A vegan diet avoids anything derived from animals, including meat, fish, dairy products, eggs and even honey. This also rules out fresh pasta made with egg, foods with animal-based additives like cochineal (a red food colour made from beetle shells found in some red or pink foods). Don’t forget about gelatin – found in jellies and other chewy sweets. Many wines and beers are also off the menu as a product called isinglass, derived from fish bladders is often used in their production. Even some supplements like vitamin D can be an issue.
Any plant-based food is on the menu, however. Many vegan diets are high in vegetables and fruit which is wonderful. Those enjoying a vegan diet can also eat grains, pulses like chickpeas and lentils, nuts and seeds, soya products and of course the myriad of vegan products now available, ranging from soya yoghurts to vegan chocolate bars and vegan cheese. It is possible to have a varied and interesting vegan diet, but it’s hard work and choices can be limited when eating out. And of course, you can eat a junk-food vegan diet with lots of processed food. For example, most vegan cheese replacements are highly processed vegetable fat.
We need protein to build and maintain muscle and to keep us full. Many of the better-known sources of protein are animal-based, like meat, fish, eggs and dairy products. These are ‘complete’ proteins as they contain the full complement of amino acids. If you are avoiding all animal products, you will need to make a concerted effort to get a variety of plant-based protein into your diet. Most plant proteins are ‘incomplete’ and may be lacking in some amino acids, therefor variety is key in order to get the benefit of all of them.
Pulses and wholegrains, however, also contain anti-nutrients called phytates, which can inhibit absorption and use of some minerals, especially iron, zinc and calcium. Zinc is one of the minerals most affected by phytate and is essential for brain health, hormonal balance, immune health and optimal metabolism. If you are considering a pregnancy these minerals are also important for egg and sperm quality. Vegans can get around this by soaking, fermenting and sprouting. By germinating the pulses (which are seeds of the legume plants) phytic acid is activated which breaks down the phytate. Sprouting also increases the overall nutritional value of the seeds.
Nutrient deficiencies to be mindful of on a vegan diet
The most difficult nutrients to get enough of on a vegan diet are those we usually get from animal products. These are vitamin B12, iron, iodine, calcium and omega 3 essential fats.
A vitamin B12 deficiency can give you symptoms like fatigue, weakness and memory loss. It’s found in very small amounts in nori seaweed, tempeh (fermented soya bean), nutritional yeast and in fortified foods like plant-based milks. It is the one nutrient that most vegans do need to supplement longer term. We recommend having your levels checked. This is especially important for children, pregnant mothers and infants being breastfed as deficiencies in these groups can have serious consequences.
Vegan diets are also naturally lower in iron. Also, the form of iron found in animal products is more easily absorbed than plant-based iron. Iron deficiency causes symptoms like fatigue, hair loss and breathlessness. Iron is also a really important nutrient for conception and a healthy pregnancy. There are many plant-based sources of iron, like green leafy vegetables, lentils, beans, nuts and wholegrain cereals. Vitamin C helps to increase iron absorption so it’s helpful to include plenty of fruit and vegetables together with iron-rich foods.
Iodine is a critical mineral for the production of thyroid hormones. If you are low in iodine it may impact on your thyroid function and with that, your energy, metabolism and hormone balance. Iodine is also critical in pregnancy for the brain development of the foetus. Sea vegetables such as kelp or dulse are a great source. However, as there are unknown quantities of iodine in each batch it is always better to test your levels first. If you are replete or have been supplementing then excess iodine may have a negative impact on your thyroid.
Dairy is an excellent source of calcium but is off the menu for those following a vegan diet. Calcium (among other minerals) is essential for bone health of course. There are plenty of other sources of calcium, but you might need to make a little extra effort to ensure you are getting sufficient amounts. Tofu is usually fortified with calcium and soybeans contain some calcium naturally. Alternative milks such as almond, coconut, rice, oat or hazelnut milks are also fortified with calcium. Green leafy vegetables such kale, spinach, pak choi and also broccoli are also good sources.
While flax seeds, chia seeds and pumpkin seeds do have small amounts of omega 3, we get most of our omega 3 from oily fish. However, fish supplements are off limits for vegans so sourcing a good algae-based omega 3 is also important.
Optimising your vegan diet
If you want to find out if your vegan diet is working for you, ask us about our blood tests. We can measure your nutrient levels to ensure that you are not deficient and are meeting all your needs. Our Nutritionist can help you to tailor your diet and/or supplement protocol to ensure you are reaching optimal levels. The basic profile includes the most common deficiencies outlined above. Our advanced profile also takes a close look at your bone health by measuring your current rate of bone cell loss and your fatty acid profile. Call us on 01 4020777 for more information.