19 January 2020

Vegan Nutrition Guide


It's over halfway through Veganuary; you might have tried some supermarket and restaurant vegan options, are starting to find your favourite things to cook and may be beginning to think about how to ensure your vegan diet gives you everything you need nutritionally. Here's my nutrition guide, covering the major nutrients, tips, supplements and plenty of recipes which feature these ingredients and nutrients!

Wasabi Ginger Tofu Poke Bowls
I'm a Registered Associate Nutritionist (ANutr) with the Association for Nutrition (AfN), I studied nutrition at university and graduated a few years ago. There's a lot of conflicting information out there on vegan nutrition, so I thought I'd write up a post with all the key information all in one place to help you out. Leave a comment below with your thoughts and any questions you might have!

Until quite recently there weren't so many alternative vegan and veggie products available, so previous studies into plant-based diets showed lower levels of non-communicable diseases like heart disease and diabetes. It will be interesting to see if this trend continues, as more opt into a meat-free diet, but choose more western diet patterns. Studies have shown that diets based on plants and predominantly whole foods are the best for our health, with minimally processed foods.

Truffle Tahini Tenderstem Broccoli
There's a lot of focus in the media currently on the Blue Zone diet; analysed diet trends from those in the longest living regions in the world. The Blue Zone diet is around 95% plant-based (some oily fish features), excludes processed ingredients and lots of added sugar and focuses predominantly around whole grains, whole-food and fermented ingredients, beans, nuts and plenty of water - when you read the list and it's everything your mum tried to get you to eat as a kid - it makes sense that people who live only on these foods would be the healthiest, right? 
Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying to only eat non-processed foods all the time - we're all human after all - but it is about moderation. The fact is that the foods that nourish us are these whole food ingredients, so we should be aiming to focus our diet around these whole foods, with processed alternatives coming in occasionally, just like sweet treats.

Diet is also just one part of health - what we eat of course affects us - but our lifestyles are also a big part of staying healthy. Previous studies into the Mediterranean diet show that the low-stress lifestyle and eating as part of a group in a social situation really help to boost wellbeing. It's all about finding balance in our lives, between work and our physical and mental wellbeing, but one of my resolutions this year is to keep focusing on my wellbeing and happiness and ensure I don't get into habits where my life is too focused on one area.

Pistachio Pesto Bruschetta 

Onto the nutrition bit...


If we focus our diets around the whole-food ingredients mentioned above we should get most of what we need without supplements or taking extra care, but there are a few nutrients which come up in discussion around the vegan diet and I'm going to talk through these below.*

Mexican Rice & Grilled Corn Mango Salsa

*Note: this is a general nutrition guide for an average adult - certain groups like children, the elderly, pregnant women or those with medical conditions may have different nutrient requirements and this is not intended to diagnose or cure any disease or deficiency. If you're ever unsure; feeling particularly tired or like something is wrong, please consult your doctor, who may order blood tests.

Sweet & Sour Tofu
Rather than a single measurement for all nutrients, I've based the guide on average portion size, to ensure it reflects what you'd be likely to eat in one go and therefore the amount of that nutrient you'd be eating.

Vegan Mushroom Stroganoff

Protein


Protein is the building block of our muscles and cells, it's made up of amino acids, all contained in various amounts in foods. Previously there was a lot of talk of 'incomplete proteins', it was thought you had to eat all nine essential amino acids in one meal to get the benefits, it then progressed to eating these over a day or a few days. It's now understood that all protein-containing foods have all these essential amino acids, but some in insufficient amounts to be considered significant, hence why they weren't previously recognised. The good news is, if you eat a varied diet with multiple sources of protein - e.g. from grains, nuts and legumes - you'll have likely eaten all the minimum amounts of each essential amino acid and won't have to worry.

Protein comes up a lot, it's a running joke about where vegans get their protein, but the fact is it's actually pretty easy. A typical adult needs about 0.8g protein per KG body weight per day - this may vary based on activity level, but you still don't need to sweat it. Click the name of each source below for a recipe featuring the ingredient. 

Thai Quinoa Salad & Tofu Satay Skewers

Top sources include:

  • Tempeh - 100g contains 19g protein
  • Tofu - 100g (1/4 of a block) contains 13g protein
  • Quinoa - 100g (1/2 cup cooked) contains 7g protein
  • Legumes (beans, chickpeas & lentils) - 100g cooked (~1/2 cup chickpeas) contains ~7g protein
  • Nuts (Almonds, walnuts etc) - 30g (small handful) contains 6g protein
  • Wholemeal bread - 46g (1 thick slice) contains 5g protein
  • Oats - 40g (1/2 cup rolled) contains 5g protein
  • Wholegrain rice - 100g cooked (1/2 cup) contains 4g protein
Ultimate Charred Garlic Greens

These are just a few sources - there's protein in most things we eat - even a banana has a gram of protein. Most veg - particularly greens - also contain a fair amount, as do meat substitutes.

Pappardelle with Porcini Bolognese

Iron


Iron is pretty prevalent in plant-based eating, but there's a couple of things to bear in mind when it comes to absorption. Foods rich in vitamin C help to boost absorption of iron, whereas drinking caffeine when consuming iron-rich foods can inhibit absorption. Plant-based foods contain a form of iron called non-haeme iron, it's not as easily absorbed as the type of iron found in red meat for example, but the guidelines do consider this. Females are recommended to consume 14mg a day, but we only actually need to absorb 1.5mg of this to ensure we have the benefits. Iron is needed for red blood cell (RBC) formation, RBC are essential in oxygenating our cells, with a lack of iron, your body may not be able to produce enough RBC and you may start to feel fatigued, an indication of anaemia.

Crunchy Thai Sweet Chili Chickpeas
Top sources include:

  • Grains -  (wheat, barley etc) - 100g wholemeal bread (~2 large slices) contains 2.4mg iron (17% of your RNI - Recommended Nutrient Intake)
  • Legumes (beans, chickpeas & lentils) - 100g cooked (~1/2 cup chickpeas) contains 1.5mg iron  (11% RNI)
  • Dark green veg - (broccoli, kale, chard) - 80g kale contains 1.4mg iron (10% RNI)
  • Dried fruits - (raisins, apricots, prunes etc) - 30g raisins contains 1.1mg iron (8% RNI)
  • Nuts and Seeds - (Almonds, walnuts etc) - 30g almonds (small handful) contains 1mg (7% RNI)
Cherry Bakewell Bliss Balls

Vitamin B12


Vitamin B12 is another essential nutrient in a vegan diet - it's available in fortified foods and supplement form - it's essential for keeping nerve and blood cells healthy as well as DNA formation. A lack of vitamin B12 can also lead to pernicious anaemia, leaving you feeling tired and weak. In omnivore diets, the main sources of B12 are from some seafood, beef and dairy, whilst sometimes perceived to be more natural sources, B12 is actually introduced to these animals through a fortified diet, so it's not that different to vegans supplementing. B12 is one of the only non-fat soluble vitamins that can actually be stored, or recycled within your body, so it may take a bit of time of not eating any sources of B12 for a deficiency to appear. Regardless, there are plenty of fortified foods out there, listed below as well as some easily available supplements, that you should be aiming to consume - it's probably not essential to take a supplement every day, but up to a few times a week, along with some fortified dietary sources should keep your levels up, provided you're absorbing it properly.

One Pot Cheesy Broccoli Pasta

Top sources include:

Mushroom Tempeh Nut Roast

Vitamin D


Vitamin D isn't a vegan-only focus nutrient. Our bodies can produce vitamin D from sunlight, through a reaction in the skin; UVB rays penetrate the skin and react with the naturally produced cholesterol, to form vitamin D. However, UVB rays are only strong enough for this reaction - in the UK anyway - between April and September, so it's recommended that all UK adults take a supplement in the winter months. Vitamin D is a commonly fortified nutrient in breakfast cereals, however typically this is non-vegan vitamin D3, meaning these kinds of foods aren't suitable for vegans unless specified. Plant-based milks and other plant-based foods will almost always use vitamin D2 and are therefore suitable for vegans. There are also vegan vitamin D3 supplements available online, with most far exceeding the 10ug/400iu daily minimum recommendation. Vitamin D is essential for calcium absorption, helping to form and maintain our bones and bone density and it is also linked to our mental health, so consuming a source regularly is key in avoiding those winter blues!

Laverbread Cakes & Mushroom Sauce
Top sources include:

Banana Thickshake

Calcium


Calcium is essential for bone formation and maintenance, it also enables our blood to clot and our muscles to contract, including the heart. Calcium is pretty abundant naturally in plant-based foods as well as fortified in some others. With a thoughtful diet, you're likely to get enough calcium, but some vegan vitamin D supplements also have a boost of calcium in too. 

Mexican Tofu Scramble Wraps

Top sources include:

  • Calcium-set tofu - 100g (1/4 of a block) contains 683mg (85% RNI)
  • Fortified non-dairy milk and yogurt - 100g soy yogurt contains 120mg (15% RNI)
  • Sesame  - 1 tbsp tahini (18g) contains 122mg (15% RNI)
  • Green veg (broccoli, kale, chard) - 80g kale contains 104mg calcium (13% RNI)
  • Dried fruit - (raisins, apricots, prunes etc) - 30g raisins contains 46mg (6% RNI)
  • Legumes (beans, chickpeas & lentils) - 100g cooked (~1/2 cup chickpeas) contains 43mg (5% RNI)
Spiced Aubergine Flatbread

Omega 3


Omega 3s are an essential nutrient, delivering a whole range of benefits, the most notable being towards heart and brain health. Omega 3 fatty acids come in a few forms - short-chain ALA and long-chain fatty acids EPA and DHA. ALA is available from a few sources in a plant-based diet, however long-chain omega 3s (typically found in oily fish) are only found through supplementation. Short-chain omega 3s can convert to long-chain, however, our bodies aren't very efficient at doing this, so consuming sources of both short and long-chain omega 3s daily is highly recommended. Long-chain omega 3s are available through a micro-algae oil supplement, micro-algae is also where these fatty acids originate from in oily fish, so just think of it like going directly to the source. Look for a supplement with a high dosage of EPA and DHA. For best absorption of ALA from chia and flaxseed, these are should be ground before eating. 

Lemon & Black Pepper Oyster Mushrooms


Top sources include:

  • Flaxseed - 1 tbsp (13g) contains 3.1g of ALA (142% RNI)
  • Walnuts - 30g serving (small handful) contains 2.2mg of ALA (102% RNI)
  • Chia seeds - 1 tbsp (10g) contains 1.9mg ALA (85% RNI)
  • Hemp seeds - 1 tbsp (13g) contains 1.1mg ALA (48% RNI)
Spaghetti Aglio, Olio, Peperoncino e Noci

Iodine


Iodine is an essential nutrient, particularly with pregnant women and young children, where it's used for bone and brain development. Iodine is also used to form thyroid hormones which help to control metabolism. It's available in veg grown by the sea and in sea vegetables like seaweed, as well as some fortified plant-based milks. 

Wasabi Ginger Tofu Poke Bowls

Top sources include:


Sushi Rolls

Summary


To summarise - with a thoughtful and balanced diet based around whole foods, you're likely to get plenty of iron, protein, calcium, iodine and lots of other essential nutrients, but it may be worth looking into supplementing vitamin D3 (in the winter especially), vitamin B12 and long-chain omega 3 too, to keep you in tip-top shape! On top of that - aim to be mindful, social and to keep moving too!