One aspect of vegan or plant based diets that is commonly highlighted is the potential for nutrient deficiencies.
The media and society in general seem very quick to highlight that vegan diets can increase the likelihood of being deficient in key nutrients.
This gives the perception that;
- The status quo animal based diet already gives you the nutrients you need and won’t result in any nutritional deficiencies;
- It takes a lot more effort and planning to adopt more of a vegan diet compared to an animal based diet to ensure you don’t suffer from nutritional deficiencies, and;
- A vegan diet is confusing or even extreme as you are restricting yourself of a vital food group.
But I think we have to look at this objectively and look at the science.
Whilst it is possible to have nutritional deficiencies on a vegan diet, this is also true of people who consume a standard animal based diet.
The most recent UK National Diet and Nutrition survey found that nutrient deficiencies are common in most people among all ages across 11 of the most important vitamins from calcium to magnesium.
Moreover, a study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition showed that it’s really hard to get all the essential vitamins and minerals from food alone, no matter what you eat.
So the objective science suggests that many people are already deficient in key nutrients, regardless of whether they are vegan or not.
Also, it only seems extreme or feels like it takes a bit more planning because the society we live in is designed for us to consume an abundance of animal products. We have been brought up in a ‘no meat, no meal’ culture, so anything that goes against this will be seen as extreme.
The reality is that two thirds of UK adults are overweight and obese and plant based diets have been scientifically proven to help lose weight and improve health.
And that’s the key; a planned whole food plant based diet.
You can be healthy or unhealthy on a vegan diet but it’s hard to be unhealthy on a planned whole food plant based diet.
That said, there are some critical nutrients we need to make sure we get enough of as plant based munchers! So I wanted to show you how you can plan and meet all of your requirements by eating 100% plant-based.
Meeting nutritional needs on a plant based diet
Calcium has several important functions in the body from helping to build strong bones and teeth to regulating muscle contractions including the heart. It’s important to note adequate intake of vitamin D (more on that below) is required for proper calcium absorption.
You should include 3 of the following every day for calcium:
- 1 fist sized portion leafy cabbage greens – cabbage, kale, bok choy, broccoli
- 1 cup fortified plant milks or yoghurts
- 1 fist sized portion of tofu
- 2 tbsp nuts and seeds particularly almonds and sesame seeds
- 1 tbsp blackstrap molasses
Iron deficiency is the world’s most common deficiency and plant based iron is less easily absorbed. However, absorption can be greatly increased by consuming vitamin C at the same time. This can be as simple as a dash of lemon on top of your green vegetables which makes it taste so much better as well.
Also, plant-based iron is actually much less harmful than animal-based iron (heme iron) with studies showing that high consumption of heme-iron increases risk of diseases such as cancer.
Women during their reproductive years require double the amount compared to other adults.
You should include 3 of the following every day for iron:
- 1 fist sized portion leafy greens – spinach, kale, swiss chard
- 1 fist sized portion of legumes such as chickpeas or black beans
- 1 fist sized portion of whole grains such as brown rice or quinoa
- 1 fist sized portion of potatoes
- 1tbsp pumpkin seeds
- 1 tbsp blackstrap molasses
N.B. It is essential to combine these non-heme iron rich foods with vitamin C to greatly increase absorption. High vitamin C foods include red pepper, citrus fruits, kiwi and parsley.
Magnesium and Zinc
Getting enough magnesium is essential for your overall health. It greatly assist proper sleep, muscle performance and brain function.
Zinc is vital to maintain the immune system and repairs body tissues. Research suggests a whopping 70% of the UK population are deficient in magnesium and one sixth are deficient in zinc.
You should include 3 of the following every day for magnesium and zinc:
- 3 tbsp Hemp seeds
- 1 cup of legumes such as black beans
- ½ an avocado
- 1 thumb of 70% cocoa dark chocolate
- 2 tbsp of nuts such as cashews, almonds or brazils
- 1 tbsp of seeds such as pumpkin seeds
- 1 cup leafy greens such as cooked spinach
Omega 3 fatty acids
Omega 3 fatty acids are essential for the brain, heart and eye health. They come in two categories;
- Essential omega-3 fatty acids: Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is the only essential omega-3 fatty acid, meaning you can only get it from your diet.
- Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids: This includes eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). They are not considered essential because your body can make them from ALA.
You should include one of the following every day for the essential ALA omega 3 fatty acid:
- 1 tbsp of ground flaxseed
- 1 tbsp ground chia seeds
- ½ tbsp hemp seeds
- ½ tbsp chopped walnuts
Iodine is essential to protect your thyroid which controls your metabolism which performs life sustaining functions such as converting energy from food.
Iodine levels in plant foods depends on the iodine content of the soil in which they were grown.
Food grown close to the ocean tends to be higher in iodine and subsequently two good sources of iodine are;
- ½ tsp iodized salt
- ½ tsp seaweed such as nori
Vitamin B12 is bacteria that’s found in soil. Unfortunately, due to the degradation of soil from intensive agriculture soil health and availability of B12 in soil is severely lacking.
It’s important for many functions such as the formation of oxygenated red blood cells and maintaining the health of your nervous system.
It is recommended to take a B12 supplement when following a vegan diet as this is one vitamin that is hard to obtain from food alone. However, there are a couple of dietary sources such as;
- 1 cup of fortified plant milks
- 1 tbsp of fortified nutritional yeast
Vitamin D is important for many functions such as the formation of oxygenated red blood cells and maintaining the health of your nervous system.
It is recommended to take a vitamin D supplement (vitamin D3 is the most easily absorbed) when following a vegan or any diet as very few foods contain vitamin D. However, there are a couple of dietary sources such as;
- 1 fist sized portion of mushrooms
- 1 cup of fortified plant milks
Herbs and Spices
In addition to whole foods listed above, including a variety of herbs and spices is also important for the range of nutrients and antioxidants in them as well as the fact they help make food taste amazing. Some of the healthiest herbs and spices are parsley, thyme, basil, garlic, ginger, turmeric, chili and cumin.
Feeling overwhelmed? Stick to these 5 simple principles;
With a well planned diet following the principles and foods outlined above, it is relatively easy to ensure you consume most of the vitamins and minerals you require. However, it can seem a bit overwhelming, especially to begin with. Therefore, try and stick to the 5 principles outlined below;
- Eat three servings (a serving is 1 fist sized) per day of legumes such as black beans, red lentils and chickpeas, tofu, tempeh etc
- Eat a wide variety of coloured fruits and vegetables, including leafy greens, orange vegetables and good sources of vitamin C like peppers. Think about eating the rainbow
- Eat a wide variety of herbs and spices such as parsley and garlic and sprinkle ½ tsp seaweed such as nori over one meal
- Eat healthy fats (aim for a thumb size portion with every meal) such as nuts, seeds, avocados and olives and ensure to consume a good source of essential omega-3 fat ALA such as flaxseed and hemp seeds
- Take a vitamin B12 supplement and also vitamin D3, at least during the winter months
Bonus: Free Cheat Sheet
All of us need to plan what we eat in order to ensure we consume enough of the critical nutrients.
Following the principles outlined above will help you thrive on a plant based diet.
However, as a bonus I’ve created a cheat sheet with the most important information from this article which you can download below as a gift.
If you have any questions or feedback, please leave a comment below.