Veganuary 2022 is here and we’ve invited Registered Nutritionist Dr Pippa Gibson to share her top tips for eating well on a vegan diet, including a nutritious recipe for hummus
The growth of veganism and Veganuary
Veganism is increasing in popularity with key reasons including perceived health benefits, animal welfare, religious beliefs and environmental intentions. In 2019, 3% of people reported themselves at vegetarians and 1% as vegans in the UK. Veganuary, a non-profit organisation encouraging people to try going vegan for January and beyond, is a growing campaign, with over half a million people taking the Veganuary pledge in 2021 (double that of 2019) – and that’s just the number of people who officially pledged to the movement, so chances are many more people give the challenge a go.
Vegan diets are often associated with a healthier lifestyle, but all too frequently the best laid out intentions can sometimes be lacking in some nutrients. There is an abundance of vegan products on the market, but not all are made equally, with some products gaining a ‘health halo’ status. Watch out for ‘junk’ vegan foods, which like their meat counterparts can be high in hidden sugar, salt and saturated fats, and be overly processed which can remove many nutrients traditionally associated with a plant-based diet. A useful resource to compare and understand food labels is the FoodSwitch app.
The British Dietetic Association confirmed that a well planned out vegan diet can support healthy living people of all ages, but how do we know what we should be planning for?
Which micronutrients may be lacking on a vegan diet?
The main micronutrients which are trickier to obtain from a vegan diet include:
- Omega 3 fatty acids
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin B12
It is important to make sure you are getting enough of these specific nutrients if you are following a vegan diet, or restricting specific food groups similar to vegans.
Here are my top tips for making sure you get the right amount of each of these nutrients:
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are synonymous with oily fish such as mackerel, salmon and sardines, but if you are following a vegan diet these are not foods you will be consuming. There are good alternative plant-based sources of omega-3 from foods such as soya-based products, green leafy vegetables, vegetable oils including rapeseed and linseed, nuts and seeds including walnuts, linseed and chia seeds.
Fish sources of omega-3 are rich in types of fatty acids called docosahexaenoic (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic (EPA), which have been linked to improved heart health. Plant sources are richer in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which the body can use to make EPA and DHA. However, this conversion rate isn’t always as efficient as directly consuming EPA and DHA. Why? If a diet is high in linoleic acid (LA; a type of omega-6 fatty acid, which in itself is a healthy fat), the conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA is decreased. The balance is therefore important. The Vegan Society recommend some practical tips to help your body make ALA into EPA and DHA:
- Use rapeseed (vegetable) oil instead of oils containing a lot of LA, such as sunflower, corn or sesame oils
- Limit servings of pumpkin seeds or sunflower seeds to around 30g (¼ cup)
Other good sources of omega-3 fats with higher ALA levels include walnuts, linseeds, hemp seeds and chia seeds, which could be beneficial in an unsupplemented vegan diet. You can try sprinkling these seeds and nuts over your breakfast cereal and salads for a tasty crunch, or use rapeseed oil as your main cooking oil. If you find you are lacking in these types of fats, vegan omega-3 supplements are available which have been made from algae. Speak to your pharmacist, GP or registered dietitian or nutritionist for more information.
For most people, dairy is the best source of calcium in the diet. However, with dairy products off the table when you’re vegan, you need to look for alternative sources of calcium which is needed by the body for bone health as well as muscular functions. An easy swap would be to use a fortified milk product alternative – most dairy free milk alternatives are fortified with calcium to the same level as cow’s milk but if it’s an organic substitute, they tend not to be fortified, so do be sure to check the label.
Other plant-based sources of calcium include:
- Sesame seeds and tahini
- Green leafy vegetables including kale, cabbage, broccoli and bok choy
- Tofu, in particular calcium set tofu (check the label for calcium sulphate or calcium phosphate)
- Beans, peas and lentils including chickpeas, black beans and soybeans
- Some green leafy vegetables are high in calcium, but also a compound called oxalates. Oxalates can bind calcium in the gut, meaning it is harder to absorb. Foods that are high in oxalates include spinach and Swiss chard. You can reduce the levels of oxalates by 30-87% by boiling these vegetables, rather than steaming or baking.
Over 50% of cases of anaemia are due to nutritional iron deficiency, with global levels of iron deficiency estimated to be as high as 33%. With growing trends of vegetarian and veganism, this problem could be further exacerbated. The good news is that iron uptake can be boosted by combining non-haem iron rich foods plant-foods with a source of vitamin C. So when life gives you lemons, use them to increase iron absorption in your next meal.
Plant-based sources of iron include:
- Dark green leafy vegetables
- Dried fruits such as apricots and figs
- Seeds and nuts such as chia, linseed, pumpkin and hemp
- Beans and pulses such as chickpeas, black-eyed beans and lentils
- Cereals and cereal products including fortified breakfast cereals
The iron absorption of these foods can be further improved by the addition of vitamin C rich foods including:
- Citrus fruits e.g. oranges, lemons and limes
- Berries such as blackcurrants, raspberries and strawberries
- Capsicums including bell peppers and chilli
- Some cruciferous vegetables including broccoli and kale
On the flip side, watch out for teas and coffees with meals, as some of the plant chemicals (tannins and flavonoids) in these drinks make it harder to absorb the iron. Research shows iron absorption can be inhibited by up to 80% when having a tea or coffee with or directly after a meal containing iron. The good news? Leaving a one-hour gap between your meal and your next tea could dissipate this inhibition.
Zinc is an essential trace mineral commonly associated with immunity, assisting wound healing and in the production of proteins in the body. Dietary sources of zinc are similar to those of iron, including beans, wholegrains, nuts and seeds. With zinc, fermentation of good plant-based sources of zinc can help increase zinc absorption. This includes foods such as fermented soy beans including tempeh, natto and miso, unfermented beans (soak them before cooking to improve zinc absorption), and certain fortified breakfast cereals. For more information on zinc visit the Vegan Society’s zinc information sheet.
For most people, dietary sources of iodine can be obtained from fish, shellfish and dairy products, with the latter being the predominant source in UK diets. Iodine is crucial for thyroid hormone production, which in turn have a role in growth and metabolism.
Plant-based sources of iodine include seaweed and fortified foods such as milk alternatives (be sure to check the label as not all milks are fortified), bread and nuts. Conversely, seaweed has varying levels of iodine, which can be very concentrated. Currently the British Dietetic Association do not recommend consumption of seaweed more than once a week, especially during pregnancy (find out more about Seaweed and Iodine in MyNutriWeb’s blog with Juliette Kellow). Data from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey, a way we can look at the UK’s dietary intake, showed the consumers of unfortified non-dairy milks were at risk for iodine deficiency, highlighting again the importance of choosing a fortified non-diary milk alternative. For long-term veganism, consult your GP, pharmacist or a registered nutritionist or dietitian for further advice on supplementation.
Commonly known as the sunshine hormone, vitamin D is made when the skin is exposed to UVB rays causing a heat-dependant reaction of 7-dehydrocholesterol to pre-vitamin D. In the UK this can take place between April – September. We need vitamin D to help maintain healthy bones and teeth, but in recent years vitamin D has been known to have wider reaching effects on the body, including roles within the immune system in relation to Covid-19.
Despite most dairy alternative products being supplemented with vitamin D (in the form of D2), this usually is not enough on its own to maintain adequate vitamin D status over winter months. Therefore, supplementation between the months of October-March in the UK is now recommended for all (whether vegan or not). While D2 sources are always vegan, only D3 sources derived from lichen is vegan so be sure to check the label.
Are D3 and D2 equal? Research shows the supplementation of vitamin D3, rather than D2, is better at raising 25OHD levels in the blood, our best biomarker for vitamin D status. However, vitamin D2 is still an effective way of maintaining 25(OH)D levels during winter.
This vitamin is needed for the production of red blood cells, as well as ensuring your brain and nerve cells function properly. However, Vitamin B12 is the only nutrient not available from plants. The liver can act as a B12 pool when switching from an omnivore diet to a plant-based diet, but like all nutrients it is essential we keep this topped up to prevent B12 deficiency, even in the short term. One randomised controlled study showed that a four-week vegan diet, a similar length to those considering Veganuary, could lead to significantly reduced B12 serum levels in comparison to those on a meat rich diet. The only reliable way of getting enough vitamin B12 in a vegan diet is through fortified foods such as dairy-free milks, breakfast cereals, yeast extracts, nutritional yeast and some mushrooms, or by supplementation. Make sure you check the labels for fortification.
B12 absorption rates vary with the dose and requirements of the body. Therefore, it’s recommended to aim for 3mg per day from fortified foods, or take a supplement of 10mg per day or 2000mg per week.
How will I know if I am meeting my nutrient requirements on a vegan diet?
You can check if your diet is lacking anywhere by checking out a free dietary self-assessment app called VNutrition, which has been developed by a dietitian for the Vegan Society. You can also check out the Vegan Society’s Vegan Eatwell Guide to help with planning your dietary intakes with vegan specific nutrient groups. You can use this in conjunction with the VVPC plate (developed by Registered Dietitian Azmnia Godvindjiwhich may also help you build a suitable diet in terms of macronutrient, ensuring you meet these recommendations.
Remember that the same healthy eating guidelines apply regardless of if you are following a vegan diet or not. Aim for plenty of fruits and vegetables, high fibre foods including wholegrain carbohydrates, and beans and pulses (which double up as a protein source), soya products, and focus on healthy fats from nuts and seeds with limited sources of sugar and saturated fats.
Healthy hummus recipe
Try my delicious, easy hummus recipe, which combines several of these foods we’ve talked about. It’s perfect as a snack, for lunch, a light dinner or as part of a bigger meal. This dip is the perfect easy vegan recipe providing plant-based protein, iron (with increase absorption power from the lemon), healthy fats and calcium. Give it a go and don’t forget to tag @mynutriweb so we can see your creations!
- 150g drained tinned chickpeas
- 1 garlic clove, peeled
- 45g tahini
- 30ml extra virgin olive oil
- Juice of 1 large lemon
- ½ tsp ground cumin
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Sesame seeds
- Vegetable crudités
- Add the chickpeas, garlic, tahini, olive oil, lemon juice and cumin to a food processor
- Blend to your desired consistency, adding 1–2 tablespoons of water if needed
- Serve in a bowl scattered with extra toppings such as cooked chickpeas, olive oil, sesame seeds and sumac with your favourite crudités
- Any leftovers can be stored in the fridge in a covered container for three days
RELATED MYNUTRIWEB CONTENT
Shifting Food Systems (2021). E-symposium with leading experts about sustainable eating, including a practical interview on transitioning towards a plant-based diet
How Healthy are plant-based Meat Alternatives (2021). Blog post exploring recent research looking into the health profile of meat alternatives
Exercise, Vegan Nutrition and Bone Health (2021). 60 mins webinar with Heather Russell, RD (the Vegan Society) & Sarah Leyland (the Royal Osteoporosis Society) explore the latest evidence around vegans and bone health and supporting resource blog
How to be Vegan Savvy: A Practical Guide (2021). 60 mins webinar with Azmnia Govindji RD discussing the key nutritional considerations when counselling clients who wish to adopt a vegan diet and supporting resource blog
Iodine and Seaweed (2021). Juliette Kellow, RD blog post discusses the role of iodine and explores dietary recommendations around consumption of seaweed
Vegan diets, person centred practice (2020). 60 mins webinar with Heather Russell, RD (The Vegan Society) talks us through the practical aspects of a vegan diet
Are you taking part in Veganuary this year? Let us know how you’re getting on and please do share your top tips with us below in the comments!
Fantastic practical summary of optimal vegan nutrition and notable nutrients Pippa. Thank you.