Vegetarian and vegan diets. Are you getting the nutrients you need?

There’s a huge trend worldwide for plant based eating. Vegan bloggers are all over social media, supermarkets are designing more veggie products and newspapers and TV shows are giving vegans a lot of attention. We all know that eating more vegetables is good for our health, but what nutrients might be missing if we don’t do it properly?

Common deficiencies in plant based diets

The most common deficiency with vegetarianism, and especially veganism, is vitamin B12, which is needed for keeping the immune system healthy, making red blood cells and releasing energy from food. B12 is mainly found in meat, fish milk, cheese and eggs, so it’s easy for a vegan to become deficient in this important vitamin.

Iron also tends to be low in a plant based diet. It plays a crucial role in the production of red blood cells, which carry oxygen around the body. A deficiency of B12 or iron can lead to anaemia.

Few vegetarian proteins contain all 8 essential amino acids, so deficiencies of certain amino acids may occur if a wide variety of proteins from different sources are not consumed.

Best non-animal sources of protein:

Whole Grains

  • Soaking grains overnight improves digestibility. Soak muesli in rice, oat or almond milk.
  • Quinoa and amaranth contain good levels of all eight essential amino acids with the amount of protein being in the same range as most meats. Quinoa can be used instead of rice, eaten as porridge for breakfast, added in flake or puffed form to muesli mixes, or bought as Quinova chunks or mince.
  • Oats, kamut and spelt are also rich in protein.

Soy and Tofu

  • Opt for fermented forms such as tempeh, miso and natto. Fermented foods supply protein in a more digestible form with deactivated phytic acid. As well as having a high protein content, tofu also contains calcium, iron, and vitamins B1, B2 & B3.
  • Go organic when you buy soy products as it’s a highly sprayed crop and can also come from GM sources. Nuts and Seeds
  • Digestibility of nuts can be increased by soaking them overnight in water or lightly steaming.
  • Nuts and seeds can also be ground to release more of their essential fats and make them more digestible.
  • Try nut and seed butters – almond, cashew, hazelnut, walnut, pumpkin are good choices. Almond butter spread on celery sticks makes a satisfying snack. Tahini sesame spread is incredibly versatile and can be used to flavour noodles, thicken sauces and make salad dressings.
  • Almond milk - always buy unsweetened as many shop bought almond milks can be very sweet and thick. Far better to make your own – soak 10-20 raw almonds in water overnight. In the morning drain and rinse. Add more water and blend in a blender. Strain the mix through a muslin sieve, add more water and re-blend. Repeat until your milk is the desired consistency. The pulp can be added to your morning muesli or used to thicken soups. If making a smoothie with the almond milk, not straining it can add texture to the smoothie.
  • Try sprouting seeds – within 4 days you can have your own crop ready to harvest from your windowsill.

Beans and Pulses

  • Kidney beans, white beans, lima beans, lentils, chick peas, black-eyed peas, soya beans, butter beans are very versatile and can be used in curries, stews, salads, soups or made into dips and spreads.
  • Ideally soak your own beans. The tinning process can denature the protein and other nutrients.
  • Add kombu strips to beans and chickpeas to enhance digestibility and neutralise goitrogens (substances that inhibit thyroid hormones).

Sea vegetables and algae

  • Rich in trace minerals and protein in addition to a remarkable ability to combine with other vegetables, grains and legumes. Nori and Arame are good ones to start with.
  • Spirulina, chlorella and wild green algae are good protein ‘building’ foods with high chlorophyll content and micronutrient profile. Add to smoothies or juices to fortify your breakfast.

What are complementary proteins, and how do we get them?

Proteins are made of amino acids and the body uses twenty different amino acids to make its proteins. Some of the amino acids however cannot be made in the body and are called essential amino acids and we need to get them from our food.

Complete protein foods have all the essential amino acids and they mainly come from animal foods. Incomplete proteins do not have all of the essential amino acids present, which is the case for most plant foods.

Combining two or more incomplete protein foods forms complementary proteins and is a good way of ensuring you get all the essential amino acids you need. Complementary proteins do not have to be eaten together in one meal, they can be spread out over the course of a day.

Food pairings that make a complete protein:

  • Grain and legume, e.g. pita bread with hummus or rice with lentil dahl
  • Grain and bean, e.g. rice and kidney bean chilli or beans on toasted rye bread
  • Grain and dairy, e.g. cheese on toast or macaroni cheese
  • Legume and nuts, seeds or dairy, e.g tofu salad with nuts, or yogurt with nuts

Other nutrients to consider and where to get them

Essential Fatty Acids: Vegans should use cold-pressed flax oil, hemp seed, walnut and rapeseed oils to get a balance, as well as extra virgin olive oil and avocado oil. Avocados should be eaten regularly.

Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin): Sources include whole grains, mushrooms, almonds, leafy green vegetables and yeast extracts.

Vitamin B12: Is found primarily in meat, dairy products and eggs. Vegans should ensure they do not become deficient and may need to take a supplement.

Vitamin D: Is present in oily fish, eggs and dairy products in variable amounts. Get some sunshine! It’s your best source. Just a few minutes a day is all you need.

Calcium: Adequate calcium can be obtained from tofu, leafy green vegetables, watercress, dried fruit, fortified soya milk, seeds and nuts.

Iron: Dietary iron exists in two different forms. Haem iron from animal sources and non-haem iron from plant sources. Non-haem iron is not as easily absorbed by the body than haem iron. The amount of iron absorbed from various foods ranges from around 1 to 10% from plant foods and 10 to 20% from animal foods. The absorption of iron is influenced by other constituents of a meal. Phytates, oxalates, phosphates and fibre present in plant foods can inhibit absorption, as can tannin in tea. However, vitamin C rich foods can greatly increase the absorption of non-haem iron, so eat your citrus fruits, green peppers and fresh leafy green vegetables with iron-rich foods.

Good sources of iron: Wholegrain cereals and flours, dark green leafy vegetables, like watercress, spinach and kale, blackstrap molasses, pulses such as lentils and kidney beans and some dried fruits.

Chick peas (200g) 6.2 mg
Spinach, boiled (100g) 4.0 mg
Dried figs (60g) 2.1 mg
Dried apricots (50g) 2.1 mg

Getting the balance right and getting all the nutrients you need for a vegetarian or vegan diet depends on your own individual needs and lifestyle. You may need to book a session with a nutritional therapist to get your own bespoke plan of action. For further information on how to follow a healthy plant based diet visit The Vegan Society or Vegetarian Society websites.

Article by Jo Rowkins DipNT MBANT
Nutritional Therapist