Is the thought of developing anaemia or a protein deficiency stopping you from eating a vegan diet? If so, do you know that a lot of people who eat an omnivorous diet also suffer from anaemia?
Protein deficiencies are only common among people who are severely malnourished – think starving children in third world countries…heck even in some developed countries.
You need a lot less protein that you may believe and you can get as much as you need eating only plant-based foods.
When it comes to certain vitamins and minerals, things become slightly tricker. And just before you start pointing fingers at me saying ‘I told you so’, it is not much different on any other diet, especially if you base the majority of your diet on junk and processed foods.
With this post, I hope to show you that you can be healthy without animal products in your life – if its a route you choose to go down. No, you won’t shrivel up into a weakling, you will not be tired all the time, and you will not gain weight from eating lots of carbs.
Done right, the opposite of all of the above is true for a vegan diet. This post should lay your fears to rest once and for all.
The primary way to avoid nutritional deficiencies while eating a vegan diet is to consume adequate amounts of a variety of food. Just to be clear, you can’t base your diet around eating beans, rice and potatoes only. You need to include lots of vegetables (think different colours), and some nuts, seeds and healthy fats.
You should be able to get enough protein, omega-3’s, iron and calcium by eating this way. But, for certain nutrients like vitamin B12 and D3, it may be worth including a vegan supplement to ensure you’re getting the correct amounts.
Which Vegan Foods Provide Which Nutrients
Calcium: Strong bones and Teeth
When you think about calcium, I bet that the first thing that comes to your mind is milk. That’s great because non-dairy milk such as soy, almond, hazelnut and even oat milk is fortified with calcium these days.
The RDI for adults over the age of 19 years is 700mg. The recommendations for pregnant/lactating women is higher at 1250 mg.
Depending on which brand you go for, you can get up to 37.5% of your recommended daily intake (RDI) by drinking only 250 ml.
- Alpro non-dairy milk and yoghurts provide 300 mg or 37.5% of the RDI
- Oatly oat milk contains 300mg of 37.5% of the RDI
Tofu is another excellent source of calcium, but you have to choose calcium-set varieties. Cauldron is the only brand in the UK that currently fortifies their tofu with calcium.
It is organic too, so win-win situation!
You can buy Cauldron tofu from most supermarkets in the UK.
Other good vegan sources of calcium include kale (provides up to 10% of your RDI per 67g), watercress, spring greens, okra, figs, spinach, oranges and brazil nuts.
Tip: You can absorb more calcium from your diet by eating calcium-rich foods at different times of the day. Try to eat calcium-rich foods with those that contain vitamin D to increase the amount you absorb Also, try to avoid drinking tea when eating calcium-rich foods, as they can reduce the amount of calcium you absorb from your food.
Vitamin D: Healthy bones, muscles and teeth
Sunlight is the best source of vitamin D. As you may already know, sunshine is scarce in the UK.
Yeah…let’s not go into that…
The best alternative is to get a supplement.
The RDI of vitamin D for everyone above the age of 1 is 10 mg.
Vitamin D comes in two varieties, Vitamin D2 and Vitamin D3. Vitamin D3 is the recommended form because it is the natural form of Vitamin D that your body makes from sunlight. It is also more potent than Vitamin D2.
Regular vitamin D3 supplements are usually are usually made using extracts from sheep’s wool. Make sure you choose a *vegan D3 supplement (made from lichen) if you decide to buy one.
Your body is still able to use Vitamin D2 effectively. This is the form usually found in plant milk and irradiated mushrooms. You can also buy vegan *Vitamin D2 supplements.
If you have dark skin (African/Hispanic descent), it is imperative that you take a *vitamin D3 supplement because your skin naturally absorbs less sunlight. You are also more likely than a Caucasian person to have a vitamin D deficiency/insufficiency.
Tip: If you’re relying on sunlight for vitamin D, avoid using sunscreen during those times because they block the UV rays that you need to make vitamin D.
Vitamin B12: To makes red blood cells
Unfortunately, vitamin B12 does not occur naturally in any food, so you may have to take supplements.
If you’re not the supplement kind, the best alternative is fortified nutritional yeast. 5g of fortified nutritional yeast provides up to 88% of the RDI. It has a lovely cheesy flavour so you can sprinkle it over pasta dishes or your vegetables.
You can also add it to cooked meals, but be careful not to heat it at high temperatures, or it may denature the Vitamin B12
Iron: To transport oxygen around the body
Iron is one of the easiest minerals to get on a vegan diet. Adult men need at 8.7 mg per day, while women need almost double, 14.8 mg per day.
Good sources of iron include dark green leafy vegetables, fortified cereals, dried fruit, beans, whole grains and nuts.
- Ten dried peach halves provide about 5.3mg of iron
- 1 cup of prunes provides 4.5 mg of iron
- 19 g of tahini provides 2 mg of iron
- 340g of soybeans provides 8.8mg of iron
- 340g of cooked spinach contains 6.4 mg of iron
- ⅛th of a medium watermelon provides 1.5 mg of iron (up to 3% of your RDI)
Tip: You can increase the amount of iron you absorb from your diet by eating foods rich in vitamin C (such as oranges, strawberries) alongside it. Avoid drinking tea and coffee when eating iron-rich foods because the tannins and caffeine in them can block iron absorption.
Omega-3 fats: Essential for brain health and protects the heart
Omega-3 fats exist in different forms:
- EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid): This is the form of omega-3 that your body uses efficiently. There are no plant sources of this type of omega-3, so you need to get it from supplements. Read this post to learn more about vegan omega-3 supplements.
- Alpha-linoleic (ALA): Your body cannot make this, so you have to get it from your diet. You can get it from walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseeds and green leafy vegetables. Your body needs to convert ALA omega-3s into EPA and DHA to be able to use it.
Tip: To improve your conversion rate of ALA into EPA and DHA, you should:
- avoid foods that are high in saturated fats
- reduce the quantity of vegetable oils you eat that are high in linoleic acid (an omega-6 fat) such as sunflower and corn oils
Zinc: Healthy immune and reproductive system
The RDI of zinc is 8 mg – 13 mg per day.
You can get zinc from whole grains, legumes (beans and lentils), nuts, seeds, green leafy vegetables, and nutritional yeast.
- Baked beans provide 6.9 mg per 170 g
- Peanuts provide 3 mg per 80 g
- Asparagus 1 mg per 340 g
- Peas 1.2 mg 340 g
- Nutritional yeast provides 3 mg per 2 tablespoons
Tip: Wholegrains and beans contain compounds known as phytates that reduce zinc absorption, so it is important to choose good sources of zinc. Fermented soy products such as tempeh and miso have higher available zinc. You can reduce the amount of phytates in beans by soaking the dried beans overnight and rinsing them before cooking to increase the amount of zinc you absorb from them.
Iodine: Regulates the metabolism
Adults need 150 mcg of iodine per day.
You can get iodine from seaweed (nori), iodised salt and supplements.
In the same way that a low intake of iodine over time can cause thyroid problems, excessive iodine intake also causes problems.
Seaweed is a very concentrated source of iodine. It is possible to exceed your daily RDI if you eat it too frequently. Try not to eat seaweed more than once a week especially if you are pregnant.