The Diet Therapist
TOP NUTRITION TIPS
Nutrition Tips for a Balanced Vegan Diet
& How to Avoid Nutrient Deficiencies
Posted by The Diet Therapist, 18th February 2017
I recently met the lovely Rachida, founder of online vegan platform "the Green V" when I was working at a Wellness Retreat in Shropshire.
Rachida had lots of questions about nutrition for vegans and ran this piece on her blog; you can read the full interview on her site which includes my thoughts on whether soy is really safe and what the best vegan diet for weight loss is...
Click here to go to the Green V site >
I've posted some of the more general points about avoiding nutrient deficiencies below:
What’s your top nutritional tip for vegans?
I think my top tip is actually the same as non-vegans; variety is key. Try and eat a whole range of different foods and include lots of wholegrains and vegetables, fruits, beans, lentils, healthy fats (avocados, nuts and seeds, olive oil, tahini) fermented vegetables, and fortified plant-based dairy, including probiotic forms (e.g. coconut yoghurt and kombucha).
Is it true that Vegans need less calcium? And where can they get their calcium from?
Some of you may have heard of the “acid-ash” hypothesis of osteoporosis which suggests that protein produces a diet acid load, what’s called Net Acid Excretion (NAE), increased calcium in urine, and the release of calcium from bones to compensate for this, leading to osteoporosis. Some believe that as vegans don’t eat animal protein, they experience less calcium “leached” from bones, and therefore smaller calcium losses...which sometimes leads people to reason that vegans need less calcium.
Actually, the research that initiated this hypothesis is decades old and has been superseded by a range of clinical studies that found that urinary calcium is not a reliable marker for overall calcium balance.
The bottom line is that vegans have the same calcium needs as non-vegans.
There are lots of calcium-rich plant foods, but one of the issues that vegans face with various different nutrients is that of absorption or “bioavailability.” How much calcium we can actually absorb from plant-based foods varies quite a lot. However, the good news is that absorption from so-called “cruciferous” vegetables, (e.g. cabbage, kale, broccoli, collard greens, brussel sprouts and bok choy) is actually high. Many commercial plant “mylks” (including almond, hemp, cashew, rice, and oat) are also fortified with calcium and have relatively good absorption rates, making it easier for vegans to meet their recommended daily allowance. Lots of other foods like soy beans, lentils, seaweed, chickpeas, tofu, sesame seeds (and tahini), figs and apricots also contain moderate amounts of calcium which can help vegans maintain healthy levels as part of a balanced diet.
Some foods also contain anti-nutrients (e.g. “oxalates” or “phytates”/”phytic acid”), which bind to calcium and other minerals in the gastrointestinal tract and reduce absorption. Spinach and chard for example, are high-oxalate vegetables but these are also full of other nutrients so you don’t need to remove these from your diet – just don’t rely on them to get your calcium. You can help your body absorb the calcium from beans, nuts and seeds by looking for sprouted products, or by soaking them before you cook them (which helps reduce the phytic acid content and make calcium more bioavailable).
Are there any other nutrients that Vegans need to be mindful of?
Vegan plant-based diets can be extremely healthy and are associated with a lower risk of obesity, diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease. However, they do tend to be lower in Iron, Zinc, Vitamin D, and Omega 3. However, by far the hardest nutrient to get enough of is Vitamin B12 which is virtually absent from plant-derived foods.
There are many of B12 deficiency and these often develop gradually but get worse if the condition goes untreated. B12 together with folic acid, is needed to form red blood cells, and both vitamins together support proper nerve function. Symptoms include mouth ulcers, a sore/red tongue, a pale yellow tinge to skin colour, headaches, ringing in the ears, disturbed vision, irritability, depression, tiredness and lack of energy, pins and needles and a decline in mental/cognitive ability such as memory as well as the way you think, feel and behave (e.g. confusion and fogginess).
You may have read that some plant foods (e.g. nori seaweed, dried shiitake mushrooms, Spirulina and chlorella, fermented foods) contain B12, but this in what we call an “analogue” form, meaning it is chemically similar and is not biologically active in the same way.
Personally, I think that all vegans should take a nutritional supplement and also look out for fortified foods such as marmite and plant-based milks.
The type of Iron in animal foods is called “heme iron” (often attached to heme proteins) as opposed to non-attached “non-heme” iron in plant foods. Beans, pulses, green leafy vegetables and wholegrains, as well as dried fruit are great sources of this type of iron. It can be difficult for your body to absorb non-heme iron, but it is helped by vitamin C. Some foods like spinach and apricots contain both iron and vitamin C, but otherwise, you can add a source of vitamin C to your meal or snacks (useful sources are broccoli, lemon juice in dressings, tomatoes, cauliflower, spinach, peppers).
Most animal foods are higher in Zinc than plant sources but legumes, wholegrains seeds and nuts are great sources of this important micronutrient in a vegan diet. As this is also less well absorbed from plant foods, you can try toasting nuts and seeds which helps improve zinc absorption. Sprouted forms of beans and grains are much more widely available these days and these can also help boost your mineral status. In addition, look out for “leavened” bread like sourdough as the process of fermenting can also help you to absorb minerals like zinc and iron.
If you are eating a well-balanced vegan diet you are probably getting more than enough of the essential fatty acid omega-6, found in nuts, seeds, vegetable oils and grains. However, we know that the balance of omega-6 to omega-3 is important for overall health, and it is much harder for vegans to obtain the latter. You can get omega-3 from flax, hemp, chia and walnuts (and their oils), but this is in a form called “ALA” or “Alpha-Linolenic Acid” - and this has to be converted by your body into the forms EPA and then DHA (these are the 2 forms found in fatty fish and fish oil), which perform really important physiological functions. This conversion is not always efficient which is why many nutritionists recommend supplements. You can get vegan supplements of DHA/EPA derived from microalgae if you’re worried about getting enough.
Another thing to consider is iodine, mainly found in seafood. However, including iodised salt, or kelp and other seaweeds in your diet can easily help you to meet daily requirements.
Lastly, though it is pretty much impossible for anyone to get enough Vitamin D through food alone, the major dietary sources are fatty fish, eggs, and fortified dairy. You can get small amounts from mushrooms, but if you don’t get regular sunlight, it might be worth considering a supplement.
To read more tips for Vegans, go the Green V Online site here >