Recent years have seen a rise in people either cutting down or cutting out meat, fish and dairy products. This may be for ethical, health or environmental reasons. Currently, around 14% of adults (7.2 million) in the UK are following a meat-free diet and there are an estimated 3.9 million vegans in the UK.
If you decide to go plant based, you may worry that you will be missing out on vital nutrients. Let’s have a look at some to watch out for.
Protein is a nutrient people commonly worry about after moving to a plant based diet however it is possible to gain plenty of protein from plants. Just make sure you add them to every meal or snack (use our handy food plate example below). Plant based protein sources include lentils, chickpeas, tofu, peas, edamame beans, hemp seeds, nuts, (especially peanuts and almonds) as well as soya products. Vegetarians can still obtain protein from sources like yoghurt, eggs and dairy products.
Omega 3 fat is vital for many body functions, it is known as an essential fatty acid as your body is unable to manufacture it from other fats. The best known source of omega 3 is EPA and DHA from oily fish. This is the type of omega 3 linked to normal brain function and heart heath. ALA is the omega 3 from plants that can, in the right conditions be converted into EPA and DHA. ALA is found in flax seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds and walnuts. Flaxseed oil is an easy way to add omega 3 to a plant based diet, it can be added to salads, soups, smoothies, or taken straight from the spoon.
Iron is an essential nutrient in the human body and is needed for healthy blood cells which carry oxygen around the body. Iron deficiencies are quite common even with people who eat meat. Plant sources of iron include dried apricots, lentils, flax seeds and pumpkin seeds. The body absorbs it more easily when eaten with a food containing vitamin C. If you have any symptoms of low iron (hair loss, tiredness, feeling cold) then you should have a blood test through your GP as a supplement may be required.
Those who are dairy free can find calcium added to most plant based milks such as soya, oat, coconut and almond, so check labels. Vegetables high in calcium include kale, watercress, broccoli, brussel sprouts, and pak choi. Tofu, almonds and chia seeds are also useful vegetarian/vegan sources. Calcium is essential for many body functions such as maintaining the strength of bones and teeth, if in doubt a supplement should be considered to maintain levels.
Vitamin B12 is only found in animal products such as meat, fish, eggs and dairy. It is needed for energy levels and helps support mood. A deficiency can lead to anaemia, so it’s an important nutrient to consider supplementing as a vegetarian or vegan.