Going plant-based is a worthy endeavour, but if you’re after better health as well as eco credentials, then you need to consider more than simply cutting out meat and cheese. Third Space Medical Nutritionist Sarah Carolides explains
For many the switch the veganism is a simple one. In some cases, it centres on the search for better health; in others, it’s to do with the environment. However, though the inspiration for the switch can be simplistic, the realities of following a vegan diet are far more complex.
The key is in managing your micronutrients. Many newly-converted vegans obsess over protein intake, but it’s not the macros that you’re most at risk of missing. Important vitamins and minerals that are crucial for overall health, not to mention performance in the gym, can be harder to come by in high doses as a vegan. Here we detail the key culprits to keep an eye on, plus explain why and how you need to get more of them. We hope you’re hungry for knowledge.
The animal form of this nutrient, which humans use, is called retinol. The plant forms are called carotene – the most well-known being beta-carotene. For our bodies to use beta-carotene, we must first convert it to retinol and it takes a huge amount of carotene to do so. Plus, roughly 40% of the population carry genetic variations that reduce their conversion ability by up to 60%, which makes vitamin A deficiency more likely and heightens your risk of poor eye health, bad skin and low immunity. Fill up your carrier bags with carotene to ensure you’ve got plenty in stock.
Add to basket: Carrots, sweet potatoes, apricots, paprika, coriander
Essential Fatty Acids
There are several fatty acids that the body needs that are called essential because we can’t make them ourselves. The most important of these are the Omega 3 fatty acids, which can reduce inflammation, increase bone density and protect brain health. They also come mainly from animal sources. Plus, it’s bloody difficult to convert the plant sources into what the body needs. Omega-3 supplements will mainly come from fish oil and seafood sources, but there are vegan friendly options to look out for.
Add to basket: Algal oil, flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts
This is very hard to obtain on a vegan diet – especially in Britain where we get less chance to derive it from sunlight. In my experience, almost everyone is deficient in vitamin D, whether they are meat-eaters or not, so I would recommend a supplement of this to everyone. Vitamin D is linked to brain and heart health, and even muscle gain – all benefits you don’t want to miss out on.
Add to basket: Vitamin D3 and K2 supplements for better absorption.
(Note: Vitamin K2 is also very difficult for vegans to get enough of, unless you are eating a large amount of natto – a fermented soy with a very distinct flavour. Vitamin K is essential for moving calcium to your bones, so topping up to benefit your Vitamin D levels is doubly beneficial, especially as you age.)
This is another complicated example of the plant form and animal form of the nutrient being different. The plant form of B6 is called pyridoxine, which humans cannot use. A deficiency can leave you at risk of low mood and weakened immune system. However, to make things just that little bit more difficult, cheap supplements will actually contain the plant form, which is pointless – so don’t scrimp.
Add to basket: A reputable vitamin supplement that covers the whole gamut of B vitamins to ensure better absorption.
Perhaps the best known of the potential deficiencies for vegans, it is estimated that up to 70% of vegans are lacking in vitamin B12. This is a crucial nutrient for healthy energy supplies and ensuring that you have the get-up-and-go to train hard and effectively. However, as mentioned above, the relationship between B vitamins and your food is complicated, and so ensuring you have a Vitamin B complex supplement that covers all bases is a useful dietary safety net.
Add to basket: Another tub of B-complex vitamins supplements, just in case
As above, there are animal and plant forms of iron. The animal form is called heme iron, and the plant form is called non-heme iron. We can absorb both forms of iron, but our ability to use heme iron is more than double. Currently, iron deficiency is the most common diet related health problem in the world, and it can cause extreme fatigue and dizziness. More vitamin C can help the absorption of non-heme iron, but it is still very difficult to build up enough iron stores on a vegan diet alone without supplementation.
Add to basket: Iron and vitamin C duo supplement
Often overlooked, zinc is a crucial mineral for both physical and mental health. There are several vegetable sources, but they are usually accompanied by high phytic acid, which interferes with zinc absorption. The lower absorption rates of zinc may mean that vegetarians and vegans need up to 50% more zinc in their diets than non-vegetarians.
Add to basket: Chickpeas, lentils, pumpkin seeds, cashews – and lots of them
Choline is an essential nutrient mostly present in eggs, meat and dairy. It’s crucial for brain development, liver health, muscle movement and the nervous system, and the jury is still out on whether most vegans are consuming enough from tofu and other sources – so don’t leave it up to chance.
Add to basket: Even more tofu