CAN WE REALLY GET ALL THE NUTRIENTS WE NEED WITHOUT EATING ANIMAL PRODUCTS?
Yes! Humans have no need to eat any animal products at any stage of life. As with any eating pattern, a little bit of planning and know-how is important to help us make good food choices. Here are some nutrition basics on nutrients you might want (or need) to know more about.
WHERE CAN I GET PROTEIN ON A PLANT-BASED DIET?
Protein is an important nutrient for growth and has many functions throughout the body, including being a major component of muscles. Protein is composed of substances called amino acids. There are 20 different amino acids we require for protein synthesis but only 9 of these are considered essential as our bodies cannot make these and so these need to be provided in our diet.
Nearly all foods contain protein and vegans can get plenty of protein by basing their daily diet on plant foods such as lentils, beans, chick peas, tofu, tempeh, grains, nuts, seeds, and vegetables. Limiting your intake of “empty calorie” foods like soft drinks, oils, margarine and other high fat/ high sugar processed foods and eating more whole plant foods will increase the protein density of your daily diet.
People who are doing strength training to increase their muscle mass often use protein powders to boost their protein intake in a convenient way. Plant-based protein powders (e.g. based on soy, rice or peas) are readily available.
WHAT ABOUT VITAMINS?
Vitamins are essential nutrients that humans need to obtain in order to be healthy. The only vitamins that are not readily obtainable from unprocessed plant foods are Vitamin B12 and Vitamin D. All the other essential vitamins are readily obtainable from eating a range of plant foods, including vegetables, fruit, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains. It is important for anyone eating a plant-based diet to know about vitamin B12 and vitamin D and where to get them - so read on!
Vitamin B12 is produced by bacteria and is found in soil but is scarce in plant foods. (Eating soil or unwashed vegetables is unsafe so not recommended!) People on plant-based diets can obtain vitamin B12 by eating fortified foods (i.e. foods that have had vitamin B12 added, such as some soymilks, Marmite and some meat analogues )– check the label. However, as at least three serves of vitamin B12-fortified foods are required to meet the minimum recommended intake, the safest, easiest and cheapest way to ensure that you get adequate vitamin B12 is to take a vitamin B12 supplement. This can be either in the form of a daily multivitamin containing at least 250 mcg of vitamin B12, or a vitamin B12 tablet, lozenge or liquid containing at least 100 mcg of vitamin B12, or a twice-weekly dose of 2000 mcg of vitamin B12. It is especially important that women of reproductive age, infants and children obtain enough vitamin B12 each day as it essential for brain development and growth. As we age we don’t absorb vitamin B12 as well, so higher intakes are recommended.
Vitamin D can actually be obtained from the sun! Ten to thirty minutes of daily mild sun exposure, without sunscreen, is recommended. During winter or for those living in less sunny areas or not much getting exposure to sun, Vitamin D supplements may be required.
WHAT ABOUT MINERALS?
There are several minerals that are essential for humans to obtain in order to be healthy. Minerals are chemical elements and cannot be synthesized by plants or animals. All minerals are ultimately obtained from the earth, and the content of minerals in plants varies dependent on the soil they are grown in. Iron, zinc and calcium are important minerals that humans need to ensure they obtain adequate amounts of.
Iron is important for our red blood cells and good sources include legumes (such as chickpeas, lentils, navy beans, pinto beans, kidney beans, soybeans) tofu, tempeh, whole grains, fortified vegan meat analogues, breakfast cereals, pepitas and green vegetables
NOTE: Vitamin-C rich foods (like orange juice, tomatoes, capsicum and raw green vegetables) help to increase the amount of iron we absorb so try eating these foods in . the same meal. Tea and coffee can interfere with iron absorption so it best to have these between meals rather than with them.
Calcium (along with exercise and vitamin D) is important for our bones. The best plant sources include kale, leafy Asian vegetables (like bok choy), rocket, calcium-set tofu, fortified plant milks. (Check the label and look for plant milks that have at least 120 mg calcium per 100 ml.) Other plant foods that contain moderate amounts of absorbable calcium are white beans, almonds, figs, and oranges.
Zinc has many functions throughout the body and sources include soy products, legumes, nut, seeds, whole-grains, pepitas and green vegetables.
CAN WE GET ESSENTIAL FATTY ACIDS WITHOUT EATING FISH?
Yes. Essential fatty acids are components of fats that humans need to have in their diets. The two types of essential fatty acids that are required are called omega-6 fatty acids (of which linoleic acid is essential) and omega-3 fatty acids (of which alpha linolenic acid is essential.
Omega-6 - linoleic acid is widely available from a range of foods including nuts, seeds, avocado, grains and vegetable oils. We do not require much omega-6 so even most low fat diets can provide adequate amounts of linoleic acid.
Omega-3 - alpha linolenic acid (ALA) can be obtained from flaxseeds (sprinkle 2-3 teaspoons ground seeds over cereal/muesli or add to a smoothie), chia seeds and walnuts.
Our bodies need to convert the omega 3 ALA (from flaxseeds etc) to DHA and EPA and we do this with variable efficiency. Another option to ensure we get enough of these omega-3s is to supplement with algal-derived DHA/EPA. (Algae is the original source of omega-3s for fish.)
Trace elements are mineral elements that are needed in small amounts in human nutrition. They are derived from soil and the amount of a particular trace element in a food will depend on the soil the food was grown in. Unfortunately modern farming methods tend to deplete the soil of trace elements, resulting in low amounts in the foods grown on those soils. In Australia, iodine and selenium levels in soil tend to be low.
Iodine - sources include seaweeds (eg: nori) and iodised salt. Kelp (kombu) is also rich in iodine but not recommended because it can provide too much iodine, which could result in damaging the thyroid gland. If salt is used, use iodised salt, and eating seaweed a few times a week will also boost iodine intake. Another alternative is supplementation: multivitamin tablets containing about 100-150 micrograms of iodine (for adults) will help ensure an adequate iodine intake. Iodine is important for brain development and so it is very important that pregnant and lactating women have an adequate intake.
Selenium - brazil nuts are a rich source of selenium, and just one or two brazil nuts a day will meet requirements. (Avoid having more than this as too much selenium can be harmful.) Alternatively, most multivitamin supplements contain selenium.
The information in this leaflet is of a general nature only and is not intended to replace individualised advice from an appropriately qualified health professional.
It is strongly recommended that you have a nutrition consultation when you adopt a plant-based eating pattern, to help ensure that you are on track to get all your essential nutrients and get the maximum benefit from your plant-based diet. This is especially important if you are planning a pregnancy, are pregnant, breastfeeding or have children. See bookings for information on how to organise a consultation. For additional general information on plant-based eating and nutrition, have a look at our free downloads.