Going vegan for Veganuary? Read this first
PUBLISHED: 20:00 06 January 2020
Nutrition expert Catherine Jeans shares vital tips to ensure you'll get all the goodness you need to keep you healthy on a plant-based diet.
1. Vitamin B12
This is one of the most important nutrients to make sure you focus on as a vegan - our main source of this essential nutrient is from meat and fish, and also in eggs and dairy for vegetarians, so it's not naturally abundant on a plant based diet. Even the Vegan Society recommends vegans consider a supplement, to ensure you're getting enough. Or be very careful with your fortified foods to ensure you're getting in small amounts of Vitamin B12 every day. If you become long-term deficient in Vitamin B12, this can lead to neurological damage. Fortified foods include non-dairy milks, cereals, meat replacements and yeast powders - but check the label to see if B12 is added. You'll need around 5mcg to 10mcg per day to prevent deficiency for the average adult. If you want to supplement, either look for a B12 supplement on its own or even better a B complex.
You absolutely can get enough protein on a plant-based diet, but you'll need to look for quality sources with each meal. Quinoa, buckwheat and soya are excellent as they provide complete proteins with all the essential amino acids. Other great sources of protein include beans, lentils, nuts, seeds and wholegrains. Aim to include a handful of protein with every meal.
Don't just take out the animal products and hope for the best. This is where people come unstuck when it comes to a healthy plant-based diet. There are some key nutrients you need to focus on to ensure you're getting everything you need from your diet. You can't remove the meat, fish, eggs or dairy and have just the vegetables and carbs on an ongoing basis.
Try to choose unprocessed, natural ingredients rather than fake meats with lots of additives and artificial ingredients. Natural meat alternatives include foods made from beans, pulses, lentils, nuts, seeds and tofu.
3. Omega 3 essential fatty acids
If you stop eating fish, you'll be cutting out one of your main sources of Omega 3 essential fats. These fats are essential for our health. Our bodies cannot make them and we have to get them from our diets. They keep our brain healthy, keep inflammation in check and ensure our cells can listen to our hormones. For vegans, you'll need to ensure you get a daily dose of flaxseed or chia seeds (about a tablespoon), plus you can also get some Omega 3 from dark green leafy vegetables and nuts.
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We tend to think of red meat as our only source of iron, but you can get a lot of iron in plant foods. The key sources are dark green leafy veg, nuts, seeds, lentils, wholewheat, dried fruit and even dark chocolate. Focus on iron-rich foods every day and ensure you get a good handful of greens every single day such as broccoli, spinach, kale or dark lettuce.
We need enough calcium to keep our bones healthy, so if you're cutting out dairy you need to ensure you're getting other sources. Tofu, sesame seeds, tahini, chickpeas (and therefore hummus), fresh parsley, blackstrap molasses, dried fruit and dark green leafy veg should feature on your menu two to three times per day.
6. Selenium and iodine
These two nutrients are vital for thyroid health, as well as supporting the detoxification pathways in your body. If you're cutting out dairy and seafood, then you'll need to look at other sources of these minerals. For selenium, include two to three brazil nuts every day. Other sources include mushrooms, sunflower seeds, cashews, pecans, wholegrains and green or brown lentils. But brazil nuts are by far the best source. For iodine, I love to use seaweed in my every day meals - you can buy seaweed sprinkles, nori sheets and other types of seaweed which add a lovely flavour to your cooking. Don't use them every day - just a few times per week. The amount of iodine you get in your plant-based foods really varies, due to the varying soil levels of iodine across the globe. Some plant-based milks are now fortified with iodine (potassium iodide) so do look out for these.
The final mineral to keep an eye on with a plant based diet is zinc. We need this essential mineral for over 500 enzymatic reactions in our bodies, and it is really important for our immune health, for teenagers for growth and brain development. Great food sources of zinc include pecan nuts, dried fruit, beans, chickpeas, lentils, tofu, chia seeds, hemp, pumpkin seeds and wholemeal bread and quinoa.
Catherine Jeans, DipION mBANT CNHC, is a nutritional therapist based in East Anglia and The Family Nutrition Expert