Vegan Diets

November 12, 2012

Vegan Diets

If you are a Vegan then your diet is vegetarian. This means that meat, eggs, dairy products and all other animal-derived ingredients are excluded. Some vegans will not eat foods that are processed using animal products, such as refined white sugar. Although there is some debate as to whether certain foods, such as honey, fit into a vegan diet.

What do vegans eat?

A vegan diet includes all grains, beans, vegetables and fruits. These core ingredients can be made into many different types of food. Nowadays there are even vegan versions of familiar foods. There are even some hot dogs, ice cream, cheese and mayonnaise that are made to satisfy vegan standards.

Because a vegan diet is deficient in the proteins, minerals and vitamins that animal products supply some people in the past have questioned if it can be truly healthy. Most health care personnel and dieticians now accept that with an understanding of dietary requirements a vegan diet can be nutritionally adequate. However, some dieticians caution that getting enough vitamin B12 and vitamin D may require additional supplements.

Special cases such as pregnant or breastfeeding women or young children must take extra care. Children within the womb require vitamin D and B12 to fully develop. And registered dietitian Sandra Hood, a spokesperson for the Vegan Society says “Very young children need concentrated sources of energy, so fat is an important source of calories”. She adds that, “Fat contains more calories per gram than other nutrients.” A high fibre diet alone may be deficient in calories for a growing child.

Important Nutrients

The five nutrients which require the most consideration in a vegan diet are: Zinc, Vitamin B12, Calcium and vitamin D, Protein and Iron. Each one has its own role to play to ensure that the body is fully nourished. In a normal diet vitamin B12 is only present in animal products. Should a vegan be deficient in vitamin B12 then they must take supplements. There is no “change of diet” option open to them. A healthy blood and nervous system requires vitamin B12. We all need zinc in our bodies but zinc acquired from plants is less easily absorbed into the body meaning that vegans may be low in zinc.

Protein is a constituent component of all our cells. It gives the body approximately 10% to 15% of its dietary energy. Without this amount of protein, growth and the body’s self repair mechanism will be degraded. All plant cells contain some protein but the amount and quality of this protein can cause problems in an unbalanced vegan diet. At least one protein-rich food should be served with every meal.

The average person gets most their calcium from dairy foods. It has long been known that calcium is needed for strong and healthy bones and teeth. However what is not so well known is that the body requires vitamin D to be able to absorb calcium. Finally iron is a crucial factor in the production of red blood cells. Many plants have high iron content however iron from plants is not absorbed as well as from other sources.

Good Nutrient Sources

Now you know why you must have these nutrients. It’s now time to find out where to get them. Taking them in turn: good foodstuffs for vegans include:

Sources of zinc:

  • beans and lentils

  • yeast extract e.g. Marmite

  • nuts and seeds

  • wholegrain cereals

As explained earlier vitamin B12 is only found naturally in foods from animal sources. So if enough vitamin B12 cannot be taken from these foodstuffs then a vitamin B12 supplement may be needed.

Sources of vitamin B12:

  • breakfast cereals fortified with B12

  • soya milk fortified with B12

  • yeast extract

Sources of calcium:

  • fortified soya milk

  • sesame seeds and tahini

  • pulses

  • calcium-set tofu

  • white bread (It is law in the UK that calcium is added to flour)

  • raisins, prunes and dried apricots

Sources of vitamin D:

  • sunshine – let your body get some direct sunlight

  • mushrooms, preferably chanterelles

  • margarines

  • fortified breakfast cereals (with vitamin D added)

  • vitamin D supplements

Sources of iron:

  • pulses

  • wholemeal bread and flour

  • breakfast cereals fortified with iron

  • any green leafy vegetables (e.g. dark cabbage)

  • nuts, apricots, prunes and figs

  • yeast extract (for example Marmite)

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