THE VEGAN DIET
The wonderful thing about a vegan diet is that it is filled with a huge variety of natural unprocessed plant foods that most people don't get enough of. There are however some key nutrients that could potentially become low without proper planning. Below are some of the top nutrients to make sure you are getting enough of if you follow a vegan diet.
1) VITAMIN B12
It’s easier for vegans to become low in vitamin B12 because it is a vitamin found mostly in animal products. Some insist that plant foods such as algae contain sufficient B12, however research does not support this. Low energy, fatigue, weakness and pins & needles are common indicators that you may be low in vitamin B12. Eating fortified foods daily such as nutritional yeast, yeast extracts, some vegan milks/spreads and considering B12 supplementation for extra support can help to keep levels topped up. If you are not eating fortified foods or taking supplements, consider getting your vitamin B12 levels tested to check if they are low.
Tip: opt for a vegan supplement that includes B12 in the form of methylcobalamin as this has shown superior absorption particularly over cyanocobalamin.
2) VITAMIN D
We mainly synthesise vitamin D from the sun. So it is actually the majority of the UK population who are low in vitamin D, rather than specifically vegans. Vitamin D has numerous roles in the body such as keeping our bones healthy and helping us to feel happy.
The best way to make sure you are getting enough vitamin D is by taking a daily supplement that combines both vitamin D (as vitamin D3) and vitamin K2 together. This is because these two vitamins work together to help keep our bones and heart healthy.
Getting enough iron is important for everyone. There are two forms of iron: heme iron from animal foods and non-heme iron form plant foods. Although a vegan diet can provide all the iron that most people require, iron from plant foods is actually more difficult for the body to absorb than iron from animal foods. This is why enhancing the absorption of iron from your diet is important.
Iron rich foods: lentils, beans, tempeh, dark leafy greens, quinoa, nuts and seeds.
How to optimise iron absorption:
1. Pair iron-rich foods with foods rich in vitamin C (e.g. lemons, tomatoes, peppers). This helps to improve the absorption of iron.
2. Soaking and rinsing grains, legumes and nuts can improve iron absorption. This is because these foods contain phytates, which bind to minerals reducing their bioavailability.
3. It is helpful to keep tea and coffee at least one hour away from meals. This is because they contain tannins, which act similarly to phytates, interfering with mineral absorption.
4) OMEGA 3
Omega 3 is a type of fat that can only be obtained through the diet. It has countless health benefits (particularly for the brain and healthy skin) plus powerful anti-inflammatory properties. EPA and DHA are the types of omega 3 most strongly associated with these health benefits. EPA and DHA are predominately obtained from oily fish.
ALA is another omega 3 fatty acid that is found in green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds. ALA can be converted to EPA and DHA in the body however it is dependant upon efficient conversion pathways.
What makes oily fish rich in EPA and DHA??
It's because fish eat lots of algae, which fortunately is vegan!!
TOP TIPS FOR GETTING ENOUGH OMEGA 3
EAT ALA-RICH FOODS
Eat foods rich in ALA such as flaxseeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds, walnuts and dark green leafy vegetables.
EAT SEAWEED & MICROALGAE
Include seaweed, kelp, spirulina and chlorella in your diet. These are food sources of EPA and DHA however they contain very small amounts in comparison to fish.
Consider algal supplementation for a direct source of EPA & DHA.
REFERENCES / FURTHER READING
Doughman, Scott D., Srirama Krupanidhi, and Carani B. Sanjeevi. "Omega-3 fatty acids for nutrition and medicine: considering microalgae oil as a vegetarian source of EPA and DHA." Current diabetes reviews 3.3 (2007): 198-203.
Rietsema, Wilhelmina J. "Unexpected recovery of moderate cognitive impairment on treatment with oral methylcobalamin." J Am Geriatr Soc 62.8 (2014): 1611-2.
Hunt, Janet R. "Bioavailability of iron, zinc, and other trace minerals from vegetarian diets." The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 78.3 (2003): 633S-639S.
Lynch, Sean R., and James D. Cook. "Interaction of vitamin C and iron." Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 355.1 (1980): 32-44.
Kidd, Parris M. "Vitamins D and K as pleiotropic nutrients: clinical importance to the skeletal and cardiovascular systems and preliminary evidence for synergy." Altern Med Rev 15.3 (2010): 199-222.