Contrary to popular belief, a nutritionally complete vegan diet is possible and can offer many health benefits! It does however, take a little more effort and consideration to ensure that you (and your family) are getting all of the nutrients you require. This article outlines the key considerations for living a healthy, meat free life.
What is vegan eating?
A vegan diet is derived from plant-based foods only. It excludes all animal-derived foods including meat, fish, seafood, poultry, eggs, animal fats, dairy products (including products with casein, whey, rennet and gelatine) and usually also honey and yeast.
Can I use Second Nature recipes if I am vegan?
Yes! We have many vegan friendly recipes, and most recipes can easily be adapted to suit a plant based diet.
Your priority should be to make sure you're getting adequate protein with your meals, which is definitely possible on a vegan diet. It's important to keep in mind that some vegan sources of protein also contain carbohydrates, such as legumes and lentils.
While it's fine to eat these foods regularly, we recommend balancing your meals by reducing other carbohydrate sources. For example, try to avoid having lentils and rice in the same meal.
Are there any nutrients I could be lacking if I’m following a vegan diet?
Nutritional guidelines for those following a vegan diet are similar to those following a vegetarian diet. However, as some micronutrients are largely or exclusively derived from the consumption of animal products, care is required to ensure a vegan diet is nutritionally complete.
Proteins are formed from smaller components called amino acids and are generally referred to as the ‘building blocks of life’. This is because they help your body grow, maintain and repair itself. Most of these amino acids can be made in the body, but there are nine ‘essential’ amino acids that can only be obtained through the diet. These are found in varying amounts in vegan food sources, so it’s important to include the following foods regularly in your diet:
- Legumes (eg beans, lentils, chickpeas)
- Soy products (eg tofu, tempeh, soy milk, soy yoghurt)
- Textured vegetable protein (TVP)
- Nuts and seeds
- Grains - quinoa, amaranth grain, wholegrains
Iron is essential for the production of red blood cells and transportation of oxygen in the body. A vegan diet can be high in iron, however the type of iron (non-haem) available in plant based food is absorbed at a much lower rate than iron from meat (haem). Due to this, higher quantities are required to meet your daily requirements. Consumption of the following foods will help to increase your iron intake:
- Tofu and tempeh
- Nuts and seeds
- Green leafy vege
- Quinoa, amaranth grain, wholegrains
Extra tips to increase non-haem iron absorption:
- Consume food high in vitamin C (citrus fruits, strawberries, tomatoes, leafy greens) with your iron-containing foods. Vitamin C helps increase absorption of non-haem iron.
- Avoid drinking tea and coffee at the same time as iron rich foods. The tannins in these can inhibit iron absorption.
- Avoid foods fortified with calcium/calcium supplements with meals as calcium inhibits iron absorption.
Calcium is required to maintain healthy bones and teeth, and is therefore an essential nutrient for all population groups. Inadequate intake can lead to weakening of bones and an increased risk of osteoporosis. Calcium is also important for blood clotting, and nerve and muscle function. You can find calcium rich foods in the following plant based foods:
- Calcium fortified foods (eg. soy, nut, oat, rice milks and yoghurts)
- Almonds, brazil nuts
- Sesame products (seeds, tahini)
- Asian greens, kale, collard greens, broccoli
Extra tips to increase your calcium absorption:
- Ensure your Vitamin D intake is adequate (see vitamin D below)
- Limit sodium intake as salt increases the loss of calcium through your urine
- Limit caffeine intake (coffee, energy drinks, sugar sweetened beverages) as this can also inhibit calcium absorption
Vitamin D is required for absorption of calcium and phosphate, which are minerals required for healthy bones, teeth and muscles. It also plays a role in immunity and our brain function.
Vitamin D is generally known as the ‘sunshine’ vitamin as our largest source of this vitamin comes from UV sunlight rays. This can be of concern in winter, as we generally spend less time in the sun. You can also get Vitamin D through dietary sources, however these are generally in animal-derived foods. Therefore, meeting Vitamin D requirements on a vegan diet can be difficult and you will most likely require a supplement.
Like amino acids, there are some essential fatty acids we cannot make in the body. We therefore need to rely on dietary sources to meet our daily requirements. Omega 3 is one of these fatty acids and is required for general health and to reduce inflammation in the body. To boost your Omega 3 intakes, include the following foods in your diet:
- Oils (flaxseed, chia, cold-pressed rapeseed)
- Chia seeds, linseeds
It’s vital we get the right balance of Omega 3 to 6 in our diet. Omega-6 isn’t bad per se, but it's sometimes seen as bad because of the sources we get it from - largely processed vegetable oils (sunflower, corn, canola and soybean) and margarine. We would advise replacing these with oils that are high in omega 3 (e.g. flaxseed, chia, cold-pressed rapeseed oil).
Vitamin B12 is essential for cell division, red blood cell formation and maintenance of the nervous system. B12 is generally only available from animal sources, and although nutritional yeast and marmite are fortified sources, it’s highly recommended that you supplement with Vitamin B12 if you are following a vegan diet.
Iodine is essential for thyroid health and metabolism. Vegan sources include seaweed and lima beans. If you don’t eat seaweed regularly, it’s recommended that you add iodised salt to your diet, which is readily available in any supermarket.
Do I need to take supplements?
As outlined in the paragraphs above, there are some nutrients that are harder to obtain on a vegan diet and supplementation may be necessary. They are as follows:
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin D/ vitamin K complex **
- Omega 3
- Protein powder ***
If you are concerned about whether you or a family member should be on a supplement, we advise you to consult your GP or medical practitioner.
** Vitamin D requires both magnesium and vitamin K2 to be effective. While there are a number of plant based sources of magnesium, vitamin K2 is only available in meat and dairy sources. For this reason, a combined vitamin D/vitamin K2 supplement would be advisable.
*** Protein powder may be required for some individuals with high protein needs and/or individuals who cannot meet their protein requirements from food sources alone. In this case, we would recommend choosing a minimally processed product with no added sugars or sweeteners. Recommended brands include:
- Pulsin (soy or pea protein)
- Funktional Foods (pea, hemp or rice protein)
- Bulk Powders (pea, hemp or brown rice protein)
You can also read our article 'Vegan resources and recipes' for recipe ideas and resources.