By naturopath Jessie Denmeade
Plant-based diets and vegan living are increasing in popularity, and with good reason. The benefits to the environment can be significant, and if done right, eating a plant-based diet can really benefit your health too. However, missing essential nutrients from our diet is very easy if we’re not especially mindful of ensuring balance. Below are a few of the primary nutrients that people going plant-based are at risk of becoming deficient in.
In the standard western diet, most zinc comes from animal products (meat, seafood, eggs and dairy). Understandably, when people first switch to plant-based living, zinc can easily fall off the menu. Ensure you include lots of nuts and seeds (especially pumpkin seeds), legumes, cacao, and specific vegetables like kale, green beans and sweet potatoes to boost your zinc.
There are very few vegan sources of vitamin B12, and most vegans will need to supplement at some point. Microorganisms in the fermentation process can make B12, so it could be assumed that foods like nutritional yeast, tempeh and unwashed mushrooms can offer a source. However, evidence suggests that these are unreliable sources to keep people from developing a deficiency. The most reliable sources are fortified foods (like many plant-based kinds of milk) and supplementation. B12 deficiency can cause anaemia and nervous system damage. It is often slow to develop but hard to reverse. This is because humans can only absorb B12 via the parietal cells in the stomach lining. So, although we do make B12 in our large intestine (via fermentation), we can’t absorb it like many other mammals.
The primary source of iron in most peoples’ diets will come from animal products, and those going plant-based can find themselves on a low-iron diet very easily. However, there are many great vegan sources of iron. However, heme iron (the iron sourced from animal products) is more easily absorbed than non-heme iron (from plant sources). This can be corrected by consuming vitamin C with our non-heme iron source. Thankfully, nature has prepared many iron-rich foods to also be high in vitamin C. Try to consume adequate amounts of legumes (especially dark legumes like black beans and kidney beans), quinoa, dark leafy greens, dried figs and apricots, beetroots and beet greens, seeds and nuts to boost your iron intake.
Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids
Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids are essential to our brains, nervous system, eyes and immune system health. Many omnivores are also at risk of deficiency in these essential fatty acids. However, you can ensure adequate intake by eating plenty of chia and flax seeds, walnuts, pumpkin, hemp and sunflower seeds, and using a vegetable oil like rapeseed as your main cooking oil. A simple tablespoon of chia seeds, two tablespoons of hemp seeds and six walnut halves a day will ensure you’re reaching your RDI of omega 3 and 6.
It’s easy to get enough protein from plants. But we do need to be mindful of including a good protein source in every meal we eat. Use lentils, beans, tempeh, tofu, quinoa and/or nuts and seeds as a base in each meal. Mixing legumes and grains in each meal can help you get the essential amino acids in the correct ratios to meet your body’s needs. A plant-based protein supplement added to a smoothie is also a great way to increase your intake.
Plant-based diets are often naturally high in fibre, vitamins and many minerals. And if you’re mindful of the above nutrients, you can have a very healthy and wholesome diet living a plant-based lifestyle. Don’t be afraid to explore new ways of using familiar foods and ingredients. If you would like some resources/recipes or to talk to a naturopath with plenty of personal and professional experience in vegan diets, feel free to contact our Life Synergy team for more information.