The more food a diet eliminates or restricts, the more mindfulness around alternative choices is needed to make sure the body is still receiving all that it needs. With the elimination of all animal foods and products in the vegan diet, there are several key nutrients to keep in mind.
PROTEINMost people consuming a general diet do not have trouble meeting their protein needs but in the vegan diet increasing protein rich plant-based foods or introducing new foods is important to ensure adequate protein intake. Eating a variety of plant-based protein sources throughout the day and week will help meet needs. Protein-rich vegan foods include beans, tofu, tempeh, quinoa, nuts, and nut butter.
In the absence of dairy products, it’s important to include calcium-rich foods regularly. Calcium-fortified non-dairy products such as soy or almond milk, firm (calcium set) tofu, green leafy vegetables (such as kale, bok choy, Chinese broccoli), nuts and seeds and their pastes can all contribute to calcium intake. Label reading is important to ensure that alternative dairy milks contain at least 100mg calcium per 100ml. Supplementation may be appropriate for added support.
Plant-based iron foods contain iron which is not as well absorbed by the body (non-heme) as that which comes from animal food sources (heme). Iron-containing plant foods include a variety of beans, nuts (such as almonds, brazil), seeds, tofu, dried fruits (especially prunes, raisins, and apricots), dark leafy vegetables and whole grains. Pairing plant-based iron foods with vitamin C rich foods at meals and snacks helps increase absorption. C rich foods include fruits and vegetables such as berries, citrus fruit, capsicum (red and green), tomatoes, kiwi fruit, and broccoli. Some substances found in tea and coffee can decrease the absorption of plant-based iron, so avoiding having these drinks with meals will minimize their interference. Supplementation with iron may be particularly appropriate for some individuals.
Vitamin B12 is found only in animal foods. It is important to consume foods that are fortified with B12 regularly or include a B12 supplement. Some foods are fortified with B12 such as breakfast cereals and non-dairy milks, but it’s important to read product labels to find out.
VITAMIN DVitamin D is naturally present in very few foods, but it can be produced in the body as a result of direct sunlight exposure. How much sun exposure needed for adequate production depends on a variety of factors. If someone consuming a vegan diet has limited exposure to direct sunlight supplementing may be appropriate. Fortified foods including soy, rice, nut beverages, breakfast cereals, juice or other products as mushrooms can provide vitamin D in the vegan diet.
ZINCWithout animal foods more focus on regular inclusion of plant-based food sources of zinc is important. Plant-based foods to increase for more zinc intake include tofu, nuts such as cashews and almonds, seeds such as sunflower, flax and chia, dried beans and fortified breakfast cereals.
OMEGA 3 FATS
It is essential to get omega-3 fats through the diet since the body is unable to produce any. The best sources of these healthy fats are fish and other seafood. Plant sources of omega-3 fats include linseeds/flaxseeds (best-consumed ground), walnuts, chia seeds, soybean oil, and canola oil. Plant-based sources contain a different type of omega-3 than marine sources do and while the body can convert plant-based sources into the same form as marine sources the conversion rate is very low. A vegan marine omega-3 fat supplement may be needed to ensure enough of all types of omega 3-fats are available to the body.
A variety of food choices and a little extra planning is key to ensuring the body has all the nutrients it needs to function at it’s best on a vegan diet. If in doubt meeting with a dietitian is a great way to get personalized advice on diet and talking with them or a GP can provide guidance on supplements.