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According to Healthspan Head of Nutrition Rob Hobson, a vegan diet can have significant health benefits, being "likely to contain a greater quantity of fibre-rich wholegrain foods and pulses", and that vegans are "more likely to exceed the recommended fruit and vegetable intake of five a day."
Even so, there are some nutrients that can be trickier to get from an exclusively plant-based diet. This article covers the nutrients to look out for, and how you can plan your diet or supplement regime to make sure you get enough.
Ensuring adequate nutritional intake
According to Rob Hobson, "The nutritional needs of a vegetarian or vegan are no different to that of a non-vegetarian and can mostly be achieved by following the healthy eating guidelines set out in the Department of Health's Eatwell Guide.
"It's particularly important on a solely plant-based diet to include plenty of energy-dense foods such as avocados, nuts, nut butters, seeds, oils and dried fruits, to meet your daily energy requirements."
You may also need to make some adjustments to your diet to make sure all key nutrients are covered. Here are the main areas to look out for.
Meat is one of the few 'complete proteins', meaning that it contains the eight amino acids that the body can't produce on its own: leucine, isoleucine, valine, threonine, methionine, phenylalanine, tryptophan and lysine.
However, there are plenty of protein-rich vegan foods, such as pulses, soy products, legumes, nuts and seeds, and combining them will help you build the complete proteins you need from the amino acids they contain. Try buckwheat, tempeh, chia seeds and spirulina.
The long-chain omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are important for brain, heart and eye health, and by far the richest source is oily fish.
Despite this, it is possible to get the short-chain ALA fatty acid from foods such as chia and flax seeds (and their oils), dark green vegetables and walnuts. This is then converted to EPA and DHA in the body. According to Healthspan's Medical Director Dr Sarah Brewer, this conversion is only about 15 per cent efficient, which is why vegans should consider a vegan omega-3 supplement to safeguard their health.
Those following a vegan diet should pay particular attention to calcium, which is essential for healthy bones and teeth and to help guard against osteoporosis (loss of bone density) in later life.
Non-dairy sources include tofu, dark green vegetables, sesame seeds and almonds, and fortified soy and rice milk, all of which should be included in the diet each day.
The B vitamins have a long list of EU-authorised health claims, including contributing to a normal energy-yielding metabolism, the normal functioning of the nervous system and heart, normal psychological function, maintenance of red blood cells, reduction of fatigue, and healthy skin and hair. Vegan sources of vitamin B include wholegrains, beans, nuts, seeds and dark green leaves.
Pay particular attention to vitamin B12, which is found almost exclusively in meat and dairy products. B12 is important for healthy red blood cells and the nervous and immune systems, so make sure you have fortified vitamin B12 sources in your diet, such as certain soy and rice milks, veggie burgers or breakfast cereals. You could also consider a vegan vitamin B12 supplement.
It's important for any vegetarian or vegan to pay attention to their iron intake, in order to avoid anaemia, which can leave you feeling fatigued and sometimes depressed.
Iron is found in plenty of plant sources such as soybeans, spinach, and hummus; one cup of soybeans contains almost 9mg of iron, which is enough for the recommended daily intake for men of 8.7mg. Bear in mind that women should have a much higher intake of 14.8mg.
Some foods such as breakfast cereals are fortified with iron, and remember that vitamin C increases iron absorption from food.
Finally, don’t forget zinc, which plays an important role in immunity, bones, skin, hair, and nails, fertility and vision. The recommended zinc intake is 10mg per day, and the best sources are wholegrains, nuts, seeds (especially pumpkin seeds) and pulses such as lentils and soy beans.
There are also fortified foods, and supplements can be had for about £10 a year.
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