Eliminating all animal products increases the risk of certain nutritional deficiencies. Therefore, if you’re vegan, it’s important that you plan your meals carefully so that you’re consuming enough macro and micronutrients. For example, vegans are at risk of becoming deficient in calcium, iron, vitamin B12 and essential omega-3 fatty acids. This in turn puts them at an increased risk of conditions such as anaemia and osteoporosis (Weaver & Plawecki 1994; Weaver et al. 1999).
Vitamin B12 can only be naturally obtained from animal products. Vegans therefore must rely on foods that are fortified with B12 including some plant milks, soy products and breakfast cereals. As this often isn’t enough on its own, taking one 1.5 microgram B12 supplement daily can prevent
Like B12, animal sources provide the richest and most bioavailable source of iron. Naturally occurring chemicals called phytates and oxalates in plant products limit the abundance and bioavailability of iron. However, cooking makes the iron become more bioavailable as it removes some of these chemicals. Another way to improve bioavailability of iron in plant sources (for example green leafy veg and beans) is eating them with foods high in vitamin C (for example citrus fruits and berries).
Most of us obtain our calcium from milk and other dairy products. However, good sources also include kale, soybeans, broccoli and almonds. Vegans can incorporate these foods into their diet to get their recommended daily intake of calcium. In fact, certain plant sources are also rich in magnesium, which can aid calcium absorption.
Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) are essential for brain and cardiovascular health, especially ALA, EPA and DHA. ALA is usually found in plant sources (for example flax seeds, chia seeds and walnuts) whilst DHA and EPA and generally found in animal sources (such as oily fish). Whilst some ALA is converted in the body to EPA and DHA, the conversion rate is low, so regular intake is required.
Veganism is a popular lifestyle choice; when carefully planned, it could reduce your risk of developing chronic diseases as well as improve the health of the planet and save you money. If you’re vegan or considering trying it out, use the above information as a guide to optimise your chances of getting everything your body needs.