A plant-based diet is one where the diet is based around food from plants. This can either completely exclude animal products (and by-products) or have very few.
There are a multitude of reasons why people choose to have a more plant-based diet, and I’ll help give you some tips around nutrition, to try and help make you stay healthy on a plant-based diet. These are just general tips and guides, if you have any medical conditions or health concerns which may be impacted by dietary changes, it is always important to talk to a healthcare professional.
If you’re just starting out, change doesn’t have to happen overnight, you can start off slowly by incorporating more plant-based meals and increasing them. It’s good to try new recipes that you’ve been interested in and remember that they don’t have to be super complex, just keep it simple!
When you find something you like, batch cook and freeze some for times where you may not have the time or when you may not feel like cooking. Part 1 will cover plant-based protein sources; calcium and vitamin D; iron; vitamin B12, and Part 2 will cover omega 3, zinc; and iodine. There will also be an additional blog on soy.
Protein is an essential nutrient in our diet. Protein that we eat is broken down into amino acids, which are the building blocks for proteins, all of which have specific roles within, metabolism, immune function, making hormones, muscle building, growth, and repair.
There are 9 essential amino acids which we cannot synthesise ourselves, so we have to get them from the foods that we eat.
When we talk about protein sources, we usually refer to them as complete, or incomplete proteins. Those which are complete contain all 9 of the essential amino acids in enough quantities. Sources of plant-based complete proteins include:
Incomplete proteins are those which do not contain all or adequate amounts of the 9 essential amino acids. This just means that they need to be combined with other sources of protein, and when combined with another source of incomplete protein to meet requirements it is known as complimentary proteins. Sources of incomplete proteins include:
- Some vegetables (to an extent).
Some ways to make complementary proteins are chilli (using pulses) with rice (grains); nut butter on wholegrain bread; and oats with nuts.
It is a good idea to focus on a variety of protein sources, not just relying on a singular one. They do not always need to be combined as well – your body will be able to utilise different amino acids from different sources, you just need to make sure you get enough.
So how much protein do you need?
The amount actually varies, and is dependent on your age, gender, weight, and physical activity levels. The UK reference intake is 0.75g per kg body weight. If you weigh 65kg, you would need 48.75g of protein per day (0.75x65). However, with increased physical activity there is an increase in protein demand, and you should aim for 1-1.2g per kg body weight.
Calcium and Vitamin D
I’ve paired these two together, as vitamin D works alongside calcium (and phosphorus) to maintain healthy bones, muscle and teeth. Vitamin D helps regulate the amount of calcium and phosphorus is available in the body, through increased absorption, reabsorption of calcium from kidneys, and availability of calcium stored in bones,
We need calcium for our heart, muscle and nerves to function properly. Calcium is also needed to help blood clot. Inadequate calcium can lead to osteoporosis, low bone mass and increased risk of fractures. It is the most abundant mineral in the body and makes up 1.5-2% of our body weight. We store 99% in our bones and teeth.
Those aged 19-64 years need 700mg of calcium per day and sources of plant-based calcium include:
- Tofu (when set in a liquid containing calcium)
- Green leafy vegetables (brussels sprouts, pak choi, cauliflower, broccoli and kale
- Sesame seeds
- Dried fruits (figs)
- Fortified products, including flour which is usually fortified with calcium
We need vitamin D to absorb calcium from our diet. With low vitamin D levels, our body relies on taking calcium from where it is stored in our bones. This weakens our bones, and the calcium is not replaced from where it was taken as we cannot absorb it from our diet.
There are a number of ways that we can get vitamin D:
- Through sunlight on our skin, however between end of September to late March/early April in the UK, everyone should consider taking 10mcg (400IU) of Vitamin D per day - you do not need more than this unless specified as excess vitamin D can have negative effects
- Supplementation: there are 2 types of vitamin D supplements: D2 which is always vegan; or D3 which you can find in a vegan version (lichen-derived) and is more effective.
- Apart from sunlight and supplementation, you can get vitamin D through fortified foods, and even mushrooms that have been in the sunlight!
If you do not spend a lot of time outside during the summer months, or you are at risk of deficiency, it may be worth considering a yearly supplementation. Vitamin D deficiency in children can lead to rickets, (deformation to bones, weakened muscle, and impacts growth), and in adults, bones can become softer, and bone pain and muscle weakness is experienced. This is known as osteomalacia.
Creamy cashew tofu curry, recipe here.
Iron is often a focal point and a concern to many when following a plant-based diet. Iron deficiency is most likely caused by lack of absorption, or loss through menstruation. Iron plays a role in making haemoglobin, which is found within red blood cells and transports oxygen around your body. It also plays a role in maintaining a healthy immune system.
There are two different types of iron:
- haem iron, found in animals
- non-haem, which is from plant sources
Non-haem is not as readily absorbed and is absorbed less, in comparison to haem iron. However, it has been indicated that when iron stores in the body drop, our body adapts and we absorb more from the foods we eat. Despite this, it is important that you still keep an eye on how much iron you are including in your diet.
Sources of iron include:
- Pulses and legumes
- Dark green leafy vegetables
- Dried figs
Eating vitamin C-rich foods whilst eating iron-rich foods will help you to increase the amount you absorb; this is also the same for citric acid (which is found in fruits and vegetables).
Iron absorption is inhibited by tannins which are found in tea and coffee, so try and avoid drinking these at the same time.
Symptoms of iron deficiency can include, tiredness, lacking energy, palpitations, and increase in infections. If you are concerned, talk to a healthcare professional who can help you, instead of just reaching for supplements as excess iron can have negative implications, such as constipation, nausea, vomiting and stomach pain.
Chai spiced lentils with roasted vegetables, recipe here.
B12 is quite an important vitamin to be aware of when following a plant-based diet, as it can’t easily be obtained from your diet. B12 is created by certain bacteria, which some herbivores have in their intestinal tract, or from foods with the bacteria from dirt, or from faeces.
B12 is essential to help us stay healthy and prevent deficiency, and it can take years for symptoms of deficiencies to show and some of them are irreversible. Vitamin B12 deficiency can lead to fatigue; anaemia; nerve damage; an increase in homocysteine levels, which increases risk of cardiovascular disease; and preeclampsia in pregnancy. Infants also have a quicker onset of symptoms in comparisons to adults, which can lead to failure to thrive and increased risk of permanent damage.
When following a plant-based diet where all animal derived products are eliminated, the only reliable sources for B12 are fortified products or supplementation.
If you are getting your B12 through fortification, you need to include fortified products 2-3 times a day and aim to get 3mcg per day.
It is important to note that spirulina is not a suitable source of B12. If you wish to supplement, either take a daily 10mcg, or 2000mcg (at least) weekly. Supplements are either usually chewed or dissolved in the mouth to increase absorption. The reason there is variation in recommendations is that B12 is absorbed in small amounts, so these options should cover you. If you are concerned about your B12 levels, it would be best to talk to your doctor.
Creamy vegan garlic mushroom pasta with nutritional yeast, recipe here.
Daisy, MSc PGDip ANutr, is a Registered Associate Nutritionist with a Master's Degree in Public Health Nutrition, and a Post Graduate Diploma in Eating Disorders and Clinical Nutrition, both of which are Association for Nutrition (AFN) accredited. She, also, has a BSc degree in Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience; and has completed an AFN accredited Diet Specialist Nutrition course.
Daisy has worked for an NHS funded project, the Diabetes Prevention Programme; and shadowed a nutritionist in Harley Street.
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