Whether you’re already a full-time vegan or thinking of trying a plant-based diet as part of Veganuary, it’s important to make sure you’re getting enough of the nutrients you need. To help you avoid deficiencies we’ve asked the experts for their advice…
Worried about how turning vegan may impact your nutrient intake? “If you follow a vegan diet and eat a variety of foods it can be quite promising because it allows emphasis on more veg and fruit… you’re trying out new foods so you’re getting different nutrients,” says BANT-registered nutritionist Sana Khan, consultant at Avicenna Wellbeing (
avicennawellbeing.com). Indeed, key plants are known for their nutritional superpowers: Brazil nuts for selenium; flax seeds for omega 3; apricots for iron; sea vegetables for iodine and yeast extract for B vitamins.
“The downside is that a lot of the food we eat is processed, so my concern is the nutrient load,” says Sana. “Protein is at the top of the list – if you’re careful and know what you’re doing you can get it from beans, legumes and pulses. But trying to get enough is what you need to focus on.” In fact, Sana recommends clients actively up their protein levels with nut butter or tofu smoothies, and even seek supplement powders to top up their intake. But how do you know if that’s actually needed?
When should you seek out expert advice?
“The majority of my clients are those that have tried managing a vegan diet themselves and things aren’t going the way they thought they would,” says Sana. “For example, they might say ‘I’m feeling great, I have a lot of energy, but I’m losing lots of hair’ or ‘My cold has been lingering over the last three months and I don’t understand why’. So that’s when I assess whether there are digestive issues, hormonal imbalances or nutritional deficiencies.”
Who’s most vulnerable?
“Without knowledge of healthy eating, anyone can be at risk of nutritional deficiencies,” says Heather Russell, dietitian at The Vegan Society. “It’s important for everyone to learn about balancing food groups, as well as the roles of fortified foods and supplementation.” Your own personal circumstances will also play a part. “I often speak to clients who have digestive issues,” says Sana, “because when you have a compromised digestive system the chances are, you’re not absorbing key nutrients as effectively as you should be. If you diet is quite limited on top of that [as with a strict plant-based lifestyle] that puts you at risk of lots of deficiencies.”
What are the symptoms?
Remember those old clichés about those of us with pale complexions needing a nice bit of liver to put us right? Our understanding of nutrition has broadened since then – indeed research into the effects of plant-based faux ‘meats’ at Northumbria University is looking at the microbiome, physical performance, sleep, cognitive performance and cardio-metabolic health. But the effects of a nutrient deficiency aren’t always obvious. “I like to run a number of tests in clinic – blood tests and a mineral status test,” says Sana. “From that I get an overall picture of where someone’s nutrient status is. That’ll prompt me to usher someone down the supplementation route, and maybe recommend a few courses of IV drips which deliver nutrients straight into the bloodstream where they’re needed.”
Aren’t supplements for people with bad diets?
“There’s an idea in some circles that ‘supplement’ is a dirty word, that you should be able to get all your nutrients from wholefoods,” says Dr Emma Wightman, senior research fellow at Northumbria University’s department of applied sciences. “But there are many times throughout a person’s life when their diet isn’t going to be optimal, and if we want to move more towards seasonality and growing more of our own food in the UK, there are going to be times when certain foods are more scarce and supplementation is a perfectly valid way to top up what you’re getting in your diet. We get myths in our head about vitamins and how they only affect us over long periods of time, but our research in our lab shows that’s not the case. You can get really quick effects with vitamin supplementation.”
So what are the key nutrients to nail?
Okay, so you’re eating a healthy and varied diet rich in veg, fruit, nuts, grains, legumes and seeds. Where next? “If you’re going fully vegan there’s less likelihood you’re getting less fatty acids, proteins, less calcium and vitamin B12 so there’s a need to supplement those instead,” suggests Emma. With vitamin D3 often from animal sources, vegans must, as ever, label-check carefully to make sure active ingredients are plant-based. “An increasing number of vegan products are available, including The Vegan Society’s VEG 1 supplement, which provides vitamin D3 from lichen, vitamin B12, iodine and selenium,” says Heather. “As with any dietary change, if you’re considering a vegan diet for the first time, it’s a good idea to set aside some time for research; the information available at vegansociety.com nutrition is a great place to start.”
And one last thing…
All our experts agree that the general population is every bit as likely to suffer from nutritional deficiencies as those of us following a plant-based lifestyle. What’s more, what works for one evangelical convert – you know, the friend who preaches keto, or swears by intermittent fasting – may fall flat with you. A degree of self knowledge is essential. “We’re all as unique on the inside as we are on the outside,” says Sana, “so what’s really important is there’s no one size fits all. Whether its your age, hormonal status, lifestyle… all of those factors need to be taken into account in this journey.”