The popularity of vegetarian and vegan diets is on the rise. Although these plant-based diets are typically associated with better health outcomes, there are still plenty of meat-free eaters digging into processed packaging and loading up their plates with refined carbs. All diets require balance, variety and a little bit of planning to ensure all essential nutrient needs are being met, and for exclusively plant-based eaters there are a few key nutrients worth paying special attention to. This includes; iron, calcium and vitamin B12.
Ever found yourself exhausted and irritable despite getting plenty of sleep? Might be time to get your iron levels checked. Iron-deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency in Australia, whether you’re plant-based or not. Iron’s main role is to transport oxygen in the blood, so without enough iron the body is unable to circulate enough oxygen.
Despite iron being fairly abundant in plant food, vegetarians and vegans still tend to have lower iron stores. Typically this is not because they consume less iron (a well-planned vegetarian diet often provides much more), but rather because the type of iron in plant foods (known as non-heme iron) is harder for the body to absorb than the iron in animal foods (known as heme iron). Interestingly, Vitamin C-rich foods can make non-heme iron more absorbable, with its effect found to be capable of reversing low iron status more effectively than adding more iron into a meal.
To ensure adequate iron intake; choose good plant-based sources of iron in your diet; legumes, leafy green vegetables, nuts, seeds and grains (oats, quinoa and barley). To boost the amount of iron absorbed from these foods, add some vitamin C to your meals. This can include citrus fruits, strawberries, broccoli, brussels sprouts, capsicum, tomatoes and cauliflower.
Although calcium is important for more than just bone health, if you don’t provide your body with the calcium it needs, it takes it from the only place that stores it. You guessed it; your bones. Like iron, a big percentage of the general population falls short meeting calcium their needs. Milk and cheese are generally recognised as good sources of calcium, but what does this mean for vegans? In the media, spinach usually takes the crown as the plant-based hero, but sometimes high calcium content isn’t enough. Good sources of calcium need to provide well-absorbed calcium, and something that can disrupt the absorption of calcium is a little plant chemical called oxalate, commonly found in vegetables such as spinach.
To ensure adequate calcium intake; choose calcium-fortiﬁed plant milks, soy products, calcium enriched cereals, and low-oxalate vegetables; such as broccoli, bok choy, silverbeet, kale and Chinese cabbage.
This is a nutrient that plant-based eaters simply must supplement. Vitamin B12 is required for the production of DNA as well as maintaining nerve cells, meaning a deficiency can be pretty severe. While all animal foods provide vitamin B12, there are no adequate plant based forms that can be relied on to meet Vitamin B12 needs.
To ensure adequate Vitamin B12 intake; visit a health professional to find a vitamin B12 supplement right for you.
No matter what eating pattern you choose to follow, healthy habits come down to balance and variety, focusing on fresh whole-foods. So yes, a plant-based diet can certainly be healthful and nutritionally adequate, it may even provide superior health benefits; but only if well-planned.
I have previously touched on the importance of omega-3 fats in a balanced diet (check out my earlier post here).
Article by Bridget Scrogings (@bridget.balance), Accredited Practising Dietitian.