People adopt veganism for a variety of reasons – for animal welfare, to improve their health, or even due to the environmental concerns surrounding animal agriculture.
In any case, a vegan diet can be a difficult thing to navigate without knowing some basics. So, if you are vegan, or have ever thought about going vegan, read on!
From a dietary perspective, veganism is the complete avoidance of animal products such as meat, dairy, and eggs.
However, veganism as a philosophy, which places animal rights at the forefront, extends to all aspects of living far beyond what is on the end of your fork.
Vegans will also avoid:
- Products tested on animals such as household cleaning products
- Anything made of animal-sourced materials such as wool and leather
- Attractions or events that utilize any form of animal exploitation, such as, zoos and rodeos
Plant-based diets, on the other hand, do not revolve around a philosophy or strict “code of ethics”. Instead, a plant-based diet is just that, a diet.
Plant-based is not black and white in its approach to consuming animal products. The focus is simply on reducing the consumption of animal products.
In turn, this leads to a focus on having an abundance of plant foods such as fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes.
Transitioning to a plant-based diet can come with all of the pros of veganism including improved health outcomes from increasing plant foods in your diet and less environmental impact.
Many people find themselves attracted to plant-based diets over veganism for these reasons.
Whether you are thinking of going completely vegan or dipping your toe into a plant-based lifestyle, here are 9 things you should be doing with your diet.
1. Take a B12 Supplement
Cobalamin (vitamin B12) poses the greatest deficiency risk for people significantly limiting animal products, so if you are going to listen to anything in this article, listen to this!
B12 is lacking in vegan diets as it is synthesized by specific bacteria that reside in ruminant and coprophagic animals only (for example, cows).
While a small amount can be synthesized endogenously (within our own bodies), it is produced in a part of the bowel that does not allow it to be absorbed by our bodies.
Nutritional yeast, fermented soy products, and some fortified products are often advertised as vegan sources of B12. However, they aren’t necessarily rich sources of B12 and you would have to consume huge quantities to avoid deficiency.
Long-term B12 deficiency affects the formation of the protective coating around your nerves and over time can lead to irreversible nerve damage.
I recommend B12 supplementation to people who are following a vegan, vegetarian, or plant-based diet. There are few available options:
- 1000mcg of Cyanocobalamin 3 times per week (in tablet or spray form)
- 200-500mcg Cyanocobalamin daily (in tablet or spray form)
- 3-monthly B12 injections with your GP
2. Include a Good Source of Plant Protein in Meals & Snacks
Of course, we are going to be talking about protein. This is an article on veganism after all.
The biggest mistake that is made during a transition to veganism or a plant-based diet is not adequately replacing high protein animal products such as meat and eggs with a good plant-based alternative.
Try taking on the philosophy of swap it, don’t stop it. If you are not having your usual steak with Monday night dinner, what are you going to swap it for? Because mashed potato and broccoli is not a complete meal.
Good sources of plant-based protein include:
- Soy products (tofu, tempeh, bean curd, edamame)
- Textured vegetable protein (can be made from soy, wheat, pea, or sunflower)
- Legumes (lentils, chickpeas, black beans, etc)
- Seitan (a gluten-based protein source)
- To a lesser extent, nuts & seeds
- Some grain products like quinoa, wholegrain bread & high protein pasta products
Plant proteins are often called incomplete proteins. Whilst, still containing all of the essential amino acids (building blocks of protein), they provide insufficient levels of one or more essential amino acids relative to biological needs.
The incompleteness of most non-animal proteins can be overcome by incorporating complementary proteins.
For example, wheat protein, although abundant in methionine and tryptophan, is lacking in lysine.
Legume protein, however, is lacking in methionine and tryptophan but abundant in lysine.
Consumed separately, legumes and wheat are incomplete proteins. However, when consumed as a complementary pair (for example, baked beans on toast) completeness is achieved in the meal.
Having complementary proteins can also be done over the course of the day. So save yourself the hassle of trying to work out which protein foods to combine and just make sure you are having a variety.
Plant proteins also tend to have a lower digestibility than animal proteins. Meaning that not as much of the protein from plant foods is absorbed by the body in comparison to animal-based foods.
In a study assessing the difference between protein availability in vegetarian and non-vegetarian athletes, the protein digestibility score was 11% higher for omnivores than vegetarians.
It would be safe to assume that a vegan diet would have an even larger difference in protein availability from omnivorous diets due to the lack of dairy and eggs.
In light of this, people following a plant-based or vegan diet will require a slighter higher intake of protein than recommendations for the general public.
Soy-based products are arguably the best plant protein.
Studies have shown that amongst the plant protein sources, soy foods have an amino acid profile and digestibility closest to animal products.
Soy protein isolate, in particular, has been shown to have an equal value to whey protein isolate.
You can include soy in your diet in many different ways due to its versatile nature.
- Tofu scramble on toast
- Oven-baked or pan-fried tofu
- Edamame beans
- Bean curd or tofu noodles
- Chocolate pudding made with silken tofu
- Textured soy protein (a mince alternative)
- Soy yogurt
- Soy milk
- Soy protein isolate supplement
- Roasted soybeans
- Meat alternatives made from soy
Soy is completely safe to consume. The health effects of soyfoods have been rigorously investigated for more than 30 years.
The most common aspect of soy discussed in relation to health is its high isoflavone content. Concerns that the estrogen-like properties of these molecules produce negative effects in men and post-menopausal women are not supported by clinical evidence, despite being a well-investigated area.
In contrast, there is evidence to suggest that soy intakes and their isoflavone content may have positive health outcomes. These include alleviating hot flashes and improving arterial health in menopausal women and reducing the risk of breast and prostate cancer.
Overall, evidence indicates soyfoods can be safely consumed by all individuals except those who are allergic to soy protein.
People who do not already frequently consume soyfoods and are taking thyroid medication should also proceed with caution and discuss soy intake with their doctor.
Like anything, soy should be consumed in moderation. If consuming soy has started to displace other food from your diet and is reducing the variety of food you are consuming then that is likely a sign you are consuming too much. A few servings a day, however, is absolutely fine.
A protein-packed day of plant-based eating could look like:
Breakfast: Overnight oats made with soy milk, chia seeds & almond butter
Morning tea: Roasted chickpeas & a soy latte
Lunch: Edamame & tempeh salad with quinoa
Afternoon tea: Soy yogurt with granola & fruit
Dinner: Spaghetti bolognese made with TVP & red lentil pasta
3. Eat a Variety of Iron-Rich Foods
Iron is essential to a diverse range of bodily functions; oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood, immune function, energy metabolism, and alcohol, and drug metabolism – just to name a few!
To avoid the compromised immune function, shortness of breath, and fatigue that come with iron deficiency, take note of the following tips for adequate iron intake in the vegan diet.
Iron exists in the diet in two forms.
Heme iron: Found in animal products and is very well absorbed by the human body.
Non-heme iron: Found in plant-based sources such firm tofu, fortified cereals and mock meats, legumes and dark green, leafy vegetables with varying rates of absorption in the human body.
Vegans and those following a plant-based diet will not have access to heme iron and therefore need to be more conscious of their iron intake.
Vegan diets are predominately made up of fruit, vegetables, legumes, and grains, most of which, are high in phytochemicals. Phytochemicals such as phytic acid in fiber, oxalic acid in green leafy vegetables, and tannins in tea and coffee inhibit the absorption of non-heme iron.
The recommended iron intake for vegans is 1.8 times greater than non-vegans due to the variation in absorption rates!
But do not fear! Vegan and plant-based diets are still capable of providing most people with enough iron to prevent deficiency.
However, in some circumstances of very high requirements, as seen in pregnancy, supplementation may be needed.
Inhibitors of iron absorption:
- Phytic acid (high in whole grains and legumes)
- Tannins (found in tea and coffee)
- Calcium (in fortified plant milk, calcium set tofu & calcium supplements)
Enhancers of iron absorption:
Foods rich in vitamin C (ascorbic acid) can greatly enhance the absorption of non-haem iron overriding the effects of phytic acids, tannins, and calcium.
- Citrus fruits and juices, strawberries, kiwi fruit, pawpaw, melons
- Green leafy vegetables, tomatoes, broccoli, and capsicum
Iron deficiency is considered one of the world’s most common nutrient deficiencies. In first-world countries like Australia, research suggests vegetarians and vegans are no more likely to develop iron deficiency anemia than those who regularly consume animal products but are more likely to have lower iron stores (X).
Iron supplementation is not recommended unless a clinical diagnosis of iron deficiency has been made by a health professional following a blood test or if it has been individually recommended by a doctor or dietitian.
Unlike some micronutrients where excess levels are excreted, an intake of iron above requirements can lead to iron-overload. In the short term, this can result in gastrointestinal upset and in the longer term, may lead to liver damage, diabetes, or other health problems.
If you are worried your intake of iron is low on a vegan diet, rather than taking an iron supplement, ensure you are:
- Consuming a wide range of iron-rich foods such as legumes (particularly chickpeas), firm tofu, tempeh, dark green leafy vegetables (such as kale & bok choy), dried fruit (particularly dried apricots), nut, seeds, and iron-fortified cereals (such as Weet-Bix & Nutrigrain)
- Including a vitamin C rich fruit or vegetable at every meal with your iron-rich foods to boost absorption
- Having tea and coffee away from iron-rich foods to avoid limiting absorption
- Avoiding having calcium supplement with meals
4. Eat a Variety of Zinc-Rich Foods
Zinc is a lesser-known mineral found primarily in seafood, lamb, and beef.
While zinc is also present in vegan-friendly foods such as grains, nuts, soy products, fortified cereals, and legumes, it has a similar problem to iron in that its absorption is significantly reduced by phytic acid.
Phytic acid binds to zinc and inhibits it from being absorbed by the body. The recommended zinc intake for vegans is 1.5 times greater than non-vegans due to the reduced absorption rates.
Men who are on plant-based or vegan diets are at the highest risk of zinc deficiency due to their high requirements and should be extra vigilant of their zinc intake.
You can have your zinc levels tested via a blood test with your general practitioner if you are unsure of how well you are managing your zinc intake on a vegan diet.
Symptoms of mild zinc deficiency include:
- Stunted growth
- Decreased taste sensation
- Poor pregnancy outcomes
- Impaired immune response
Symptoms of severe deficiency include:
- Alopecia (loss of hair from head or body)
- Delayed sexual development and impotence
- Skin lesions
- Poor appetite
Food processing techniques such as leavening bread, heating/cooking, fermenting, soaking, and sprouting seeds and legumes reduce the amount of phytic acid in foods, making it easier to absorb the zinc.
Consuming foods high in citric acid (most fruits & vegetables) can also help to increase absorption rates of zinc from plant-based foods.
Zinc supplementation is not recommended for more than two weeks at a time and should be avoided if a clinical deficiency is not present.
Excessive zinc supplementation can result in gastrointestinal upset and copper deficiency.
To avoid zinc deficiency without the aid of animal-based products ensure that you are:
- Consuming a wide range of zinc-rich foods such as amaranth, brown rice, legumes, tofu, tempeh, nuts, sundried tomatoes, green peas, pumpkin seeds, rolled oats, and zinc fortified cereals.
- Having a rich source of citric acid (mainly fruits & vegetables) with every meal to improve zinc absorption.
- Soaking legumes before cooking.
- Consuming sprouted beans, grains and seeds, and breads that contain yeast
5. Swap Dairy Products for Calcium-Rich Plant Foods
Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the human body with 98% found in the bones, 1% in teeth, and 1% in other tissues. As well as building and maintaining strong bones, calcium is needed for muscle contraction, nerve function, and blood clotting.
If you don’t get enough calcium from your diet for these functions, calcium will be drawn from your bones, which over time can lead to thinning of the bones, known as osteoporosis.
While dairy foods are usually promoted as the best source of calcium, there are plenty of plant foods that are good sources of calcium as well. These include:
- Calcium-fortified milk alternatives (with at least 120mg per 100mls)
- Firm/Hard tofu set with a calcium setting agent
- Dark green leafy vegetables such as Asian greens & Kale
- Sesame seeds & almonds
To maximize calcium absorption, it is recommended that you:
- Eat a variety of calcium-rich foods each day
- Limit salt intake – salt increases calcium loss from the body in urine
- Caffeine (found in tea, coffee, cola, and ‘high energy’ drinks) can inhibit the absorption of calcium in the body so if you drink these, have them separately from calcium-rich foods.
- Ensure adequate vitamin D which helps calcium be absorbed into bones. Make sure you get enough vitamin D through safe sun exposure and fortified foods or supplementation if necessary.
6. Supplement with Vitamin D or Get Enough Safe Sun Exposure
Vitamin D is a unique vitamin in that it can be obtained through diet or can be produced endogenously (within the body) in the presence of UV rays.
Most vitamin D food sources are animal products (for example, milk), therefore, vegans rely heavily on UV rays to meet vitamin D requirements.
Older vegans with dark skin, living in cold climates, and/or experience kidney/liver dysfunction are most at risk of vitamin D deficiency as these factors inhibit endogenous vitamin D production.
Supplementation may be necessary in these cases in order to avoid osteomalacia (soft bones in adults).
7. Have a Good Source of Omega-3 Daily
Omega-3 fatty acids play an important role in good health. A diet rich in omega-3 is required for maintaining cell membranes, regulating metabolism, and reducing inflammation. Research also suggests that omega-3 fatty acids likely protect against heart disease due to their impact on cholesterol and blood pressure. Omega-3 fatty acids are particularly important during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
The most efficient way to have a diet rich in omega 3 is by consuming oily fish, such as salmon, several times per week. However, as a vegan or someone on a plant-based diet, another approach can be taken.
The parent fatty acid of omega 3 is known as alpha-linoleic acid (ALA) and can be found in flaxseed/linseed, chia seeds, canola oil, soybeans, and walnuts.
Our bodies are able to convert ALA into other forms of omega-3 known as EPA & DHA, which are the compounds shown to have positive health outcomes such as reduced risk of heart disease.
The process of converting ALA to EPA & DHA is not very efficient and can be hindered by high consumption of omega 6 (another essential fatty acid) as well as the consumption of trans fats (found in some highly processed foods) and alcohol.
Due to this, vegans typically have significantly lower levels of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) in their blood
To prevent deficiency, it is suggested that vegan adults should aim to include a minimum of 2.6g of ALA (adult male); 1.6 g of ALA (adult woman); 2.0g of ALA (pregnant woman), and 2.4g of ALA (lactating woman).
Vegan EPA and DHA supplements are available and are derived from marine microalgae (a plant source). Supplementation may be appropriate for individuals who struggle to consume enough ALA on a daily basis and is important for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
8. Have a Good Source of Selenium Daily
Selenium is an essential nutrient that we must get through our diet. However, it is also a trace mineral, meaning that we don’t need a lot of it to avoid deficiency.
Some of the symptoms of selenium deficiency are
- Male infertility
- Muscle weakness
- Hair loss
- Weakened immune system
- Exacerbation of iodine deficiency
Selenium absorption is very similar between plant-based and animal-based foods. The predominant concern for vegans and plant-based people is the wide variation in selenium content in plant-foods around the world.
The selenium content of food can vary drastically based on the geographical location that food is produced. Some areas of the world have very low selenium content in their soil reducing the amount of selenium in their local food supply.
To some degree, our use of a global food supply chain limits the risk of only consuming foods from areas with low selenium content in their soil.
However, people aiming to eat mostly locally sourced food should be mindful if low soil selenium is a problem for their local growers.
Australian soils are generally low in selenium.
A study looking at the selenium content of foods produced in Australia found that the foods with the highest selenium content were meats, fish, and eggs followed by cereals.
Moderate levels were found in dairy products while most fruits and vegetables had low levels of selenium.
The recommended daily intake for selenium is 60ug for women and 70ug for men. Whole grains, as well as some nuts, seeds, and legumes, are the best sources of selenium on a vegan diet:
- ½ cup cooked couscous = 23ug
- ½ cup cooked wholewheat pasta = 19ug
- 2 slices of wholemeal bread = 16ug
- 1 cup firm tofu = 26ug
- 5 Brazil nuts = 340ug
To meet your recommendations for selenium intake it is suggested that vegans:
- Include a wide variety of whole-grain foods in their diet daily
- Include firm tofu in their diet regularly
- Utilize nuts and nut butter in the diet
The most simple way to ensure you are meeting recommendations is to have a couple of Brazil nuts daily.
9. Switch to Iodised Salt
Iodine is an essential nutrient required for the production of thyroid hormones. These hormones are essential for normal growth, and physical and mental development. We only need a small amount of iodine. Our body can’t store large amounts of iodine so we need a regular intake of this nutrient.
Iodine deficiency causes a spectrum of mental and physical disorders known as iodine deficiency disorders (IDD). IDD varies depending on the severity and duration of deficiency and the life stage of the affected person. Adult iodine deficiency disorders often result from chronic iodine deficiency. They include:
- Goitre – swelling of the thyroid gland
- Hypothyroidism – a disease caused by insufficient production of thyroid hormones. Symptoms include fatigue, cold intolerance, muscle cramps, joint pain, dry skin etc.
- Impaired mental function – impaired intellectual and motor skills
The iodine content in plant foods is lower compared to animal foods due to the low or variable iodine concentration in soil.
Australian soils are particularly low in iodine content.
To ensure adequate intake of iodine, vegans are encouraged to use iodised salt or include sea vegetables such as nori on a regular basis.
Another potentially useful source of iodine is bread. Since 2009 all commercial bread is fortified with iodine by replacing non iodised salt with iodised salt. This excludes organic bread and bread mixes for making bread at home.
Adult men and women should aim to include 150mg of iodine in their diet on a daily basis. Pregnant and breastfeeding women have higher requirements and should aim for 220mg daily.
Good sources of iodine include:
- 1/4 tsp of iodised table salt = 66mcg of iodine
- 2 slices of fortified bread= Upto 40mcg
- 3 sheets of dried nori= 27mcg
Whilst iodised salt is a great source of iodine, it is important to not overconsume due to its high sodium content.
Take-Home Tips For Optimising a Vegan or Plant-Based Diet
- Take a B12 supplement or have regular B12 injections
- Eat a protein-rich food with all main meals & include protein-rich snacks throughout the day (soy products are your best friend – unless you are allergic)
- Consume a wide range of iron-rich foods including legumes, soy products, dark green vegetables, dried fruit, nuts, seeds, and iron-fortified products
- Consume a wide range of zinc-rich foods including grains, nuts, soy products, legumes, and fortified products
- Have fruits and/or vegetables (vitamin C & citric acid) with every meal and snack to enhance the absorption of zinc and iron from plant-based foods
- Use food processing techniques such as leavening bread, heating/cooking, fermenting, soaking, and sprouting seeds and legumes to increase the absorption of zinc from plant foods
- Ensure that your choice of plant-based milk contains at least 120mg of calcium per 100mls & use a calcium set tofu
- Supplement with vitamin D or get a sufficient amount of safe sun exposure
- Incorporate foods rich in ALA into your diet such as flaxseeds, walnuts, and chia seeds, or take a vegan omega 3 EPA & DHA supplement
- Switch to iodised salt and use commercial bread products high in iodine
- Have a couple of Brazil nuts daily for selenium
Leah is an accredited practising dietitian from Brisbane. She also competes as an under 75kg powerlifter with Valhalla Strength Brisbane. As both an athlete and dietitian, she spends much of her time developing her knowledge and skills around sports nutrition, specifically for strength-based sports. Although, she works with a range of athletes from triathletes to combat sports and powerlifting.
Leah also follows a plant-based diet and her greatest passion is fuelling vegan/vegetarian athletes and proving that plant-based athletes can be just as competitive as their non-vegan counterparts.