A nutritionist's guide to going vegan
Are you being bombarded by all the would-be 'nutritionists' you know who are concerned about you going, or staying, vegan? Are you worried about the scary information they're sharing, which is a case for, vegan diets resulting in poor health and illness? Do you feel stifled as a result? Don't worry any more. Harpreet will help debunk some myths, share nutritional facts and make practical suggestions that will bring you peace of mind!
Harpreet is a Nutrition graduate who currently works as an NHS dietetic assistant. She follows a plant-based diet and wants to help people understand nutrition in a simple, practical way. Through this article, she aims to debunk myths associated with vegan diets and provide some handy tips and advice for those who want to, or are already, vegan.
Vegan diets contain only plant-based foods e.g. fruit, vegetables, grains, legumes, beans, nuts and seeds. If you choose to follow a vegan or plant-based diet, you may have noticed that the information on the internet is a minefield. In particular, the conflicting guidance about nutrition is confusing to say the least.
This article aims to help answer some of the nutritional questions often asked about a vegan diet.
The eatwell plate shared by the government
Vegan or not, everyone should aim to follow the same healthy eating guidelines, summarised in the government’s eatwell plate. This includes a varied diet with a balance of starchy carbohydrates (e.g. wholegrain bread, rice, pasta and potatoes), fruit and veg, plant-based protein (e.g. beans, peas and lentils) and non-dairy milk alternatives. Also try to keep the high-fat and sugary foods to a minimum. Note: it doesn’t say completely exclude these occasional treats - everything in moderation!
The benefits of a plant-based diet
Well-thought-out vegan diets can be nutritious, taste incredible and work wonders for your health too.
Interestingly, studies have shown that vegans tend to have a lower BMI (Body Mass Index i.e. the ratio of weight-to-height) than non-vegans.
Vegan diets may also help to lower the risk of obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and Type 2 diabetes - conditions associated with negative effects on heart-health, as well as, general well-being.
These benefits may be due to healthy vegan diets containing less saturated fat and calories, and more healthy unsaturated fats, fibre, phytonutrients (beneficial plant compounds) and cholesterol-lowering compounds.
In fact, researchers have tapped into the cholesterol-lowering aspects of some plant-based foods and developed the Portfolio Diet. This dietary approach combines soya protein, plant fibre (found in food like oats, beans and fruit), almonds and plant sterols/stanols (naturally found in soya beans, vegetable oils and grains) with a largely vegetarian diet and of course, exercise. This Portfolio Diet has not only been shown to reduce ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol levels by an average of 20% but what’s more; researchers report it can have the same cholesterol-lowering effect as statin medication!
However, a vegan diet doesn’t automatically mean it is a healthy diet. The growing range of vegan foods on supermarket shelves these days aren’t always the healthiest options, so avoiding processed foods and checking the ingredients list/nutrition information label, are simple ways to avoid excess sugar, fat and salt in your diet.
Below are some of the concerns that potential-vegans and non-vegans often raise.
Historically, and even nowadays, people have had concerns about vegetarians and vegans eating enough protein. However, provided you eat a varied diet including some of the plant-based options below, your protein needs can be easily achieved:
- Pulses – beans, lentils and peas are healthy low-fat, high-fibre options. About 3 heaped tablespoons count as 1 of your ‘5-a-day’.
- Soya & soya products – e.g. tofu and soya mince made from soya beans are great meat-alternatives and contain all the essential amino acids our bodies need from food. An average serving size (100g) of tofu can contain over 13g protein - the equivalent of 2 eggs!
- Wholegrains/cereals e.g. wheat, rice, oats, barley, rye, maize. These aren’t always the first to be thought of as protein sources, but two slices of wholemeal bread contains over 9g of protein!
- Nuts & seeds – try a handful of mixed nuts or seeds, or a teaspoon of nut or seed butter with sliced apple or pear for a nutritious, satisfying snack.
Tip: try including some protein in every meal, starting with breakfast, as well as in snacks. This helps to make you feel fuller for longer and less likely to reach for the unhealthy options later in the day.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Healthy poly-unsaturated fats are important for brain development, vision and eye health, and to help maintain a healthy heart.
Plant-based sources (alpha-linolenic acid, ALA) may not be as beneficial as those in oily fish (eicosapentaenoic acid, EPA and docosahexaenoic acid, DHA) due to poor conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA in our bodies. However, fish obtain EPA and DHA from marine algae, hence micro-algae supplements can be useful in those who have low dietary omega-3 intake.
Swapping potentially harmful saturated fats such as palm oil, and omega-6 rich sunflower and corn oils in your diet, for some of the unsaturated fats in the following foods on a daily basis will help increase your omega-3 intake:
- Flaxseed (i.e. linseed) – available as whole or milled seeds, and as an oil
- Rapeseed, also known as canola oil
- Pumpkin seeds
- Soya/tofu-based foods
- Sweet potato
Tip: Try putting a tablespoon of flaxseed on porridge, cereal, fruit or in smoothies for added omega-3 goodness – you won’t even know it’s there!
99% of calcium in the body is used to maintain strong bones and teeth. Calcium is also important for muscle contraction and blood-clotting.
- Pulses - beans, lentils and peas
- Bread - UK wheat flour. Mainly ‘white’ flour is fortified with calcium, iron, vitamin B1 and B3 – nutrients which are naturally present in wholemeal flour
- Sesame seeds – sprinkled on salads or made into tahini paste, commonly used in hummus, as a healthy dip or in salad dressings
- Dried fruit e.g. apricots, raisins
- Green leafy veg - such as kale, greens and broccoli - but not raw spinach as it contains biologically ‘unavailable’ calcium (i.e. your body can’t use it)
- Calcium-fortified foods – including non-dairy milks (soya, almond, oat etc.) and non-dairy yoghurts
Tip: remember to check nutrition labels for vitamin and mineral fortification. Some brands of non-dairy milk don’t add in calcium and other key vitamins and minerals!
Vitamin D is also known as 'the sunshine vitamin.’ It is needed for the body to absorb calcium from food. Vitamin D levels are often low in both vegans and non-vegans, as it is only naturally available in a few foods.
Sources of vitamin D:-
- Vitamin D-fortified foods - include non-dairy milks, margarines, cheese and breakfast cereals
- Sun exposure - varies widely between individuals
- Vitamin D supplements - if you’re not getting enough Vitamin D from sunshine and food, speak with your GP or a dietitian for further information.
Iron deficiency is common in women, and if untreated it can lead to fatigue and reduced immune system function, making you more prone to infections or illness.
Sources of iron:-
- Pulses - beans, lentils and peas
- Wholemeal bread and wholegrain rice
- Sesame seeds
- Iron-fortified breakfast cereals
- Dark-green leafy veg e.g. kale and watercress
- Dried fruit and nuts
Tip: To maximise iron absorption from food/meals, try to include vitamin C-rich foods (e.g. fruit and veg) and avoid drinking tea, coffee and red wine at the same time. These drinks contain tannins, molecules which reduce iron absorption from food.
Zinc has many functions including metabolising nutrients in our food and is important for our immune system function and wound healing.
Sources of Zinc:-
- Fermented soya – e.g. tempeh and miso
- Wholegrains and yeast-containing breads
Tip: soaking/sprouting dried pulses, grains and seeds may increase the body’s zinc absorption.
Iodine is important for regulating our metabolism. It's also needed for the production of thyroid hormones.
Sources of iodine:-
- Cereals and grains – iodine levels vary depending on soil iodine content
- Seaweed/sea vegetables – dried seaweed can be found in most supermarkets
- Leafy green vegetables
- Small amounts of iodised salt
Vitamin B12 is essential for making red blood cells and maintaining a healthy nervous system.
Interesting fact: Vitamin B12 is actually made by bacteria, fungi and algae!
Sources of Vitamin B12
- fortified yeast extract – e.g. marmite/vegemite and nutritional yeast
- fortified plant-based milks and breakfast cereals
Again, if you are concerned about your Vitamin B!2 intake, speak with your GP or a dietitian for further information.
Selenium is an antioxidant which helps to prevent cell damage in our body and is needed for optimum function of the immune system. Selenium intake from our diet is essential, as the body does not make selenium itself.
Sources of selenium:-
- Nuts – Brazil nuts in particular, are a great plant-based source.
Tip: try chopping 1-2 Brazil nuts onto porridge, eat with fruit or add to smoothies to increase your selenium intake without too much effort!
So there we have it. This guide will help you think about what you’re eating, and which foods you can try adding, to form the basis of a healthy, varied diet that meets your nutritional needs.
Putting in just a little extra thought, can help provide long-term benefits to your health and well-being!
For further information from credible sources, including advice on a vegan diet for children, have a look at the British Dietetic Association (BDA) and NHS Choices pages, which provide handy nutrition tips too.