In January 2020, a reported 400,000 people officially signed up to Veganuary, a UK charity event since 2014 which has seen uptake double year on year. Veganuary promotes trying a vegan lifestyle for the month of January in support of saving animals.
As concerns over animal welfare and the climate crisis continue to be a global priority, more and more people are choosing to incorporate less animal products in their diets. According to finder.com it is estimated that by the end of 2020 there could be 5.2M less meat-eaters in the UK. Plant based diets continue to rise, and their reports indicate there could be a total of 2.1M vegans and 5.9M vegetarians in 2020.
As more and more Brits adopt plant-based diets and lifestyles for health, environmental and ethical reasons it is important to educate ourselves on the nutritional qualities of various categories of plant foods. From vitamins and minerals to protein, fats and carbohydrates, it is not just focussing on what not to eat, but what we should be eating.
It is also worth noting that vegan does not automatically mean healthy, and that is one of the key differences when compared with a whole foods plant-based diet. Diets based on whole foods (whether it includes meat or no-meat) tend to avoid and limit highly processed foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar.
If you are participating in Veganuary this year, thinking of cutting or reducing meat in your diet or are already vegan or vegetarian, here are our top tips to ensure you get all the nutrients you need.
Definition of a plant-based diet
We use the term “plant-based”, but what does it really mean? The truth is, there are actually several different definitions of a plant based diet. Let’s take a look.
Vegan refers to a 100% plant based diet where only plant foods are consumed. A vegan diet consists of consuming predominantly fruit, vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds whilst completely omitting any animal foods including dairy, eggs and honey.
A plant based diet that is predominantly filled with plant foods but also includes some dairy and eggs. Vegetarians do not consume any meat or seafood.
Those who eat small amounts of fish and seafood can also be plant-based because their overall diet is centred around plant foods.
Yes meat eaters can also be plant-based! Omnivores who follow a plant-based diet consume small amounts of meat, seafood and other animal products however overall, their diets are focussed on plant foods. An example is the Mediterranean diet.
The key criteria for a plant-based diet is that the overall foods consumed are not only plant foods but whole foods.
Meeting Nutrient Requirements
When transitioning to a no or low animal foods diet, it is important to replace certain nutrients with appropriate alternatives to avoid malnutrition. Let’s take a look at these key nutrients.
Vitamin B12 is essential in the production of red blood cells, metabolism of food and normal growth and development. B12 is derived naturally from only animal products, therefore it is best for vegans to choose fortified foods such as plant milks, cereals, vegan spreads, yeast extract (e.g. Marmite), nutritional yeast (e.g. Marigold) and meat substitutes. Alternatively, you may want to consider taking a vitamin supplement. The recommended daily amount is 1.5mcg per day for both women and men.
Tip: Check fortified food labels for levels of B12 and aim to have fortified foods 2-3 times per day to meet the daily requirement.
Iron is a mineral essential for transporting blood around the body and a key component in enzymes, in immune health and in energy metabolism. Good plant sources include lentils, beans, chickpeas, tofu, cashews, chia seeds, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, kale, dried fruit, quinoa and fortified foods. Vegans and vegetarians should aim to consume over the daily recommended amount, at 14.8mg for women and 8.7mg for men, as plant sources contain non-heme iron which is not as readily absorbed by the body.
Tip: Avoid tea/coffee within 30 minutes either side of meal times as they can inhibit iron absorption, and include sources of Vitamin A and C which promote iron absorption.
Calcium is a mineral essential for healthy bones. Good plant sources include tofu, leafy greens, almonds, sesame seeds / tahini, dried fruit, pulses, bread and fortified plant milks/cheese. The recommended daily amount for both women and men is 700mg per day.
Tip: A balanced and varied diet is the best way to meet calcium requirements. Maintaining good levels of Vitamin D in the body promotes calcium absorption.
Omega 3 is an essential fatty acid and is vital for the functioning of cardiovascular, reproductive, immune and nervous systems. Oily fish is usually the main food source. Good plant sources include walnuts, flax seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, rapeseed oil, soy and soya products such as tofu, and seaweed/algae. There are some fortified foods such as breads, milks, juices, margarines and yoghurts. Vegetarians can also get a good source from eggs.
Tip: There is no official daily recommendation for Omega 3 intake however health organisations recommend between 250 - 500mg per day to be sufficient.
Iodine is a mineral required to synthesise thyroid hormones. The main sources are from fish, dairy and eggs. Although grains, fruits and vegetables do contain iodine, levels tend to be very low and vegans could be at risk of deficiency. Good plant source includes seaweed and fortified table salts, alternatively a supplement may be suitable. The recommended daily amount is 140mcg per day for women and men.
Tip: Be careful to consume too much seaweed, which can contain excessive amounts of iodine. Opt for iodised table salt available at most supermarkets.
Selenium is a component of proteins that play a key role in metabolism, thyroid function and selenium is also an antioxidant. Mainly found in eggs, meat and fish, good plant sources include brazil nuts, cashew nuts, sunflower seeds, couscous and whole wheat pasta. The recommended daily amount is 60mcg for women and 75mcg for men per day.
Tip: Just 1-2 brazil nuts per day will provide enough Selenium for both women and men.
Zinc is an antioxidant and supports healthy growth and development of our cells all around the body, energy metabolism, immune health, puberty, protein and DNA synthesis. Found in oysters and shellfish , meat, dairy and eggs, good plant sources include whole grains, tofu, beans, nuts and seeds and vegetables such as pumpkin, spinach and broccoli. The recommended intake for zinc is 7mg per day for women and 9.5mg per day for men.
Tip: Phytate in plant foods can inhibit zinc absorption. Soaking dried beans overnight and choosing fermented whole grains such as sourdough bread is found to help reduce levels of phytic acid.
Vitamin D plays an important role in bone health by increasing calcium absorption, as well as supporting brain function, nervous system, cellular growth and regulation of immune responses. The best source of vitamin D is sunshine, however during winter months in the UK it is important to maintain sufficient levels through dietary sources which are usually derived from animal products. Good plant sources include fortified products such as plant milk, cereals and vegan spreads.
Tip: As natural levels of vitamin D in foods are variably low, there is a general recommendation to supplement during Winter months.
Before making changes to your diet, it is best to consult a healthcare professional. Particularly if you have any pre-existing conditions or are pregnant.
Whether you are participating in Veganuary or shifting to a more plant based diet, consider consuming a variation of whole foods that will provide a suite of nutrients. Here are some plant-based / vegan recipes for you to try:
Get Expert Guidance
If you'd like guidance on transitioning to a plant based diet or would like to review your current plant based diet to ensure you are consuming a balance of nutrients then you can book a free discovery call with Elly.