There are 600,000 vegans in Great Britain or 1.16% of the population according to The Vegan Society and with 28% of Brits identifying as meat reducers, how can those following a plant-based diet ensure optimal health?
While following a vegan diet has its advantages, such as lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, reducing or removing food groups within your diet can impact vitamin and mineral levels.
If you are vegan or considering a lifestyle change, here are four crucial nutrients you need to know about…
This essential element is a vital component of haemoglobin, the substance in red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to transport it throughout the body. A lack of iron in the body can cause tiredness, fatigue and shortness of breath.
Owing to a diet rich in wholegrains, vegans consume similar amounts of iron as omnivores. However, the body doesn’t absorb iron as effectively from plant-based sources, which means that vegans need to pay attention to ensuring that sufficiency is prioritised.
B12 helps the body’s ability to reduce the onset of fatigue, supports energy levels and increases concentration levels as well as contributing to normal homocysteine metabolism. Low levels of vitamin B12 can lead to tiredness, weakness and loss of appetite as well as constipation and weight loss.
Vegetarians and vegans are often deficient in B12 as it is found in meat, fish and some dairy products. However, unlike some B vitamins, B12 is not found in plant food other than fortified cereals and some plant milk and soy products, this makes it difficult for people following a plant-based diet to get the necessary amount.
This vitamin is also notoriously difficult to absorb in the gut. At most, only 1% of our dietary intake will be absorbed by the body. A research review has suggested that vegans should consume 6 μg of supplemental B12 per day to ensure sufficient levels.
Vitamin D’s main role within the body is to regulate the intake of calcium and phosphorous which are two essential minerals required, among other things, for the formation of healthy bones. Low levels of the sunshine vitamin can manifest as common symptoms such as low mood, headaches and aches and pains to name just a few.
80-90% of our vitamin D stores are provided by the sun, with few foods providing meaningful quantities of this vital vitamin, so this is a difficult vitamin to obtain on any diet. The only foods which provide vitamin D at a meaningful level are eggs, specifically egg yolks; but only hens that are fed vitamin D, as well as fatty fish such as mackerel and herring meaning those following a plant-based diet are at increased risk of having low levels.
The body uses iodine to make thyroid hormones. These hormones help keep cells and your metabolic rate healthy as well as aiding proper bone and brain development during pregnancy and infancy. A lack of iodine can cause symptoms such as weakness, fatigue and feeling cold and can lead to an under-active thyroid.
Dairy products and seafood, such as shellfish, are the only food sources which provide consistent levels of iodine. The amount found in plant-based foods, such as cereals and grains, is inconsistent and depends on how much iodine is in the soil the plant is grown in.
Know your levels
When following a vegan diet is can be difficult to ensure adequate levels of essential nutrients from natural sources alone, therefore testing your levels and supplementing accordingly is the best way to ensure good health.