2022 is upon us and we wish you all a very Happy New Year. January marks the start of a new year and likely lots of resolutions. ‘Veganuary’ is an annual monthly challenge set by the UK non-profit organisation to go completely plant based for one month. Veganuary has grown increasingly more popular year by year since it’s launch in 2014 with over half a million people signed up in January 2021.

In theme with this challenge and the fact that more and more people choosing a vegan lifestyle we’re going to look at the nutritional considerations when choosing a vegan or plant-based diet.

Protein

Protein is important for the structure, growth, strength and maintenance of bones, muscle and skin. As well as this, it is essential for chemical reactions to take place within cells, for our immune function and it provides a valuable energy source.

Achieving protein needs is possible on a vegan diet, however it may require a little more planning and consideration. Animal based protein foods such as meat, fish, dairy and eggs tend to be higher in protein ‘gram for gram’ than plant-based protein foods such beans, lentils, tofu and meat alternatives.

A healthy adult requires approximately 0.75g protein per kg body weight per day (0.75 x body weight in kg). When choosing plant proteins it can be more difficult to meet protein needs on a daily basis. For example, a 75kg adult requires approximately 55g protein per day.

Let’s take a look at what 15g of protein equates to for the following plant and animal foods:

Food Source  Serving Size
Chickpeas Just less than 1 can
Lentils Just less than 1 can
Tofu ½ block of tofu
Vegan mince ½ fresh pack
Vegan Sausages 2 sausages
Chicken ½ large chicken breast
Salmon ¾ fillet

Using the above table we can see that in order to ensure adequate protein when following a vegan diet, one may have to consume larger portions of plant based protein compared to animal based varieties. When following a vegan diet it can be useful to increase protein intake by mixing different plant based proteins in dishes or having two different proteins with a meals. For example, adding chickpeas and tofu to a stir fry/stew or serving lentil dahl with a tofu-based curry.

It can also be useful to add extra protein to the diet by including higher protein snacks and or drinks throughout the day.
Let’s take a look at some plant based snacks and their average protein content:

Food source Protein (g)
2 tbsp hummus & pitta 10
Peanut butter on wholegrain bread 7
Soya yoghurt & 1tsp chia seeds 4
20 almonds 9
20 walnuts 4.5
Chickpea crisp snacks 3.5
250ml soya milk 7.5

If you are taking part in Veganuary this year or if you’ve made the decision to change to a plant based lifestyle, by paying attention to the protein content of meals and snacks you can still achieve your protein needs.

Fat

There are many varieties of fat and it is an important nutrient in the diet. Some fats are considered ‘essential fats’ because our bodies cannot make them therefore we need to get them from the food we eat. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is an essential omega-3 fat and linoleic acid (LA) is an essential omega-6 fat.

We need enough ALA and LA for our bodies to maintain a healthy brain, immune system and nervous system. It is also important for vision and for brain development of babies.

LA requirements can be met by including foods such as sunflower seeds, tahini, hemp seeds, pumpkins seeds, soyabeans, sunflower oil and sesame seed oil. ALA requirements can be more difficult to achieve when following a vegan diet and vegans are at a higher risk of ALA deficiency. Good sources of ALA include walnuts, walnut oil, chia seeds, linseeds, linseed oil, soya beans, hempseeds and rapeseed oil.

Our bodies also need eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) which are both long chain omega-3 fats needed for a healthy heart and blood vessels. These fats are found in oily fish but there are virtually no rich plant sources.

ALA can be converted in EPA and DHA but this process is not very efficient. Some studies have suggested that vegans require much more ALA than the general population to support EPA and DHA synthesis but currently there are no set requirements.

If you are following a vegan diet it important to consider the balance of fats in your diet. Consuming too much omega-6 fats (LA) can further inhibit the body from making EPA and DHA from ALA.

What can help get the balance right?
– Use rapeseed oil for cooking, roasting and salad dressings
– Reduce use of sunflower, sesame and corn oils
– Avoid eating pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds to 30g

People following a vegan diet are at an increased risk of omega-3 deficiency but there are no evidence-based recommendations on supplementation. You can consider taking algae based omega-3 supplements, this should be assessed on an individual basis.

If you are following a plant based diet it is important to prioritise your omega-3 fatty acid intake, particularly ALA. Focus on including walnuts, linseeds, chia seeds and flaxseeds and choose rapeseed oil over other vegetable oils and consider taking an algae based omega-3 supplement.

Vitamins

A balanced vegan diet containing a variety of fruits and vegetables should provide a sufficient amount of most vitamins.

Vitamin B12
Plant based foods are not a rich source of B12 meaning people following a vegan diet are at an increased risk of deficiency. B12 is essential for the nervous system, making new red blood cells and for energy production. A deficiency can cause neurological damage, mouth ulcers, fatigue, muscle weakness, confusion, memory problems and depression.

Plant based sources of B12 include marmite, nutritional yeast and foods which have been fortified with B12 such as plant milks and some cereals. It can be difficult to consistently achieve B12 requirements on a vegan diet, therefore The Vegan Society recommend eating B12 fortified foods at least twice per day or taking a supplement of either 10mcg per day or 1000mcg per week.

Vitamin D
This important for maintaining healthy bones and immune health. The body makes vitamin D when skin is exposed to Sunlight. It is difficult to achieve vitamin D requirements from food alone, especially when following a Vegan diet as there are few plant sources. Public Health England recommend that everybody takes a vitamin D supplement containing 10 micrograms of vitamin D per day from October to March to reduce risk of deficiency.

If you are following a vegan diet you should consume a wide range of fruits, vegetables and wholegrains to prevent vitamin deficiency and should consider supplementing vitamins  B12 and D.

Minerals
A balanced vegan diet should be abundant in most minerals but there are some exceptions.

Calcium
This is important to maintain bone health. The main dietary sources for the general population are dairy foods. Although plant foods are less abundant in calcium, you can get calcium from tofu, green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, pulses and calcium fortified foods such as plant based milks, orange juice and bread.

Healthy adults need approximately 700mg of calcium per day. Let’s take a look and compare different plant calcium sources:

Food Source  Calcium (mg)
200ml Fortified Soya Milk 240
200ml Fortified Oat Milk 240
129g Soya Yoghurt 144
200ml Calcium Fortified Orange Juice 291
100g Boiled Kale 150
75g Spring Greens 56
2 Spears Broccoli 36
100g Kidney Beans 35
30g pumpkin seeds 15
10 dried apricots 35

It is possible to achieve calcium requirements on a vegan diet, however it is necessary to be mindful of this and consider including fortified foods regularly.

Iron
Iron is important for our bodies to make red blood cells which carry oxygen around the body. Iron deficiency can lead to anaemia which causes fatigue, breathlessness and heart palpitations. Adults who are menstruating typically need 14.8mg of iron per day and those who are not require 8.7mg per day.

There are two types of iron: Haem and Non-haem. Haem iron is found in animal sources such as red meat and fish and this is absorbed easily by the body. Non-haem iron is found in plant sources such as tofu, wholegrains, nuts, beans, seeds and leafy green vegetables. Non-haem iron can be more difficult to absorb. It is recommended that non-haem iron is consumed with a source of vitamin C, which makes it easier for the body to absorb. Rich sources of vitamin C to pair plant based iron with include peppers, broccoli, cabbage, oranges, strawberries and pineapple.

Iron, like calcium is less abundant in plant sources and therefore it may be necessary to take an iron supplement when following a vegan diet. Let’s take a look at some plant-based iron sources.

Food Source Iron (mg) 
30g Pumpkin Seeds 3
100mg Calcium-set Tofu 2.7
30g Chia Seeds 2.3
150g Cooked Quinoa 2.2
30g Linseed 1.7
80g Kidney Beans 1.6
80g Cooked Kale 1.6
30g Dried Apricots 1.2
80g Chickpeas 1.1

Other minerals to be aware of when following a vegan diet include selenium and iodine. Plant based milks are often supplemented with iodine but always check the label. Another good source of iodine is seaweed, however it is important to limit to just one portion per week to avoid excessive iodine intake. It is also possible to purchase iodised salt. In terms of selenium, eating 1 brazil nut per day is likely to provide sufficient selenium when following a vegan diet.

To wrap up..

A vegan diet is abundant in most macronutrients, vitamins and minerals. When following a vegan diet, particularly in the long term, you should take care to get sufficient protein, omega 3 fat, vitamins B12 & D, calcium and iron. After analysing your diet you could consider supplementing omega-3, vitamin B12, vitamin D and iron. If you are concerned about your diet or need more individualised support you can consider seeing a Dietitian.

The Sunlight Nutrition Team