeling low in mood, have achy muscles, joints, and bones, then you might need more. Often people need a minimum of 25 micrograms daily through the winter months.
Calcium is essential for healthy bones, teeth, and muscles but also for the heart and nervous system. Dairy produce is one of the richest sources of calcium although it’s important for everyone not to have too much dairy as it can become acidic in the body, which then is counterproductive.
On a vegan diet, include pak choi, kale, broccoli, sesame seeds, tofu, and chickpeas, all being rich sources of calcium. Interestingly calcium needs vitamin D to do its work in the body so don’t forget your Vitamin D supplement!
Healthy veganism is about being mindful of each food groups and what it brings to the nutritional table. With a little extra planning, you’ll be able to benefit from all the positive health benefits of plant-based eating, whilst avoiding the pitfalls.
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