Transitioning to a plant-based diet isn’t always easy and the first few weeks can be a minefield deciding what you can eat. There are some potential downfalls of a plant-based diet but providing these are taken into account, a plant-based diet can be healthy, nutritious and delicious.
What are the benefits of a vegan or vegetarian diet?
Vegan diets can be very rich in vitamins, minerals and most other nutrients as long as a good variety of vegetables and fruits, nuts and seeds, legumes, pulses and whole grains are eaten. Most plant foods are also good sources of fibre, which supports digestive health and balances cholesterol levels.
Just because food is vegan or vegetarian doesn’t mean it is healthier
Some foods that are vegetarian or vegan can actually be heavily processed. They can also be high in salt or sugar. Some “meat” alternatives can also be full of processed ingredients or chemicals. As with any food you need to read the label.
What you could miss out on in a vegan diet
A balanced vegan diet can provide good sources of most vitamins and minerals. However, there are a few nutrients that may fall short in even the healthiest vegan diet. Watch out for the following
Vitamin B12 levels tend to be very low in plant foods. Vitamin B12 is essential for your bodily processes including creating red-blood cells, digesting proteins, and supporting your nervous system. The main symptom of Vitamin B12 deficiency is fatigue and poor immunity levels.
The Iron in animal foods is relatively well absorbed. By contrast, less than 20% of Iron from plants is absorbed by your body. One of the first signs of iron deficiency is tiredness and fatigue. Good plant sources of iron are whole grains, dried fruits such as figs and apricots, green leafy vegetables, seeds and nuts. As well helping maintaining energy and reducing tiredness, iron supports your brain function and immune system.
The best sources of Iodine are white fish, shellfish and dairy so it is a mineral that can be low in plant-based diets. Iodine is necessary for normal functioning of the thyroid gland that regulates how your body expends energy, helping your cognitive function and skin health. If you are following a plant-based diet, the best way to keep your Iodine levels up is through using seaweeds in your food, or take Iodine in a supplement.
Calcium is an important nutrient for our bone health as well as the health of our teeth and our muscles. If you are following a plant-based diet and not eating dairy products, ensure you get a good intake of Calcium rich plant foods such as kale, bok choy, broccoli, almonds and oranges, or consider a supplement.
An essential mineral for our metabolism and immune system, the best sources of Zinc are meat and shellfish and there are few good plant-based sources. Phytates, contained in plant foods, also impair the absorption of Zinc.
With a varied and healthy diet, good planning and supplementation where necessary, a plant-based diet can provide you with all the nutrients you need and ensure you avoid simple mistakes.