Vegan & Vegetarian Nutritional Considerations
Many people who enter into a new dietary regime don't consider the importance of fulfilling their daily nutritional needs. The more people I speak to, I realise that it is not common knowledge that these two diets need more attention and planning than just "ditching animal products". Along with other diets, vegan and vegetarian diets need to be carefully considered due to cutting out food groups that supply higher amounts of bio-available important nutrients & essential vitamin and minerals that are vital for growth, general health & wellbeing and longevity.
I am not a vegan or vegetarian myself and this is not a write up to offend vegans or vegetarians in their dietary choices. This is just me, as a qualified nutritionist offering guidence and bringing awareness to those who may already be undertaking a vegan or vegetarian diet, or to those considering either diet, because as you will see below there are key macro and micro nutrients that can easily be left behind when doing this. These nutrients are not only vital to consider in a vegetarian or vegan diet but also in any diet due to their vital role in growth, development, general functioning and long-term health.
Vitamin B12 is only found in animal foods so deficiency is a potential concern for anyone following a vegetarian & especially a vegan diet. B12 levels found in the blood are generally lower in vegetarians and levels decrease the longer the person is on the diet.
While some plant foods e.g. tempeh, tofu, miso and sea vegetables are said to provide some B12, they do not contain the active form of B12 and are not sufficient enough to prevent deficiency.
If lacto-ovo vegetarian- include dairy foods into the diet e.g. organic full fat natural or greek yoghurt (no added sugars), full fat milk, organic or grass-fed white cheeses (cow’s/ goats feta).
Include eggs daily (Organic or free range eggs, with yolks) great source of healthy fat & protein too!
* Supplementation may be needed if unable to include an adequate form of Vitamin B12 through the diet.
There are two forms of Iron: heme and non-heme. Heme iron is derived from hemoglobin and is found in animal foods. Non-heme iron has a different chemical structure and is found in plant foods.
Increase iron absorption from vegetarian sources: Adding Vitamin C from raw fruit sources and vegetables (e.g. lemon juice, tomatoes, a piece of orange after your meal) combined with plant sources of iron will enhance absorption.
Remember that heat destroys vitamin C so always add it fresh or raw
Plant-based foods highest in Iron (non-heme):
Dark leafy greens (kale, spinach, silverbeet, swiss chard), seeds (pumpkin seeds/pepitas- same thing!), nuts (cashews, pine, hazelnuts, almonds, pecans), beans & lentils, tempeh or organic tofu (in moderation).
* Limit coffee and tea intake around meal times (the tannins found in these can bind with iron and limit or inhibit absorption)
The term ‘Complete proteins’ refers to amino acids, the building blocks of protein. There are 20 amino acids in total and 9 that cannot be produced inside the body and is why they need to come from food sources. A food that contains all 9 essential amino acids is called a ‘complete protein’.
- Vegetarian sources of complete proteins:
Quinoa, buckwheat, chia seeds, hemp seeds, soy beans (best eaten as tempeh or edamame, in moderation).
Eating a variety of plant proteins daily including legumes and beans, whole grains/pseudo-grains, nuts, seeds and plenty of vegetables will ensure a wide variety of essential amino acids are coming in through the diet.
Ensure protein rich foods are part of every main meal & snacks including:
Legumes such as butter beans, cannellini beans, chickpeas, lentils, black-eyed beans, split peas, kidney beans, tempeh (fermented soybeans), organic tofu (in moderation.)
Unrefined whole grains such as buckwheat & quinoa (which are both actually seeds but termed pseudo-grains), amaranth, millet, brown rice, rolled oats.
Dairy foods & eggs (If lacto-ovo vegetarian or choosing to include eggs)
Nuts and seeds such as almonds (highest protein), brazil nuts, cashews, walnuts, macadamia’s, chestnuts, hazelnuts, coconuts
Invest in a good-quality, organic, non-soy based, vegetarian or vegan protein powder, which will assist you reaching the recomended daily protein intake- remembering that when exercising, this is even more important!
For example: Raw Amazonia Protein Isolate
Omega-3 Fatty Acids:
If including fish: Omega-3's are ingested in larger amounts when eating oily fish such as wild caught salmon, sardines, mackerel, herring and different types of edible seaweeds (sustainably caught canned fish with bones included is a good option- the bones will help to increase your calcium intake).
Omega-3’s are also easily obtained in other forms by eating nuts & seeds, with higher amounts coming from walnuts, flaxseeds or flaxseed oil, hemp seeds or hemp seed oil, chia seeds & olive oil.
Oils that contain high amounts of Omega-3’s are best consumed over salads or drizzled over meals AFTER they have been cooked. Do not heat these oils or foods that contain omega-3 fatty-acids because they oxidise easily (have a low smoking point) destroying the beneficial nutrients and can contribute to free-radical damage.
Calcium: (If no dairy products)
Some plant foods provide a significant amount of bio-available calcium, despite often having lower calcium content than dairy foods.
Aim for eating a 2-3 of servings of calcium rich foods daily.
Almonds (activated/soaked are easier to digest) unhulled tahini or sesame seeds (chew well), dried figs and dark green leafy vegetables (eg. Broccoli, spinach and Asian greens such as bok choy, kale, collard greens and Chinese cabbage), okra OR if eating seafood- Wild caught salmon or sardines with the bones (a great source of bioavailable calcium)
For example, 1 serve is equal to:
1.5 cups Asian greens
1 cup almonds
Five dried figs
3 tablespoons of unhulled tahini
Calcium absorption can inhibited by sodium, caffeine and excess animal protein.
* NOTE: Ensure your body has an adequate amount of vitamin D – for most people this can be obtained from a sensible and safe amount of natural sunlight on the skin e.g. 20 minutes/day. Vitamin D promotes calcium absorption in the gut!
If you are looking for further guidance or need assistance in ensuring you are/will be providing your body with the right nutrition contact your local nutritionist or naturopath to make sure you are not going to affect your short-term or long-term health. If I am your local nutritionist and you would like to enquire about making an appointment with me, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If I can say it one more time without sounding like a preacher- both vegan and vegetarian (as do other strict diets) diets need to be carefully considered to ensure your health doesn't suffer if you are not well-informed or on-top of your current personal health status. In general, but also when undertaking a strict diet- do your research, ask yourself if this diet is right for you, listen to your body and the signs your body sends you (big or small!) and if the type of diet does not agree with you, make sure to consult a natural or alternative health practitioner to seek guidence and trusted, proffessional advice.