Taking the vegetarian/vegan or plant-based plunge has become increasingly popular as there is an increased awareness and interest in our environment, animal ethics and some perceived health benefits linked to a plant based diet. The art of nutrition becomes even more important when a whole food group such as meat or animal protein is excluded or limited from the body. This why I have a created a guide to help you reap the benefits of a more plant based diet, while debunking the unhelpful or, should I say ‘unhealthful,’ myths often associated with it.
I am going to outline the key nutrients that you should pay extra attention to (Protein, Iron, Zinc, Calcium, Vitamin B12 and Vitamin D) – I’ll even provide some sneaky tricks to help you maximise your absorption. This post is some general tips – for specific advice for your needs see a degree qualified nutritionist or dietitian.
By guest blogger Amy Auld
“But how do you get your protein?”
When something is removed from the diet such as meat and dairy – which typically fulfils the protein requirement in the diet – it is important that it is replaced with other protein rich foods such as nuts, seeds, oats, chickpeas, lentils and beans, wholegrains and peas (or milk and eggs if you’re on the lower end of the vegetarian-vegan spectrum). It’s important to note that not all proteins are created equal. Animal proteins are complete sources whilst plant based proteins are not. Incomplete proteins are missing one or more essential amino acids which you can think of as the building blocks of a protein. There are 20 different amino acids, 9 that are deemed essential as they cannot be produced by the body so we have to consume them. For example grains are a poor source of lysine (1 of the 9 essential amino acids) but a good sources of methionine (another essential amino acid). Beans on the other hand are good sources of lysine so if you’re eating a range of proteins such as beans, grains and nuts, you would be likely to reach your protein requirements, and this is because different plants contain a different amino acid profile.
Calcium is needed every day to maintain bone health but how do you get enough without drinking milk? Simple, many foods contain calcium including spinach, rhubarb, beans, seeds, wholegrains, and my favourite dark leafy greens such as broccoli! They are just present in lower quantities so eat up! 1 cup of milk = 1.6 cups of broccoli! It just takes a bit more care and planning to make sure you’re getting enough.
What about that Vitamin D?
Sunshine, not diet is where most of your vitamin D actually comes from. This vitamin works with calcium to maintain healthy bones, muscles and teeth. People at risk of vitamin D deficiency are those who have reduced exposure to the sun, have darker skin tones, pregnant or breastfeeding mothers and people over the age of 65, not so much vegetarians or vegans. However, if you fall into one of those groups mentioned above, dietary vitamin D becomes more important and supplements should be considered with advice from a health professional. Naturally, getting enough vitamin D on a plant based diet becomes more difficult in the absence of supplementation, but sources include eggs, dairy products, margarine (which has added vitamin D) and vitamin D fortified foods.
This handy mineral comes in two forms haem iron (from animal products) and non-haem iron (from plants). Now, it’s important to note that haem iron is taken up by our bodies efficiently whilst non-haem iron from plants is not with only 10 -15% of the iron present in plants is absorbed by the body. This means your daily requirements are much higher. Hence, if you are vegan you should pay attention to this nutrient by getting regular blood tests and loading up on foods that are high in iron such as spinach, quinoa, potatoes and seeds.
Now this isn’t the full story, a vegan diet is also really high in ‘phytates’ which are found in foods like beans, wholegrains and drinks like tea and coffee. These phytates, block some of the iron from being taken up by the body. On the positive side, vitamin C aids the absorption of iron so try incorporate vitamin C into your meals with iron rich foods.
Pro Tip: try to avoid having iron with coffee or tea as these tend to inhibit your absorption of iron.
Some of the best sources of zinc are meat, fish and poultry – which of course are not consumed on a plant based diet. We know that on a plant based diet we should be eating more legumes, and wholegrains for protein, both of which contain phytates which decrease the absorption of our friend zinc. However its possible to get enough. As well as wholegrains and legumes, seeds and some nuts also contain zinc. Zinc is also present in some dark leafy greens, but in lower quantities dues to the water content of these foods.
Pro-tip: Try eat zinc containing foods, with foods high in protein to help aid the absorption of zinc into your body.
If you are vegan, vitamin B12 becomes paramount. Unlike other vitamins, vitamin B12 is only found in animal products. Yes, some sources suggest foods like spirulina, miso, seaweed and temp contain vitamin B12. So let’s debunk this myth. Yes, B12 is present in them, however it is not active. Unfortunately, this means your body can’t use it. Since B12 is critical for healthy DNA and red blood cells, it is essential that you incorporate B12 fortified foods and/or take a B12 supplement. It is also advisable to get your levels checked by your GP on a fairly regular basis.
Pro tip: while soy and almond milk are often fortified with B12, not all of them are so make sure read the nutrition label to get the most bang for your buck!
So there you have it, 6 easy hacks to help you get all the nutrients you need with a plant based diet! I’m hoping you will find this guide helpful whether you are a strict vegan wanting to know what you should be aware of or struggling to differentiate fact from fiction when it comes to a meat-less diet. Or simply scooping out what a more plant based diet should include.
If you have any other questions that you would like answered or want to find more information on this topic please don’t hesitate to contact me at [email protected]
Amy Auld is a degree qualified nutritionist (BSC) from the University of Otago. Amy is passionate about all things nutrition related. However, she is particularly interested in sustainable food systems and plant based diets.
Amy is also interested in intuitive eating, the role of diet and mental, and workplace wellbeing. For more information or enquires please contact her through [email protected]