Plant based diets are increasing in popularity, in 2016 there were 1.68million vegetarians in the UK, 542,000 vegans and these number continue to rise (1,2). The reasons why people choose to adopt a plant based approach to nutrition are many and vary from ethical concerns over animal welfare, to sustainability and the environment. Whatever the reasons, it is also important to consider the impact and health benefits of these diets.
Plant based diets, if done with care, can be some of the healthiest diets around. They are linked with many health benefits as they are generally higher in fibre and lower in saturated fat and calories than non- vegetarian diets. There is a lot of research showing that these diets are associated with lower levels of cardiovascular disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes (3). There are, however some specific nutrients that it may be difficult to get sufficiently when following a vegetarian diet, depending on which diet is chosen and how well it is planned out.
There are several types of plant based diet, with some people deciding to remove all animal products from their diet altogether (Vegans). Others still include dairy foods and eggs (vegetarian) and some still include fish (Pescetarian). Each type will involve slightly different nutritional considerations, it is important to be aware of these in order to ensure that your diet remains nutritionally balanced and contains all the nutrients that you need.
What to consider when planning your plant based diet
Not all vegetarian, vegan or pescatarian diets are going to be equally healthy! It is still possible to make poor nutritional choices even when following these diets. The availability of plant based convenience and processed foods is rising, and some of these are higher in sugars and saturated fats than their fresh and less processed counterparts (4,5).
Iron– Iron is important in the diet as it is required to make red blood cells, which carry oxygen round the body. Too little can cause iron deficiency anaemia.
Red meat is the richest and most easily absorbed source of iron in our diet. When following a vegetarian diet, make sure that you include non- meat sources of iron in your diet on a daily basis. These are pulses (beans and lentils), nuts, green leafy vegetables, fortified breakfast cereals, and dried fruit. Vitamin C helps with Iron absorption, so include a portion of fruit, vegetables or a glass of fruit juice with your meal.
Protein- If you are vegetarian but still eat animal products you can still get all the protein you need by eating a good mix of dairy foods and eggs, together with non-animal sources of protein like pulses, nuts and soya products.
If you are following a vegan diet you will need to take extra care as plant based proteins tend to lack the full profile of all the amino acids we need. Don’t rely on just one or only a few sources of protein- you might not get all the amino acids you need this way. There are a few plant based proteins which contain all the essential amino acids we need- these are soya, hemp and Quinoa.
Calcium– Calcium is needed to keep bones and teeth healthy, and to support good muscle function and blood clotting.
For Vegetarians who are still eating dairy foods, Calcium should not be a nutrient that is lacking in the diet, provided that sufficient amounts of dairy are eaten. Vegans however, need to take care that dairy alternatives used are fortified with calcium. Other sources of calcium for vegans are soya, nuts, sesame seeds, bread, dried fruits and green leafy vegetables.
Vitamin D- In spring and summer, most of the UK population get plenty Vitamin D from sunlight. However recent guidelines from Public Health England recommend that everyone in the UK should consider a supplement of Vitamin D in the winter months. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/phe-publishes-new-advice-on-vitamin-d
This is because it is quite hard to get all of the vitamin D we need from food. This advice is particularly important for vegetarians and vegans, as Vitamin D is found only in animal products or fortified foods. Vitamin D rich foods are margarines, fortified dairy alternatives and cereals, eggs. Oily fish is a rich source of Vitamin D if you are a Pescetarian.
Vitamin B12- B12 is a valuable vitamin by helping to make red blood cells healthy, keeping the nervous system healthy and releasing energy from food.
Like vitamin D, vitamin B12 is mainly found in animal products, so care needs to be taken to ensure you are getting sufficient amounts in your diet . Vegetarian sources are soya products, fortified breakfast cereals and yeast extract.
Zinc and Selenium- Both of these nutrients play a valuable role in the immune system, wound healing and metabolism. They are mostly derived from animal products. You can make sure that you get plenty in a vegetarian or vegan diet by eating nuts, seeds, legumes and cereals, especially fortified varieties.
Iodine- Iodine is needed to make thyroid hormones, which support the body’s metabolism. Sufficient Iodine is difficult to get on a Vegan diet. Seafood is rich in Iodine, this includes seaweed, although the amounts are highly variable, making it difficult to know accurately how much you are consuming. It may be worthwhile considering a supplement, speak to your dietitian for further advice.
If you are following a Vegetarian or Vegan diet and want to know if you are getting all the nutrients you need, book in for a dietary assessment and advice on how to make sure your diet is as healthy as possible.
- Alcorta, A., Porta, A., Tárrega, A., Alvarez, M.D. and Vaquero, M.P., 2021. Foods for Plant-Based Diets: Challenges and Innovations. Foods, 10(2).
- Hood, S., 2019. Vegetarianism and vegan diets. Manual of dietetic practice, p.129.
- Ha, B., 2019. The power of plants: is a whole-foods, plant-based diet the answer to health, health care, and physician wellness?. The permanente journal, 23.
- Dedehayir, O., Smidt, M., Riverola, C. and Velasquez, S., 2017, December. Unlocking the market with vegan food innovations. In ISPIM innovation symposium (pp. 1-13). The International Society for Professional Innovation Management (ISPIM).
- Pagliai, G., Dinu, M., Madarena, M.P., Bonaccio, M., Iacoviello, L. and Sofi, F., 2021. Consumption of ultra-processed foods and health status: a systematic review and meta-analysis. British Journal of Nutrition, 125(3), pp.308-318.
- NHS, 2018. Vegan and vegetarian diets. Available at – https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/vegetarian-and-vegan-diets-q-and-a/
- Obeid, R., Heil, S.G., Verhoeven, M., Van Den Heuvel, E.G., De Groot, L.C. and Eussen, S.J., 2019. Vitamin B12 intake from animal foods, biomarkers, and health aspects. Frontiers in nutrition, 6, p.93.