Vegan Nutrition

As with any diet, it is important to get adequate nutrition. Making sure you get enough nutrients as a vegan isn’t hard, but it does take some planning initially. Take the time to research the nutrients you require when you go vegan and you’ll be golden after that!

A plant-based diet is appropriate and healthy for all ages. One of the UK’s oldest organisations representing dietetics and nutrition, the British Dietetic Association, confirms that a well-planned vegan diet can “support healthy living in people of all ages”.

The Vegan Plate was created by Dietitians Brenda Davis and Vesanto Melina and it is an especially good resource as it allows vegans to easily plan their daily food needs. It highlights the importance of lentils, beans, nuts and seeds for optimal health, and it also puts emphasis on other essentials, such as vitamin B12, vitamin D, omega-3 fat and iodine.

the vegan plate

There are four things vegans need to keep on top of; vitamin B12, vitamin D, Omega 3s and iodine.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is essential for good health, and because our bodies don’t naturally make it, we have to get it from animal-based foods or from supplements. Naturally, vegans aren’t going to get it from consuming animals, so we must get it from a supplement.

Some vegans rely on fortified foods to get adequate levels of B12, but to ensure your levels stay consistently high, it’s best to stick to a supplement. Our bodies don’t store B12 for a long time, so it’s important to take the supplement regularly.

How is B12 made?

This important vitamin is made by anaerobic microorganisms (bacteria that don’t need oxygen to live). Anaerobic bacteria is common in the gastrointestinal tract of animals.

Why do animals have B12 and humans don’t?

According to NutritionStudies.org:

  • They absorb B12 made by their gut bacteria, in the case of ruminant animals like cows and sheep
  • They eat faeces (coprophagia) like some rodents do
  • They have bacterial contamination of their food
  • They eat animal-sourced foods like other animal flesh, milk, or eggs

How much B12 do I need?

People need the following amounts of per day:

  • Infants up to age 6 months: 0.4 mcg
  • Babies age 7-12 months: 0.5 mcg
  • Children age 1-3 years: 0.9 mcg
  • Kids age 4-8 years: 1.2 mcg
  • Children age 9-13 years: 1.8 mcg
  • Teens age 14-18: 2.4 mcg (2.6 mcg per day if pregnant and 2.8 mcg per day if breastfeeding)
  • Adults: 2.4 mcg (2.6 mcg per day if pregnant and 2.8 mcg per day if breastfeeding)

Vitamin D

This is a concern for the general public, vegan or not. The vast majority of Irish people are vitamin D deficient as we simply do not get enough sunlight to absorb the vitamin adequately. Taking a vitamin D supplement will bring levels up and improve symptoms of vitamin D deficiency, like lethargy, tiredness and sore joints.

The Department of Health & Children recommends that “All infants, whether breastfed or formula fed, should be given a daily supplement of 5µg (or 200IU) Vitamin D.” However, if you are deficient you must take a high dose for several months to get your levels up. Speak to your doctor about arranging a blood test if you are unsure of your vitamin D status.

Holland & Barrett has a good range of Own Brand products that happen to be suitable for vegans and vegetarians. Their vitamin D tablets are a good price for those on a budget and they often have ‘Buy One, Get One Half Price’ deals for even better value. You can currently get 60 capsules (a 2 month supply) for €15.99 from their website.

If you don’t fancy swallowing tablets, Nutrition One’s D3 Max is ideal for kids and adults alike, as six sprays delivers a whopping dose of 4000IU. Something like this is a great option for those who are deficient and need to bring their levels up with a high dose before starting maintenance. You can get it here for €9.99.

Omega 3s

Omega-3s play important roles in the body. DHA, in particular, is especially important for healthy retina, brain, and sperm. In addition to their structural role in cell membranes, omega 3s provide energy for the body and are used to form eicosanoids. Eicosanoids have wide-ranging functions in the body’s cardiovascular, pulmonary, immune, and endocrine systems.

You may have come across some fear-mongering regarding Omega 3 deficiency in vegans, but we’re here to clear that up! Fish oils are not the only source of Omega 3s, as you can get vegan versions of AHA, EPA and DPA.

What are AHA, EPA and DPA and where can I get them?

There are three main omega 3s; ALA, EPA and DHA. EPA and DHA are the primary omega 3s you need to support heart health. They can be found in fatty fish and omega 3 supplements.

  • Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA)

    DHA is the most abundant omega-3 in the brain and eye. It is also an important structural component of heart tissue and is naturally found in breastmilk.

  • Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA)

    EPA plays an important role in heart health.

  • Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA)

    ALA, an essential fatty acid, serves as a source of energy for the body. It can also convert to EPA and DHA, but in very limited amounts. ALA is beneficial for heart health.

ALA  is essential because our bodies can’t make it on its own. We need to get it from our diet by consuming ALA-rich foods. It is present in plant oils, such as flaxseed, soybean, and canola oils.

From the time you are born, DHA is a key component for the developing brain and eyes. It is particularly important for the brain, nervous system and eyes of developing infants. Dr Michael Gregor recommends that vegan pregnant people supplement 200mg of preformed, uncontaminated DHA.

Speak to your doctor about the best supplement for you and your baby.

Fun fact:

DHA and EPA are present in fish, fish oils, and krill oils, but they do not come from fish. They are originally synthesized by microalgae. When fish consume phytoplankton that consumed microalgae, they accumulate the omega 3s in their tissues. This is where the misunderstandings arise from, as people wrongly believe that the DHA they consume comes from fish, when in fact it doesn’t.

This is good news for vegans, as you can easily supplement DHA derived directly from micro-algae. You can skip the fish part entirely. It’s actually safer to consume a vegan source of DHA as it is free from pollutants such as mercury, which is often found in fish.

Iodine

Iodine is used by your body to make thyroid hormones. According to the HSE, adults need 0.14mg of iodine a day (or 140mcg).

The iodine in plant food depends on how much is in the soil the plant was grown in, so a supplement is the most reliable form of iodine to ensure adequate levels. Although seaweed is a rich source of iodine, the content of iodine varies and can sometimes be too high.

The Vegan Society markets a daily supplement designed specifically for vegans, called VEG 1, containing vitamins B12 and D, iodine and selenium.

The Vegan Society has the following tips to help you get the most out of your vegan lifestyle:

  • Make sure that your diet contains a variety of fruit and vegetables – eat a rainbow!
  • Choose higher fibre starchy foods, such as oats, sweet potato, wholemeal bread, wholewheat pasta and brown rice
  • Include good sources of protein in most meals, such as beans, lentils, chickpeas, tofu, soya alternatives to milk and yoghurt, or peanuts
  • Eat nuts and seeds daily, especially those rich in omega-3 fat
  • Eat calcium-rich foods daily, such as calcium-fortified products and calcium-set tofu
  • Ensure that your diet contains a reliable source of vitamin B12 (either fortified foods or a supplement)
  • Ensure that your diet contains a reliable source of iodine (arguably a supplement is the best option)
  • Everyone should consider a vitamin D supplement during autumn and winter, and year-round supplementation should be considered by people who do not regularly expose their skin to sunlight, and those with darker skin
  • Use small amounts of spread and oil high in unsaturated fats, such as vegetable (rapeseed) and olive oils
  • Season food with herbs and spices instead of salt
  • Drink about six to eight glasses of water a day
  • Consider a supplement containing long chain omega-3 fats from microalgae, particularly for infants and those who are pregnant or breastfeeding
  • Check out our information about vitamins B12 and D, calcium, iron, zinc, selenium and omega-3 fats to make sure that you are getting enough
  • Keep active
  • Maintain a healthy weight, or lose some weight if it is above the healthy range

Check out our section ‘Sources of Vitamins and Minerals’ if you’re unsure what to eat for adequate nutrition!