Firstly, some definitions… what’s the difference between vegan and plant-based?
Veganism isn't a diet; it is a way of life that is devoted to animal rights. Vegans not only abstain from animal products on their plate, but from all aspects of their life. They don't wear leather or fur, nor do they use beauty or household products that contain animal/insect ingredients or that have been tested on animals.
A plant-based diet eliminates animal products from the plate only. Plant-based eaters focus on eating whole plant foods in their original, nutrient-dense form in order to look after their own health.
A third reason for eliminating or reducing animal products, that is fast gaining publicity, is the huge environmental impact to our planet caused by intensive farming in the beef and dairy industry.
This article focuses on your nutritional needs from a plant-based diet perspective. Research shows that plant focused diets are naturally high in fibre, low in saturated fat, and rich in phytochemicals (plant nutrients) that help to protect against many chronic ill health conditions. But whatever your reasons for reducing or eliminating
animal products, know that you are part of positive change for animal welfare and for your planet.
Protein rich foods should make up about 25% of your daily plate, eg chickpeas, beans, lentils, organic tofu, tempeh, hempseed, chia seeds, almonds, peanuts, pea or hemp protein shakes. Adults need, on average, 0.83g of protein per day per kilo of body weight (more for athletes). So a 70kg adult needs around 58g of protein per day. 1 cup of cooked lentils provides around 18g of protein.
Despite what you read in the media, it’s pretty easy to meet your protein needs on a plant-based diet if you regularly eat the foods listed here. A vegan protein shake can be a great boost if you’re concerned about your intake.
Whole, unprocessed vegetables should form 40% of your plate. Whole, unprocessed fruit should form 10%. Aim to ‘eat the rainbow’ (green, red, yellow, orange, blue/black/purple, white/tan).
When selecting fruit, think seasonal and local. Apples and berries, for example, are better choices for UK residents than high-sugar fruits like mangoes and pineapples.
Whole grains should make up about 15% of your plate eg amaranth, buckwheat, millet, oats, Fairtrade certified quinoa, rice.
Fats should make up about 10% of your plate, for example olive oil, nuts and seeds (including chia and flaxseed), coconut yoghurt, Fairtrade certified avocados…
B12 is essential for many processes in your body including assisting in red blood cell formation. B12 is stored in the body so it can take 3 or 4 years for a deficiency to show up as symptom (usually beginning with pins and needles in your hands or feet).
Some plant-based foods are fortified with B12 (some breakfast cereals, nut milks, yeast extract spreads and nutritional yeast flakes). But to ensure that you are getting what you need, I would suggest supplementing (see my recommendation at the foot of this article).
Dietary iron comes from two sources, heme (from animals) and non-heme (from plants). Non-heme sources are leafy greens, broccoli, beans/lentils, tofu, pumpkin seeds, millet, figs, dried fruit. Non-heme iron is not well absorbed by the body, but you can increase absorption by combining it with Vitamin C (found in fruits and vegetables). Broccoli is a great choice as it contains both iron and vitamin C.
Coffee and tea contain tannins that may inhibit iron absorption. Avoid them for one hour before eating.
Note: whilst spinach is high in iron, it is also high in oxalates which may block iron absorption.
Essential Fatty Acids (Omega 3s)
Omega 3 fats are essential for cell membrane health, and heart and brain health. Some Omega 3s (ALAs) are available from nuts, seeds (particularly ground flaxseed) and from leafy greens, but ALA needs to be converted into DHA and EPA for the body to use and we don’t do that very efficiently. I suggest supplementing with an algae-based Omega 3 supplement like Cytoplan Omega 3 Vegan. (I have no affiliation to this product).
Choline is critical for a healthy liver and brain. Your body makes small amounts of choline but we need it in the diet as well. Eggs are a rich source but it’s tricky to get enough from a plant-based diet; limited sources include legumes, tofu, nuts/seeds, grains and leafy greens. A good multi-vitamin will include choline.
Vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin, regulates calcium and healthy bones. Spending time outdoors will help maintain your levels of Vitamin D, but there is an argument that we should all be supplementing with Vitamin D from October to March, when sunshine is scarce in the UK. Opt for Vitamin D3; it’s already been converted into its body ready form.
Essential for healthy teeth, bones and muscles, and hormone health. Plant-based sources of calcium include broccoli, kale, spinach, collards, Chinese cabbage, tofu (ensure calcium set), fortified soy milk, almonds, sesame seeds and tahini.
Zinc is needed all over the body for many functions. It’s vital for a good functioning immune system and for wound healing. Dietary sources include leafy greens, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, lentils, tofu, almonds and wholegrains.
- Don’t be a junk food vegan! Just because a product is free from animal products, that doesn’t automatically make it healthy. Many biscuit and crisps brands are ‘accidentally’ vegan. Vegan ice cream can be very high in sugar and saturated fat. Meat-substitute products are often ultra-processed and full of chemical additives and extra salt. Vegan cheese is often high in calories and provides little in the way of nutrients.
Eat food that is as close to its natural state as possible, rather than processed, refined foods that are generally sold in packets. Try to cook from scratch with raw ingredients when you can.
- Remember that food pairing is important when you follow a plant-based diet. It’s important to be aware of how the body absorbs and converts what it needs. Nutrients from animal products tend to be ‘complete’ so you don’t need to think about what goes with what. Plant-based micronutrients will sometimes only do half the job and need to pair with a buddy to give you what you need (eg iron with Vitamin c). Good pairings are:
- Leafy greens and healthy fats
- Berries and whole grains
- Mushrooms and healthy fats
- Lemons and leafy greens
- Tomatoes and healthy fats
- Don’t chance it, take a supplement. Whatever your dietary preferences, most of us would benefit from taking a daily multi-vitamin, such as G&G Vegan Multi (I have no affiliation to this product).
The supplement industry in the UK is unregulated. This means that what is advertised on the bottle need not necessarily be what is actually in the bottle.
Responsible supplement companies pay for their own research and testing, but it does mean that their end products are dearer than what you might find in a supermarket.
About the Author
Julie Hypher is a BANT registered Naturopathic Nutritional Therapist and the founder of Wildwood Nutrition, a dedicated nutritional therapy clinic in Hamble, Hampshire. She runs private clinics every Tuesday and Thursday.