How to optimise nutrients on a vegan diet
Updated: Jan 19
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re probably aware that January is Veganuary, a campaign to encourage people to try veganism for health, ethical and/or environmental reasons(1).
EVERYONE can benefit from increasing their intake of plant foods - fruit, veg, nuts & seeds, herbs & spices, beans, legumes and wholegrains. But if you're following a vegetarian or vegan diet (or any diet that excludes key food groups) you need to ensure you’re getting sufficient vital nutrients to make energy and for general health.
So which key nutrients might be lacking in a vegan diet?
Vitamin B12 plays an important role in energy production, brain function and the nervous system, so unsurprisingly deficiency can result in:
anaemia, which also causes fatigue
pins and needles, nerve issues
high homocysteine, a risk factor for cardiovascular disease(2) and dementia(3)
Vitamin B12 is stored in the body for 2-3 years so if intake is reduced due to a vegan or vegetarian diet, symptoms may not appear for some time, and supplementation is recommended for vegans.(4)
OMEGA-3 FATTY ACIDS Acids EPA & DHA:
Anti-inflammatory essential fatty acids docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) are a crucial component of our cell membranes and contribute to regulating blood pressure and inflammation(5). They also protect against a range of diseases such as cancer, heart disease, depression, asthma and autoimmune disorders(5).
Red meat, dairy products and seafood are the main dietary sources of EPA and DHA. Plant foods only contain the fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) which must be converted to EPA and DHA but conversion levels are low - up to 10% for EPA and up to 5% for DHA(6). Vegans have been found to have almost half the levels of EPA compared to meat eaters, and almost 60% lower levels of DHA(5).
To ensure vegans and vegetarians get enough EPA and DHA, it’s important to eat ALA-rich plant foods(7), and additional supplementation may be necessary.
Good news! - there are now a range of vegan EPA and DHA supplements which are made from the algae the fish feed on.
Iron is an important component of haemoglobin in red blood cells which helps transport oxygen around the body. Oxygen is used by every cell in the body for energy production.
Animal sources of iron: fish, poultry, meat and eggs
Plant sources of iron: beans, lentils, chickpeas, nuts and nut butter, seeds and pulses, but these sources may not be well absorbed.
Top tips to maximise absorption:
eat vitamin C-rich foods such as broccoli and peppers with iron-containing foods
avoid drinking tea and coffee with iron-rich foods as the caffeine and polyphenols they contain can inhibit absorption by up to 90%(8)
pre-soak beans, lentils and grains to maximise digestibility and nutrient absorption
VITAMIN A (Retinol):
Vitamin A contributes to a healthy immune system, skin and eye health, reproduction and gut health. It’s also important for the proper functioning of the heart, lungs, kidneys, and other organs.
Dietary sources are predominantly from animal sources:
milk and yoghurt
liver and liver products such as pate
Beta-carotene found in plants can be converted into vitamin A. The main sources of beta-carotene are:
Yellow, red and green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, carrots, sweet potatoes and red peppers
Yellow fruit such as mango, papaya and apricots
However, levels of absorption and conversion of beta-carotene into vitamin A by the body can vary from person to person due to a number of factors(10), so vegans may need to supplement.
Please note that vitamin A can be toxic at high levels so expert advice on supplementation is recommended.
This recently discovered, less well-known nutrient is essential for brain function and metabolism - the term for all the chemical reactions that take place in our bodies. Low intakes can contribute to brain, heart and liver disorders as well as high cholesterol(11).
Choline is found predominantly in animal products such as eggs, fish, and liver, and to a lesser extent in plant foods such as broccoli and cauliflower(12).
WHAT YOU CAN DO:
Nowadays there are a range of vegan nutritional supplements available. Vitamin and mineral requirements can vary widely from person to person as a result of age, gender, genetic, health issues and medications, as well as dietary choices. Seeking help from a qualified practitioner may be beneficial if you're excluding any food groups.
Blood tests can measure nutrient levels but these show nutrient levels in the blood only.
Urine testing which can tell us how nutrients are getting into our cells and being metabolised in the body.
Genetic testing can reveal SNPs or variations which may impact how well you produce enzymes to convert one nutrient into another - like beta-carotene into Vitamin A, and ALA into EPA and DHA (I have this one!)
If you'd like some expert help optimising your nutrient status, book a FREE discovery call to discover how nutritional therapy may help?
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The content on this webpage is not intended to constitute or be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.