Whether you are reducing your meat or dairy intake, or following a strict vegetarian or vegan diet, there are a few nutritional areas to be considered when you are moving to a plant-based diet..
It can be quite simple to move towards a more plant-based way of eating.
To begin, familiarise yourself with plant‑based sources of different nutrients, particularly those that can be common deficiencies (as mentioned below). Identify foods you should be including in your diet, that you aren’t already eating. It can be helpful to pop a list on the fridge for the first month or so as a reminder to include these frequently. Also, when it comes to diet, variety is key! So get creative with your recipes.
Take a B12 supplement if you are planning on removing all or most animal products. Consider getting blood tests, especially iron, ferritin and B12, to have as a baseline, and to see if initial iron supplementation is required.
Focus on protein with every meal, as this can be missed if you are simply removing the meat from meals. Swap meat for legumes, tofu or tempeh, and protein-rich grains such as quinoa and millet.
Finally, you may wish to take a good multi-vitamin supplement, at least for the first few months, whilst you learn more and establish healthy plant-based eating patterns.
Am I missing something?
The most common nutritional deficiencies specific to a plant-based diet are iron and vitamin B12, as well as iodine, zinc, calcium, vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids, and protein. Although anyone can be deficient in these, those eating a mainly plant-based diet need to be more aware of preventing deficiencies. If you notice any adverse changes in health following a change in diet, it is always a good idea to speak to your healthcare professional.
To supplement, or not to supplement?
As stated before, you should consider taking a vitamin B12 supplement if you’re following a plant-based diet. This is one nutrient which is difficult to get from plants alone, and relying on fortified food may not give you as much as you need.
Iron is often required as a supplement following a low blood ferritin result, especially in women of menstruating age.
However, unlike B12, iron can more easily be obtained from food in a plant-based diet, so supplementing until your levels are adequate and then maintaining iron status with diet is possible. Food sources include legumes, grains, dark leafy vegetables, nuts, and seeds. Consume alongside vitamin C (e.g. citrus) for increased absorption.
It is recommended to get your B12 and iron levels tested annually if following a plant-based diet, or if you’re concerned about energy levels or other symptoms.
Iodine is easily obtained from foods, including sea vegetables and seaweeds. It is also easy to add a small amount of kelp flakes to food to obtain your daily iodine needs; put some in your salt and pepper shakers for added convenience.
Protein, as well as minerals such as zinc and calcium, can be obtained by adding a variety of legumes to your diet. You can add nuts and seeds to meals, as a topping, or eat them as a snack.
Choosing a wide variety of plant-based protein sources such as legumes (e.g. chickpeas, lentils, beans), tofu or tempeh, and high-protein grains (e.g. quinoa and millet) will also ensure that you obtain all essential amino acids.
Vitamin D can be obtained from safe sun exposure on the skin, from fortified food products, and to a lesser extent, mushrooms. If you pop your mushrooms out in the sun before cooking them, this is said to increase their vitamin D levels!
Finally, try to include plant-based sources of omega-3, such as hemp seeds or oil, walnuts, flax seeds or oil, and chia seeds.
As stated earlier, a good way to prevent deficiencies when on, or switching to a plant-based diet is to take a high-quality multivitamin. This might not necessarily be enough to correct deficiencies, but should help prevent most from occurring. This also provides a ‘safety net’ should your diet not be providing all you need.
Supplements to try
For many supplements, choosing a high-quality one is important to ensure you are getting absorbable and quality forms of nutrients. Solgar makes a great multi-vitamin that is suitable for vegans. Formula VM-2000® comes in tablet form.
With B12 try and find a supplement that comes as a spray, drops or sublingual tablets (dissolves under the tongue) for better absorption.
With iron, the form is particularly important. Aim for a glycinate form, e.g. bisglycinate, to ensure optimum absorption and avoid stomach upset, for example Harker Herbals Iron Boost. A natural, plant-derived alternative is BioTrace Organic Iron, which provides iron extracted from curry leaves.
To increase your omega-3 intake, or if you have symptoms which suggest a supplement would be beneficial such as dry skin or sore joints, plant-based omega-3 is most bioavailable in supplements from algae, such as Lifestream’s V-Omega 3, and Nordic Naturals’ Algae Omega.
If you are exercising regularly, are over the age of 65, or are struggling to meet protein requirements, you should also consider a protein powder. Pea, rice, and hemp (or a combination of these) are all good options.
Always read the label and use as directed. Vitamins are supplementary to a balanced diet. BioTrace Ltd, Auckland. Lifestream, Auckland. Harker Herbals, Waipu. Solgar, Auckland. NaturalMeds, Napier.
Your local Community Health Store is a great place to support you in making the switch to a plant-based diet and to guide you in your supplement choices. Working with a naturopath or nutritionist will also provide tailored and in depth recommendations on diet and achieving optimal well-being.
Find your closest store at communityhealthstores.co.nz