With 1 in 8 Britons identifying themselves as vegetarian or vegan, it is important to know whether or not this diet can give our bodies all the nutrients and vitamins they need. When it comes to getting our essential nutrients, we may need to think about how we plan on getting enough of what our bodies need. Without proper consideration and understanding, we could be missing out on essential nutrients such as calcium, iron and vitamin B12.
Vitamins and Minerals
Some nutrients such as vitamin B12 and vitamin D are mainly available in animal sources and the ones that are found in plants are usually in smaller amounts. It can be difficult to get enough vitamins and minerals, but here are some ways in which you could achieve this.
Vitamin B12 is only found naturally in foods from animal sources, but vegans can source it from fortified foods such as milk alternatives, soy products and breakfast cereals, or supplements. B12 is essential for the metabolism of every cell in our bodies, and it is vital for good health. A lack of it could cause damage to the nervous system and anaemia.
Vitamin D is normally produced in our bodies when we are exposed to the sun, however, in the winter we need to get it from our diet. Fatty fish is normally the way to get it, but for vegans it can be found in some types of mushrooms, fortified cereals and supplements. Vitamin D helps with our absorption of calcium, keeping our bones strong, supports the immune system and reduces inflammation.
Omega 3 can be found in high quantity in oily fish, while for vegans it’s present in flaxseeds and rapeseed oil, walnuts or soya-based foods. Omega 3 is beneficial for our hair and nails, brain function and the condition of our skin.
Iron is essential for the production of red blood cells and transporting them around the body to give us energy. A lack of iron can result in low energy levels and shortness of breath. Iron is found in two forms in foods, heme (animal products) and non-heme (plants). Non-heme is harder to absorb but pairing it with vitamin C helps our body use the iron. Non-heme sources of iron include dried fruit, nuts and leafy vegetables.
Calcium is needed for strong bones and teeth, it’s also important for muscle function and heart health. Non-vegans tend to get most of their calcium from dairy products, but the NHS recommends dark, leafy greens, fortified foods, bread and pulses as calcium sources for vegans.
Zinc has several different functions, including fighting infections and the repair of body cells. Deficiencies can result in us being more susceptible to colds or a hormone imbalance. Zinc can be found in generous quantities in shellfish and red meat, but it’s also available in a variety of vegan friendly foods such as chickpeas, nuts and tofu.
Missing meat? Here are some alternatives
Eating less meat could be better for our health as well as the environment. However, is it important to keep in mind that meat-alternatives often contain less protein. Here are some of the few substitutes you could try (remember to read the nutritional information on the products).
Tofu contains all the essential amino acids we require for protein synthesis: it is high in protein and a good source of calcium. Tofu is condensed soy milk that manufacturers press into blocks of different firmness. Similarly to chicken, this protein takes on flavours from what it’s seasoned with or what it’s matched with. It is low-calorie and versatile and available in 3 different forms: soft, firm and extra firm. This means it can mimic the texture of many food products.
Seitan is made from gluten and water, it is high in protein and low in carbs. Healthline suggests using it as a substitute for chicken or beef in a variety of recipes as it’s dense, chewy and has little flavour (meaning it can take on many flavours). Seitan can be good for those who don’t enjoy soy, but it should be avoided by people who follow a gluten free diet. The product is usually processed and can be high in salt so be sure to check the label.
Tempeh tends to be made from the whole soybean in a fermentation process. The product has more protein, fibre and vitamins than tofu. It also contains gut-friendly prebiotics and probiotics due to being fermented. Cooked tempeh breaks apart easily and can be a good substitute for ground meat. Tempeh could be used for meatballs, pot pies or burgers for example. However, the flavour of tempeh is stronger than other alternatives: it has a nutty taste and a distinct tang, but it can still work in a variety of ways.
Jackfruit is a large tropical fruit with flesh that has a subtle, fruit flavour with a chewy texture. You could use the fruit as a replacement for pulled pork or shredded chicken. Jackfruit is rich in vitamins, fibre and antioxidants, it’s low in calories, but it doesn’t contain much protein. The Independent recommends pairing it with beans or lentils to increase your meals protein.
There’s more to milk than dairy
Dairy is a key component of many of our diets, it is a good source of protein and calcium. A number of dairy products are made from the milk of cows, sheep and goats, but there are many alternatives.
Soy has a similar nutritional value to cow’s milk: it has nearly the same amount of protein, but less fat and no cholesterol. It is a good source of minerals, vitamins and isoflavones (antioxidants that could reduce inflammation in the body).
Regarding cheese, soy is a very popular alternative, as it melts well and is low in fat. It usually has various ingredients added to help mimic the texture and taste of dairy cheese. However, check the ingredients of all soy dairy products as it may contain casein, which is a type of milk protein.
Nut milk such as almond milk is low in calories and fat, but also low in protein. If swapping to nut milk, we should be making up the missing proteins and vitamins elsewhere. Nut milk substitutes tend to have a creamy consistency and a nutty taste which differs to cow’s milk. A range of nuts can be used to make vegan cheese, with cashews being some of the most popular.
Coconut milk has a thick consistency and creamy texture and it is widely available and versatile. It contains protein, vitamin C and magnesium, but it is high in calories and saturated fats. Coconut can give cheese the familiar fattiness associated with dairy cheese and can come in blocks or slices. However, coconut has a strong flavour, meaning other flavours are usually added to make it more similar to dairy milk or cheese.
Meat and dairy alternatives are available in a variety of forms and flavours. With so much choice, it is important to know the nutritional profile of your chosen foods to make sure they are fitting your dietary requirements. It’s possible to have a balanced and nutritional vegan diet as long as you are conscious about what you eat and include a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, pulses and whole grains in your diet.
Disclaimer: The content of this website is provided for informational purposes only and does not substitute the medical advice from a healthcare professional.