Nutritional Advice for Vegans and Vegetarians

Vegetarian and vegan diets are becoming increasingly popular. But for those who choose to adopt these type of plant-based diets, it is important to do so safely.

Nutritional Guidelines

The Eatwell Guide, which is the evidence-based healthy eating guide used in the UK, can be followed by those on a plant-based diet as it includes alternative options for meat such as: beans, pulses, and ‘other proteins’ (including tofu, mycoprotein etc.); and dairy alternatives such as soya milk. 

Healthy eating advice still applies vegetarians and vegans.

For example, it is still important to aim for at least 5 portions of fruit and vegetables per day, to include starchy carbohydrates at each meal (preferable wholegrain versions), to get enough protein and calcium, and to limit foods which are high in saturated fat, salt and sugar. 

 

Image reference: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-eatwell-guide 

 

 ‘The Vegan Plate’ is a more specific guide for vegans to follow.

This was created by two dietitians called Brenda Davis and Vesanto Melina for The Vegan Society

This highlights a variety of vegan-friendly calcium and protein sources, and emphasises the role of: nuts, seeds, beans, lentils and chickpeas in a balanced vegan diet.

It also highlights how important it is to get enough vitamin D, vitamin B12, iodine and omega-3 fat; and mentions that supplements are usually needed by vegans to achieve this.

 

 

Image reference: http://www.brendadavisrd.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/Vegan-Plate-art-BIG-hi-res-2.jpg

Important Nutrients For Vegetarians and Vegans

Cutting out food groups runs the risk of causing nutritional deficiencies.

But vegetarian and vegan diets can be well balanced, as long as they include all of the following nutrients in healthy amounts.

 

Protein
Role:
  • Growth
  • Repair
  • Wound healing
  • Used in hormone and enzyme production
  • Used in cell signalling
Food Sources:
  • Tofu
  • Mycoprotein (e.g. Quorn)
  • Soya protein
  • Seitan and wheat protein
  • Pea protein (e.g. Beyond Meat products)
  • Beans and lentils
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Eggs and dairy*
Additional info: Aim for 2 – 3 portions of these foods per day. Check out this post for more information about vegetarian sources of protein. 

 

Calcium
Role:
  • Bone development
  • Bone health
  • Blood clotting
  • Healthy teeth
  • Healthy muscles
Food Sources:
  • Fortified dairy alternatives (e.g. soya or nut milks and yoghurts)
  • Calcium fortified juice drinks
  • Tofu
  • Green leafy vegetables
  • Dried fruit
  • Beans, lentils and chickpeas
  • Nuts and seeds (especially sesame seeds and tahini)
  • White and brown bread
  • Tinned fish (with bones)*
Additional info: Aim for 3 portions of these foods per day.

 

Iron
Role:
  • Transporting oxygen around our body
  • Storing oxygen in muscle
  • Healthy immune system
  • Enzyme function
Food Sources:
  • Beans
  • Nuts and seeds (especially sesame seeds)
  • Wholegrains
  • Iron fortified breakfast cereals
  • Yeast extract
  • Dried fruit
  • Green leafy vegetables (like kale, spinach and watercress)
  • Eggs, fish and poultry*
Additional info: To increase iron absorption, include sources of vitamin C along with meals containing iron (e.g. fruit, vegetables, fruit juice).

 

Iodine
Role:
  • Thyroid health
  • Reproductive health and fertility
  • Healthy development of a foetus  
Food Sources:
  • Iodised salt
  • Fortified plant based milks e.g. M&S oat drink and Alpro soya milk
  • Seaweed**
  • Dairy products and seafood*
Additional info: Vegans may need to consider taking an iodine supplement.  

 

Selenium
Role:
  • Acts as an antioxidant in our body
  • Important for reproduction
  • Important for thyroid health
  • Used in DNA production
Food Sources:
  • Brazil nuts
  • Eggs and fish*
Additional info: One Brazil nut contains the daily selenium requirements for an adult.  

 

Zinc
Role:
  • Important for immune health
  • Involved in creating DNA and protein
  • Important for growth for babies and children
  • Wound healing
  • Involved in taste and smell
  • Involved in digestion
Food Sources:
  • Whole grains
  • Breakfast cereals which were fortified with zinc
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Leafy vegetables
  • Root vegetables
  • Fermented soya like tempeh and miso
  • Beans
  • Poultry, shellfish, dairy and eggs*
Additional info: Soaking dried beans and rinsing them before cooking increases zinc absorption.  

 

Vitamin B12
Role:
  • Role in DNA formation
  • Keeping nerve and blood cells healthy
  • Preventing megaloblastic anemia
  • Converting food to energy
Food Sources:
  • Breakfast cereals and plant-based milks which are fortified with vitamin B12
  • Yeast products (like marmite and nutritional yeast)
  • Fish, eggs and dairy*
Additional info: Many supplements made for vegans contain vitamin B12.

 

Vitamin D
Role:
  • Absorption of calcium and bone health
  • Immune health
  • Muscle health
Food Sources:
    • Certain mushrooms which have been exposed to UV light
    • Fortified margarine and breakfast cereals
    • Dairy, egg yolks and oily fish (if these are eaten)
Additional info: The best source of vitamin D is sunlight or vitamin D supplements – most people who live in the northern hemisphere are advised to consider taking a 10μg of vitamin D per day from October – March.

 

Omega-3
Role:
  • Heart health
  • Brain and eye development in infants
  • Reducing inflammation
  • Neurological health
  • Possible role in treating depression
Food Sources:
  • Seaweed**
  • Chia seeds, linseeds/flaxseeds, hemp seeds
  • Walnuts and walnut oil
  • Soybeans and soybean oil
  • Rapeseed oil
  • Tofu
  • Bread and spreads which are fortified with omega 3
  • Eggs and dairy which are fortified with omega 3*
  • Oily fish*
Additional info: Those who don’t eat fish, can use omega 3 supplements which are made from algae, but it is not currently clear whether these are beneficial to take.

Table references: The Manual of Dietetic Practice (5th Edition, 2014 – table A2.1 p. 923), ‘The Vegan Plate’ by Davis & Melina, BDA Food Fact Sheet ‘Vegetarian Diets’

*for vegetarians who include these foods in their diet (e.g. pescatarians, demi-vegetarians and flexitarians)

** Seaweed is not recommended more than once per week as it can provide an excessive amount of iodine.  

Fortified Foods & Supplements

In most countries it is becoming easier for vegetarians and vegans to eat a balanced diet, as there are more nutritious types of plant-based foods becoming available.

For example, most soya and nut milks are fortified with calcium, vitamin B12 and vitamin D, and some are also starting to fortify with iodine as well (so it’s best to check the labels).

There are also new types of plant-based meat alternatives emerging, like the Impossible Burger which has been designed in a lab to be very similar to meat, even though it contains only plant-based ingredients. You can check out this post and video for more information about this, and other meat alternatives for vegetarians and vegans. 

Although it is usually better to get all the nutrients we need from our diet, supplements can be useful for some people who follow plant-based diets.

This depends on how restrictive the diet is. For example, vegans often need to supplement with: vitamin B12 and iodine. Vegan-friendly omega 3 supplements made from algae are available, however omega 3 supplements have not been found to have the same heart healthy benefits as eating oily fish. For more information, here is a post I wrote for The Food Medic’s educational hub about omega-3 fats.

And everybody in the UK over the age of one, including pregnant and breastfeeding women, are advised to consider taking a daily supplement containing 10 mcg of vitamin D, especially from during the winter months (October – March).

Pregnant women, breastfeeding women, babies and young children who follow a plant-based diet are more likely to need certain supplements.

For example, on top of the standard advice for children from 6 months to 5 years to have a daily vitamin supplement containing vitamins A, C and D (unless having >500ml of infant formula per day), infants and children on vegan diet may need more diet planning and supplementing with vitamin B12 and iodine (ensuring less than 200 micrograms of iodine per day is given). For more information about this, see the ‘Eating well: vegan infants and under-5s’ advice from First Steps Nutrition, and if in doubt you can ask your GP to refer you and your child to a Paediatric Dietitian.

But it is important not to take very high doses of supplements, or to take multiple supplements which contain the same vitamins or minerals.

high quality study from 2012 found no evidence that antioxidant supplements reduced the risk of diseases, and in fact taking vitamin E and high doses of vitamin A was associated with a higher risk of early death. 

More Information on Vegetarian & Vegan Diets:

More from Dietetically Speaking

Read: Non-Diet Nutrition: Examining the Evidence
Read: What is Non-Diet Nutrition?
Read: Sweeteners: Friend or Foe?
Read: 20 Reasons Why Context Matters with Nutrition
Read: The Alkaline Diet: Past to Present
Read: Low-Carb Diets and Population Health – Where Do We Stand?
Read: What You Need to Know about Vegetarian Meat Alternatives
Read: How Environmentally Friendly are Plant-Based Diets?
Read: The Lowdown on Omega-3