Plant based diets are a great way to protect the planet, get a variety of fruit, vegetables and grains into your diet and not to mention supporting the positive movement in animal welfare. However, when cutting food groups out of your diet, especially meat and dairy products, it is important to plan your diet carefully. Going plant based can be a healthy, balanced way of eating if you are eating a variety of different foods and opting for fortified products. Ensuring you are including certain micronutrients in your diet that can be lacking when you no longer eat meat or dairy products can be difficult and may require a certain amount of planning at the beginning.
There are many different essential vitamins our body needs to function but for the purpose of this article we will look at ones that may need to be supplemented when following a mainly plant based diet.
Vitamin B12 is a very important vitamin and one that must be carefully considered when going vegan. B12 is a water-soluble vitamin which plays an important role in cell metabolism, serving as a cofactor for enzymes involved in the normal function of the nervous system, the formation of red blood cells and the metabolism of folate. The British Nutrition Foundation state that B12 is involved in energy production and together with folate and Vitamin B6 is required for maintenance of normal blood homocysteine levels – if this rises too much it can be a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
A vitamin B12 deficiency can cause fatigue, anaemia, and potential nerve damage. The British Dietetic Association recommend eating two portions of fortified foods per day to help with your B12 intake. If this isn’t possible, consider taking a daily supplement with approximately 10mg of Vitamin B12.
Food sources of Vitamin B12 are almost all animal origin products such as meat, salmon, milk, cheese and eggs. However, there are a couple of plant-based sources; breakfasts cereals, unsweetened soya milks and yeast extract such as Marmite are fortified with vitamin B12.
The Vegan Society advise that if you are relying on fortified foods, check the labels carefully to ensure you are meeting your daily requirements using the example of “if a fortified plant milk contains 1 microgram of B12 per serving then consuming three servings a day will provide adequate vitamin B12. Others may find the use of B12 supplements more convenient.” B12 is best absorbed in small amounts so it is thought they less frequently you obtain B12 them more you may need to take.
Iron is essential for the production of red blood cells. Iron is usually found in meat and eggs with absorption being helped through Vitamin C. A vegan diet can be high in iron, although iron from plant-based food is absorbed by the body less well than iron from meat.
The recommended nutrient intake for iron is higher for women than men to cover menstrual losses. Woman between the age of 19-50 years are recommended 14.8mg/d where as men are just 8.7mg/d.
Food sources of plant-based iron are foods such as dried fruits, wholegrains, leafy green vegetables, seeds and pulses. To help absorption consume with foods high in vitamin C such as citrus fruits and leafy green vegetables.
Dairy foods contribute around a third of calcium in the diets of UK adolescents and adults from foods such as cheese, yogurts and milk. Calcium is needed for helping support strong bones and teeth, regulating muscle contraction including your heart and making sure the blood clots normally. Calcium is an important mineral throughout the lifespan as lack of calcium can lead to rickets in children and osteoporosis in later life.
The recommended daily requirement of calcium for an adult aged 19 to 64 is 700mg a day with adults requiring more than children due to their bone growth. If a woman is breastfeeding her requirement goes up 550mg/d more than a woman who is not breastfeeding, so it is essential to ensure you are meeting this requirement post pregnancy.
Food sources of plant-based calcium include bread with wheat flour (this is fortified with calcium by law) fortified breakfast cereals and dairy alternatives, calcium-set tofu, pulses, tahini and sesame seeds, dried fruits such as raisins and figs.
If you have any concerns about how to ensure you are getting enough of the above nutrients, please see your GP or a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist for expert help.
NHS, British Nutrition Foundation, Vegan Society