Switching to a vegan diet is undoubtedly good for your health if you eat wholefoods predominantly. Dr Marco Springmann, senior researcher of population health at the University of Oxford told the BBC:
“We’ve found that the vegan diet could be one of the healthiest diets, outperforming pescatarian and vegetarian, because the vegan diet is higher in fruit, vegetables and legumes and the health benefits from this compensate anything else.”
Despite all the evidence that plant-based eating is good for us and fantastic for the environment, many people worry that they will become deficient in certain vitamins and minerals, namely iron, B12, omega 3, and calcium. However, as we shall see, these fears are unfounded.
Iron has been recognised as an essential nutrient since ancient times. It is crucial for every kind of living organism, including plants, bacteria, animals, and humans, to transport oxygen (through the haemoglobin in animals and humans) and to produce energy (through electron transfer in the mitochondrial respiratory chain).
Meat provides a high source of iron. However, for vegans, eating lots of green leafy vegetables and iron fortified food will ensure you receive enough of this precious mineral.
Dr Springmann again told the BBC:
“Over time, the body can adapt to how much iron there is in our diet, and if you have a lower iron intake it can make more efficient use of that iron.”
Humans need a minuscule amount of B12; however, B12 deficiency can cause serious health problems, including neurological failings and strokes.
B12 comes from bacteria which animals procure throughout their life. Before our current hygiene practices and exposing soil to antibiotics and pesticides came about, most plant foods were sources of B12. But in modern times, this crucial mineral is only acquired through eating animal products.
If you eat a vegan diet, make sure you have plenty of B12 fortified foods such as nutritional yeast and fortified plant milks. It is also recommended that purely plant-based eaters take a B12 supplement.
Hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, walnuts, rapeseed oil, and soya spread are rich sources of omega 3. According to the Vegan Society, “to meet the ALA recommendations of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), you would need to eat about a tablespoon of chia seeds or ground linseed, two tablespoons of hemp seeds or six walnut halves daily.”
Calcium is essential for strong bones. For vegans, the best sources of this vital nutrient include:
- fortified unsweetened soya, rice and oat milk
- leafy green vegetables (but not spinach)
- sesame seeds and tahini
- dried fruit
- brown (wholemeal) and white bread
To absorb calcium, your body needs vitamin D. Although this is found in some foods such as fortified margarine and fat spreads and fortified breakfast cereals, the best source is found in sunshine. In the winter months, people living in the UK are not exposed to enough sunlight to allow their skin to make adequate vitamin D. Therefore, the NHS recommends that everyone, especially children under five years, take a supplement.
With careful planning and a commitment to a balanced diet, vegans can meet most of their nutritional needs with food. There are also plenty of high-quality supplements available to ensure any shortfall in your diet is managed, so you can enjoy the health, vitality, and confidence that comes with plant-based eating.