Vegan diets are nothing new. For years people have abstained from meat for a variety of reasons: health, ethical, environment, religious and economic to name a few. However in recent times, going meat-free has become something of a trend with a 2016 study showing that over 2 million Australians follow a vegetarian diet – an 11.2% increase since 2012. The promise of incredible health benefits and a positive impact on the environment are seemingly convincing us to ditch the meat and embrace a plant based diet. But at what cost to our health?
Practising Accredited Dietician Nicole Dynan states that a “purely plant-based diet planned well, but it shouldn’t be assumed that it is automatically healthier. Similarly, meat containing diets can be healthy, and equally can be unhealthy if not planned correctly.
In addition, consuming a balanced plant-based diet can have some health benefits, especially as they tend to be lower in fat (particularly saturated fat) and cholesterol, high in dietary fibre, antioxidants and contain lots of fruits and vegetables.
Some specific nutrients are however, more easily absorbed or are only found naturally in animal products. Therefore, when following a vegan diet, it is important to be aware of these nutrients to decrease the risk of deficiency”
So what nutrients should you look to include in your diet if you’re not eating meat? Nicole advises to try to incorporate the following:
- Iron can be found naturally within our diet from both animal and plant-based sources. Animal sources of iron (e.g. meat products, fish and offal) is known as haem iron and this form is most easily absorbed by the body. Non-haem iron is found in eggs and plant foods and is not as easily absorbed by the body. As this is less easily absorbed, it is recommended that adults following a vegan/vegetarian diet to aim for 1.8 times the recommended daily intake for iron (e.g. 32mg (women) 14mg (men) aged 19-50yrs).
- Plant based iron sources include legumes, tofu, tempeh, green leafy vegetables, iron fortified cereals and nuts/seeds. Including foods high in vitamin C (e.g. citrus foods) with plant-based sources of iron, can help boost your uptake of this nutrient.
- Vitamin B12 is essential for healthy blood cells and neurological function. It is only found naturally in animal products therefore, it is recommended to consume vitamin B12 fortified foods (e.g. soy products, meat substitutes etc.) or consider a vitamin B12 supplement.
- As a vegan diet does not include dairy products, it is important to include other calcium rich foods (as this is beneficial for strong bones, teeth and muscle function). Including calcium fortified foods, tahini, nuts and seeds, and leafy greens can help boost your intake. Having adequate vitamin D (obtained either from the sun or through Vitamin D fortified foods with added calcium (e.g. margarine and some soy milks), helps to increase absorption of calcium.
- Zinc provides many benefits particularly with wound healing, healthy skin and the immune system. Plant based sources of zinc, include legumes, grains, nuts, seeds and soy foods (e.g. tofu, soy milk and soy yoghurt).
- Omega-3 provides many health benefits including playing a protective role against heart disease. The body cannot produce omega-3, so it is best to be gained through plant sources such as flaxseed oil, nuts, seaweed, tofu and omega 3 fortified soy milks.
Here are 6 simple tips to help plan your vegan diet:
Include at least 3 serves of legumes each day.
These could include scrambled tofu, bean burrito bowls, hummus dips or wraps, vegetarian burgers and soy milk.
Eat good sources of Vitamin C
Eat these with meals and snacks to boost iron absorption. These could include citrus fruit, tomatoes, capsicum, strawberries and green leafy vegetables. Example meals could look like lentil soup with spinach and tomatoes or porridge with strawberries.
Include sources of calcium in meals.
Calcium-rich foods can be found in all vegan food groups such as fortified rice, almond or soy milks and yoghurts; tofu and tempeh; green leafy vegetables such as kale and bok choy; and other plant foods such as Lebanese cucumbers, broccoli, oranges and dried figs.
Include a daily serve of healthy fats
This could be 1 teaspoon of flaxseed oil or olive oil, 30g or ¼ cup of nuts &/or seeds or ¼ avocado.
Choose foods that enhance iron and zinc absorption.
Phytates (antioxidants) in grains, legumes, nuts and seeds can slow the absorption of minerals in foods. Choosing wholegrain breads made with yeast or sourdough, toasted nuts and seeds and sprouted grains and legumes can help ensure good absorption of iron and zinc.
Take supplements where needed.
Vitamin B12 is only found in animal products but can be obtained through some fortified plant-based foods. Supplements are often prescribed by doctors to helps vegans meet the needs of this vitamin as it is important for many functions in the body. Other nutrients that may require supplementation if dietary planning is inadequate include iodine, vitamin D, Omega-3, iron and zinc.