Unless you’ve had your head buried in the sand, it’s been impossible not to notice the meteoric rise in the popularity of vegan or plant-based diets. What was once seen as the domain of the alternative, sandal wearing, yogurt weaving minority, veganism has now truly gone mainstream. In just a few years, the number of vegans in the UK has risen by nearly 600%, with 3.5 million British people identifying as vegan, and 300,000 predicted to be taking part in this year’s ‘Veganuary’. Why has there been such an increase you may ask. Well, motives are varied and people are choosing to follow vegan or plant-based diets for a variety of reasons including health reasons or concerns about animal welfare, however arguably one of the biggest drivers is environmental concerns, particularly reducing impact on climate change. In the UK, the public are becoming more aware of the how their eating habits impact on our planet and reducing meat and dairy intake with an increase in plant food sources of protein such as legumes, beans and seeds is a seen to be the most effective way of reducing the carbon foodprint of our diet.
This huge growth in demand has seen many high-street brands and supermarket chains jumping on board and launching vegan products. Perhaps the most talked about item that has been launched in 2019 is the Greggs vegan sausage roll. Now there is nothing inherently wrong with sausage rolls in moderation as part of a health balanced diet, and arguably the vegan sausage roll is better than it’s meat-based counterpart for the environment in terms of greenhouse gas emissions- but both products are still high in fat, saturated fat and salt (the vegan version is actually saltier than the pork sausage roll!). The health ‘halo’ that surrounds vegan products needs to be treated with caution- just because a product is meat-free does not necessarily mean that it is a healthier alternative. Vegan and plant-based diets can support optimum health as well as environmental sustainability but they must (like any diet) be planned carefully. Read on to find out a little more about some of the nutrients that you need to pay attention to if you are following a vegan or plant-based diet.
We all need vitamin D to keep our bones, teeth and muscles healthy and it is essential to help the body absorb calcium. Most of our vitamin D comes from sunlight, however in the UK the sun is only strong enough between April and September for our skin to produce sufficient amounts. During the winter months, we need to get our vitamin D from our diet. Plant-based sources of vitamin D include sun-exposed mushrooms and fortified breakfast cereals, vegetable spreads and plant-based dairy alternatives (check the label that they have been fortified with vitamin D). Current health guidance is that everyone should consider taking a daily vitamin D supplement (10 micrograms daily) during the autumn and winter months. It’s worth noting that some vitamin D supplements are not suitable for vegans but there are some lichen-derived vitamin D supplements that are vegan friendly- if in doubt speak to a pharmacist.
The ‘violet nutrient’ is often forgotten (see my previous blog on Iodine ‘The Violet Nutrient’ for more information on this essential nutrient). The major sources of iodine in the UK diet are dairy products and fish- obviously a ‘no-no’ for vegan diets. The iodine content of plant foods depends on the amount of iodine in the soil that they were grown in- a rule of thumb is that the closer to the ocean they were grown the higher the iodine content. Small amounts of iodised salt or sea vegetables are vegan friendly sources of iodine. However, it is important to note that the iodine content of seaweed is variable and sometimes can be very high , so guidance is to not consume sea vegetables more than once a week.
Plant-based sources of selenium include grains, seeds and nuts. Brazil nuts are particularly rich in selenium- just two nuts will provide you with your daily requirement for selenium!
Omega 3 fatty acids
These are special family of fats that have been shown to be important for good health. Plant-based sources of omega 3 include walnuts, linseed, chia seeds, soya beans and hemp seeds.
Calcium is vital for healthy bones. Dairy foods are a rich source of calcium but if you cannot eat these foods as part of your diet then make sure you get sufficient calcium from other foods such as calcium fortified plant-based dairy alternatives, nuts, dried fruit, sesame seeds, tofu, leafy green vegetables and red kidney beans.
Iron is found in two main forms in our diet, one is found in meat, and the other is found in plant-based foods. Good source of plant-based iron include dried fruit (particularly apricots), beans and lentils, fortified breakfast cereals, leafy green vegetables, sesame seeds, nuts and wholegrain bread. The type of iron found in plant-based foods is not always well absorbed by the body so it is recommended to make sure you also combine these iron-containing foods with vitamin C rich foods such as fruits and vegetables which helps the body absorb the iron more effectively. Tea can stop us from absorbing iron properly, so it is a good idea to avoid drinking tea an hour either side of meals.
Vitamin B12 is an essential nutrient- too little can result in tiredness, anaemia and nerve damage. If you are following a vegan diet, the only reliable sources are fortified foods and supplements. Foods that are fortified with B12 include breakfast cereals, yeast extracts, soya yogurts and non-dairy milks. People following vegan diets should either eat fortified foods at least twice a day aiming for 3 micrograms of vitamin B12 a day, or take a supplement, 10 micrograms daily or at least 2000 micrograms weekly. Claimed sources of B12 that have been shown to be inadequate include spirulina, dried nori, barley grass and most other seaweeds.
Protein is made up from smaller building blocks called amino acids. A number of amino acids are essential, meaning that our body cannot make them itself and instead relies on obtaining them through our diet. Plant-based sources of protein include beans, lentils, chickpeas, nuts, nut butters, seeds, and tofu. Make sure that most of your meals contain these good sources of protein. Meat substitute items such as Quorn and soya products are also sources of protein but as with any processed foods, can be high in fat and salt and should be consumed in moderation. It is also important to carefully check the label carefully as many of these products contain animal-derived ingredients including eggs and milk.
Thanks for reading and look our for future blog posts from me
Dr William Cook – Head of Nutrition and Dietetics for Elior UK
The information and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of Elior UK. Responsibility for the information and views presented lie with the author and are not endorsed by Elior UK.