While around 5% of the UK population is vegetarian or vegan, plant-based eating has taken off as a dietary trend with more and more of us experimenting with vegan foods as an alternative to our favourite meat dishes.
There are lots of great things to say about plant-based foods, such as beans, peas, tofu and soya. They tend to be higher in fibre and lower in fat while still providing lots of protein. However, they can be lower in other nutrients than meat dishes so what can you do to avoid missing out on those valuable vitamins and minerals?
Dr Carrie Ruxton, from the Health and Food Supplements Information Service (HSIS), says:
“Vegetarian means cutting out all meat and poultry as well as fish. Most vegetarians still eat eggs and dairy foods, but their iron and zinc levels can be low. Going vegan means giving up all animal-sourced foods and drinks including meat, fish, eggs and dairy. So, the challenges to reach your recommended nutrient levels, especially for vitamins B12 and D, are greater and sourcing optimal amounts of nutrients from the diet alone is a challenge.
“Vegetarians and vegans should also remember that supplementation has a key role to play to help plug dietary gaps they might be experiencing, so they should really consider taking a daily combined multivitamin/multimineral, plus an omega-3 supplement”
Dr Carrie Ruxton’s non-meat alternatives for essential vitamins and minerals;
- Iodine: Vegetarians who consume milk and dairy products shouldn’t have any issues with iodine – a mineral that supports brain and thyroid function and is particularly important during pregnancy. However, vegans will have to work a bit harder to meet the recommended level of 140 micrograms daily. Seaweed supplements are not recommended unless they contain a specified amount of iodine, but a general multimineral will have the right amount.
- Iron: Essential for normal immune function and blood cells, and for targeting tiredness and fatigue. Beans, pulses, green leafy vegetables and fortified breakfast cereals are all good sources. If you notice that you’re short of breath or lacking energy it could be down to iron deficiency, take a multivitamin with iron and visit your GP.
- Vitamin B12: Vegans can miss out on vitamin B12 as it is only found in foods made from animal or bacterial sources. Try Marmite, fortified breakfast cereals or fortified plant milks. The Vegan Society recommends eating fortified foods two or three times a day or taking a daily B12 supplement providing at least 10 micrograms to support normal nervous system function.
- Vitamin D: Around a quarter of the general population is deficient because we have so little sunshine in the UK and there are few natural food sources of vitamin D, basically oily fish and eggs. While some mushrooms can contain vitamin D and a few plant milk products and breakfast cereals are now fortified, it’s not enough to supply the recommended 10 micrograms per day. This is why Public Health England and the Vegan Society recommend a daily supplement, those made from lichen or those labelled vitamin D2 are vegan friendly.
- Zinc: This mineral has lots of different functions including fighting infection, helping skin and nail health, and supporting normal growth. Although typically found in meat, poultry and fish, plenty of zinc can be obtained from plant sources such as chickpeas, beans, lentils, tofu, walnuts, cashew nuts, chia seeds, ground linseed, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, wholemeal bread and quinoa.