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Going vegan? Watch out for these deficiencies

Following a vegan diet is good for you and for the environment. But there are a few considerations to keep in mind.

One small thing: Start with planning meat-free Mondays every month and gradually introduce more plant proteins into your diet.

Research from the University of Oxford says that going vegan is the “single biggest way” to reduce your impact on the planet.

“Considerable evidence attests to the health benefits of a vegan diet,” says registered dietitian Leanne Kiezer. “Research has indicated that vegetarian and vegan diets help to lower the risk of heart disease and metabolic syndrome.”

She adds that well-planned vegan diets are safe for children and adolescents and can meet all of their nutritional requirements for growth. “They are also adequate for pregnant and lactating women. The key is that meals should be well planned to ensure they provide adequate calcium, iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and vitamin D (whether from food, fortified foods or supplements).”

Here are six potential deficiencies you need to be aware of when following a vegan eating plan:

1. Iron

Your body needs iron to function properly as it helps carry oxygen to different parts of the body. Haem iron is found in animal foods (meat, chicken and fish) and is easily absorbed by the body. Non-haem iron is found in eggs and plant foods (such as legumes, wholegrain breads, cereals, nuts, seeds and green leafy veggies) and is generally not as well absorbed.

That’s why vegans and vegetarians need about twice as much dietary iron as meat eaters. It’s important to eat iron-rich foods daily. Good sources of plant-based iron include:

  • Legumes, especially chickpeas, red kidney beans and lentils
  • Soya and soya products, such as firm tofu, tempeh, soya milk and yoghurt
  • Wholegrains, such as quinoa and iron-fortified cereals
  • Bread and maizemeal fortified with iron
  • Nuts and seeds, such as cashews, almonds, pumpkin and sesame seeds
  • Dried apricots and prunes
  • Green vegetables, such as cooked spinach and broccoli

You’ll also need to eat foods that are rich in vitamin C, which help your body better absorb plant-based iron. Eat strawberries, citrus fruits, tomatoes, cabbage or broccoli at the same time as eating iron-rich foods. But avoid drinking coffee or tea after meals – this can negatively affect the absorption of iron.

2. Calcium

Calcium keeps our bones healthy, and regulates heart and muscle contractions. Vegans often fall short of getting the required amount of calcium from their diet, as milk and dairy foods are the richest sources of calcium.

When your diet is low in calcium, your body uses the calcium stored in your bones, which weakens them over time. A long-term calcium deficiency can lead to osteoporosis.

Try adding these foods to your diet, which provide about the same amount of calcium as 1 cup of cow’s milk:

  • 1 cup calcium-fortified soya milk or rice milk
  • 2 tablespoons sesame seeds
  • 1 cup calcium-fortified breakfast cereal
  • 90g almonds
3. Vitamin B12

This vitamin is vital for a healthy body as it helps produce red blood cells and prevents anaemia. Vitamin B12 is found almost exclusively in animal products, and is added to some foods and beverages such as fortified soya milk. If you’re following a vegan diet, aim to get vitamin B12 from enriched foods and beverages and/or a supplement (such as a multivitamin).

4. Vitamin D

Vitamin D helps your body absorb and use calcium and phosphorus to keep bones and teeth strong. Foods that are fortified with vitamin D include some brands of soya and rice milk, some cereals and most margarines – so read those food labels. If you don't eat enough fortified foods and have limited exposure to the sun, you may need to take a vitamin D supplement that provides 1 000 to 2 000IU per day.

5. Omega-3 fatty acids

These essential fatty acids are important for heart health. Diets that exclude fish and eggs are generally low in omega-3 fatty acids so you need to increase your intake of plant sources of omega 3 fats with foods such as walnuts , ground flaxseed, tofu and soya beans.

Micro-algae omega-3 supplements are available for those who have increased requirements, such as pregnant and breastfeeding women, and people with diabetes and high blood pressure.

6. Zinc

Zinc, like iron, is not as easily absorbed from plant sources as it is from animal products. This mineral is an essential component of many enzymes and plays a role in wound healing and the immune system. Non-meat foods that contain zinc include:

  • Legumes, such as chickpeas, lentils and beans
  • Nuts, such as pine nuts, peanuts, cashews and almonds
  • Wholegrains, such as wheat, quinoa, rice and oats
Special considerations

Anyone at any age or life stage can follow a vegan eating plan but there are a few special considerations you need to know about. As you get older, your body absorbs vitamin D and vitamin B12 less effectively. If you’re older than 50 years of age, you’ll need to take a calcium and vitamin D supplement (400IU) each day, as well as a regular vitamin B12 supplement.

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