Veganism is increasing in popularity across the world thanks to both the purported health benefits and people becoming more aware of where their food comes from and the ethical implications of that.
There are many debates over whether a vegan diet is healthy or not, which I won’t get into in this article, however it is undeniable that it is difficult to attain all the nutrients required to be healthy from a vegan lifestyle. It is possible, however, with careful planning of meals and perhaps the addition of a supplement regime.
Vitamin B12 is only found in animal products so it is incredibly difficult to get from a vegan diet, unless you are eating foods that have been fortified with vitamin B12.
It’s important to consume sufficient levels of vitamin B12 because without it you can become anaemic and suffer from serious nervous system damage, with a range of nasty symptoms.
Iron comes in two different forms – haem iron and non-haem iron. Haem iron is found in animal tissue, and is very easily absorbed by the body. Alternatively, non-haem iron is found in plant products and is not so easily absorbed.
While some plant products contain high levels of non-haem iron, because this is so difficult to absorb, you may still have difficulty meeting your iron requirements without supplementation.
Iron is a vital nutrient - it is required to make red blood cells and is also important for immune function and energy levels.
The addition of vitamin C with either iron rich foods or supplements helps with the absorption of both haem and non-haem iron.
If you are vegan, it’s a good idea to regularly have both your vitamin B12 and iron levels tested to make sure you are consuming enough of these nutrients.
Calcium is sometimes mentioned as lacking when any kind of dairy free diet is being undertaken, however it doesn’t have to be. Many plant foods contain calcium such as broccoli, cabbage, soy beans, tofu or tempeh and some nuts. Adults need to be consuming at least 700mg of calcium daily, so you would need to eat a huge amount of these foods daily in order to get enough. For example, 100g of broccoli only contains 47mg of calcium and 100ml of soy milk only contains 25mg, however 100mg of tofu contains around 350mg.
Vitamin D is of course best absorbed by spending time in the sun, however especially in winter this can be difficult so it’s necessary to get this through food or supplementation. Vitamin D is another nutrient that (other than from the sun) is very difficult to get in vegan form unless it is from a fortified food product, so supplementation is recommended.
If it is important to you to maintain a vegan lifestyle or diet, either a very carefully calculated daily nutrient intake is necessary, or a supplement would be required in order for you to remain healthy. Either way, it is advisable to have regular blood tests and work with your naturopath, nutritionist or other health professional to ensure you have adequate levels of these vital nutrients.