Certain key nutrients are hard to come by if you follow a plant-based or vegetarian diet. We find out how to make sure your diet is balanced and ask whether supplements are a good idea
Finding out what works for you on a vegan or vegetarian diet and what doesn’t can take time but it’s good to know there are steps you can take to ensure you get the right nutrition for your body.
Nutritionist Sana Khan, founder of health and aesthetic clinic Avicenna Wellbeing, says, “Following a plant-based diet can be excellent but common problems arise when the diet lacks variety, or when processed foods (which often lack nutritional value) are relied on, and the commitment can be troublesome for those who lead a busy life and can’t plan ahead.” She advises, ‘When you consider that the body can store vitamins and minerals for up to a year, you may not experience symptoms until 12 months after changing your diet — making it difficult to connect the dots. If food groups are ever eliminated, they must be carefully replaced.”
Vegan sources of vitamin B12
Your brain, nerves, blood cells and many other parts of the body need this essential vitamin to function properly. It’s found in meat, fish, milk cheese and eggs, but if you’re following a vegan or vegetarian diet it can also be found in abundance in nutritional yeast, Marmite and other yeast spreads, fortified soy and almond milk, plant-based ‘meats’, fortified cereals, tempeh, chlorella, nori seaweed and cremini mushrooms. Sana recommends B12 supplements: “These can be found among a B-complex supplement or B12 alone — sublingual sprays can be effective and have been shown to have better absorption. You can also get B12 intramuscular injections to help.”
Plant-based food rich in iron
Your body needs this mineral for growth and development, using it to make haemoglobin and certain hormones. A lack of iron may result in anaemia, weakness, tiredness and a lack of energy. It’s found in lean meat, seafood and poultry. For vegetarians and vegans, a great source is white beans, lentils, spinach, kidney beans, chickpeas, tofu, nuts, dried fruits like raisins and iron-fortified breakfast cereals. If you’re not getting enough iron, there are plenty of alternative supplements, “I recommend liquid iron combined with vitamin C, as the vitamin C helps facilitate absorption of iron in the body,” Sana advises. “Ferrous fumarate tends to be easier on the digestive tract — other forms can cause constipation for some.”
Omega 3 and 6 in vegan food
Your body needs omega-3 (alpha-linolenic acid) and omega-6 (linoleic acid) for the healthy function of all cells in the body. They’re the only two fatty acids the body can’t produce for itself.
These fats are common in oily fish such as salmon, tuna, mackerel and anchovies. Plant-based sources include flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, canola oil, walnuts and hemp – and vegetarians can also take advantage of finding them in eggs. Supplements for omega-3 may still be needed for vegans, as Sana explains: “The ratio of EPA and DHA [long-chain omega-3 fatty acids] is not the same in nuts as from oily fish. I’d recommend a good omega-3-based supplement, which, as a rule of thumb, I’d suggest storing it in the fridge, as fats at room temperature may go rancid.”
Vegan protein sources
Your body also needs protein, which is essential for cell renewal and muscle growth. Nutritionist Stuart Jack co-founded Muscle Mary to offer alternative protein sources for people adopting a plant-based diet. Here are his recommended high-protein vegan foods.
Seitan (21g protein per 100g)
Sometimes referred to as wheat gluten, this is a meat substitute made from hydrated gluten, the main protein of wheat. It has a similar taste to a portobello mushroom and has become popular because of its texture, which can be similar to white meat. Clearly, those with an intolerance to gluten should avoid it.
Tempeh (20g protein per 100g)
This traditional Indonesian food is made from fermented soybeans and has a mushroomy taste. The fermentation process lowers the amount of phytic acid, which may increase the amount of minerals your body can absorb from tempeh, including vitamin B12. Tempeh can be consumed in a host of ways and is commonly used in stir fries, curries or salads. Be aware, though, that soy is a common allergy and those who experience it should avoid tempah.
Chickpeas (19g protein per 100g)
Part of the legume family, they have nutty taste and are generally used with a combination of other foods and often found in curries, salads, fajita mixes and stir fries. They’re rich in fibre vitamins and minerals, including iron and folate.
Quinoa (9g protein 180g)
Referred to by the Inca Empire as the ‘mother of all grains, quinoa has since been recognised as a superfood as it contains all nine essential amino acids and is high in iron, potassium, calcium and vitamin E.