How to be healthy as a vegan

Vegans like everyone else, must ensure that they have a well balanced diet so that they don’t become deficient in any essential nutrients. Simply avoiding animal products doesn’t mean you’re following a healthy diet. Just like the junk food meat eater, being a junk food vegan is bad for your health.

Following a vegan diet may be wonderful for the planet and your conscience, but like all diets, you need to know how to eat healthily for it to be good for you.

Whether you’re vegan, vegetarian, Paleo etc – it’s not only about the particular concepts you follow, but about the quality of the food itself. I personally know vegans who don’t eat a high plant based diet and definitely need to eat more vegetables, as well as Paleo friends who eat a high plant based diet with an abundance of vegetables, green leaves, nuts and seeds alongside their grass-fed meat. In fact, sometimes a Paleo eater eats more plants than the vegans who rely on fake meats and processed foods.

Key nutrients to focus on if you’re vegan:

Vitamin B12, vitamin D, iron, calcium, iodine, selenium, protein and essential fats can sometimes be lacking in a vegan diet. The following guidelines will help you to ensure you receive enough of these essential nutrients in your diet.

Vitamin B12 – needed for the formation of red blood cells, the utilisation of iron, proper digestion and absorption, cell formation, nervous system, etc. A very low B12 intake can cause anaemia, depression, chronic fatigue, constipation, digestive disorders, headaches, memory loss, palpitations, etc. It is difficult for vegans to consume enough B12 from their diets as plant foods are a very poor source. You should therefore ensure you include foods fortified with B12, such as plant milks, organic soy products and breakfast cereals (check the labels to ensure they are fortified) or by taking a B complex supplement which includes B12.

Vegan sources: Brewer’s yeast, fortified foods, sea vegetables such as dulse, kelp, kombu and nori.

Iron – Iron is needed for the formation of blood and is an essential component of many enzymes. It is also needed for a healthy immune system and for energy production. Iron deficiency symptoms include anaemia, brittle hair, hair loss, dizziness, fatigue, nervousness and slowed mental reactions.

Vegan sources: Green leafy vegetables such as kale, spinach, turnip greens, collard, mustard greens and broccoli, wholegrains, enriched breads and cereals, almonds, sesame seeds, avocados, lentils, beans, millet, prunes, dates, raisins. Consuming vitamin C rich foods with iron rich foods increases the absorption.  Many foods are naturally rich in both iron and vitamin C, for example, broccoli, Swiss chard and other green leafy vegetables.

Calcium – essential for strong bones, healthy teeth, heart health, the nervous system, muscle growth and energy production. Signs of calcium deficiency include aching joints, brittle nails, heart palpitations, insomnia, muscle cramps and tooth decay.

Vegan sources: Green leafy vegetables, tofu, tempeh, fortified soy milk and other plant milks, almonds, figs, oats, prunes, sesame seeds, blackstrap molasses.

Iodine – required for the health of the thyroid gland and therefore for metabolism. An underactive thyroid can lead to low energy, dry skin, constipation, depression, weight gain, forgetfulness, PMS, etc. As a vegan you must ensure that iodine rich foods are included in your diet or that you take a supplement which contains iodine. Consumption of raw brassicas, such as cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli and cauliflower, increase the requirements for iodine. Soy beans, raw flaxseed, sweet potatoes, lima beans, maize and millet also increase the requirements for iodine. (Too much iodine can lead to an overactive thyroid.)

Vegan sources: Seaweeds such as kelp (kombu), iodized salt. Adding small amounts of powdered or crumbled seaweed to stews or curries while cooking is a good way to provide adequate iodine if not supplemented.

Selenium – Selenium is vital for the immune system and for thyroid health. Deficiencies have been linked to cancer, exhaustion, infections and heart disease.

Vegan sources: Brazil nuts, brewer’s yeast, broccoli, brown rice, garlic, kelp, molasses, onions, wheatgerm.

Vitamin D – required for bone and teeth health, growth, muscles, thyroid function, blood clotting and immunity. Signs of deficiency include loss of appetite, insomnia, weight loss, osteomalacia and diarrhoea.

Vegan sources: Oatmeal, sweet potatoes, vegetable oils, fortified cereals and milks. Vitamin D is also formed in response to the action of sunlight on the skin so ensuring you spend some time outdoors, is important.

Protein – essential for many body functions from muscle growth, to healthy skin and hair, to energy production, to healthy blood, and to hormone and enzyme production. A deficiency in protein can therefore cause many problems. When proteins are broken down during the digestion process, they are broken down into amino acids which are then used to form your hormones, enzymes, muscles etc. The body is able to make a number of amino acids, but there are also many amino acids which the body cannot make which have to be sought from food. Some plant foods are low in certain amino acids that are required by the body. However a varied diet including a wide range of plants rich in protein will ensure all the essential amino acids are consumed.

Vegan sources: peas, beans, lentils, soya products, grains (wheat, oats, rice, barley, buckwheat, millet, quinoa), nuts and seeds.

Essential fats – Essential fats are absolutely vital for good brain health, the nervous system, skin health and heart health. Every cell in the body needs essential fats. The two key essential fats are the omega 3 and omega 6 fats. The omega 3 fats, which are found predominantly in oily fish, can be deficient in vegan diets. Signs of deficiency can include dry skin, depression, hormone imbalances, high blood pressure and poor memory.

Vegan sources: Omega 3 – flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, green leafy vegetables, spirulina. Omega 6 – nuts and seeds and their oils.

The vegan shopping list:

  • Buckwheat
  • Millet
  • Oats
  • Quinoa                                          
  • Brown rice
  • Nuts (almonds, Brazils, cashews, etc – ensure they are raw and unsalted)
  • Seeds (pumpkin, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds)
  • Nut and seed butters (e.g. tahini, cashew nut butter, pumpkin seed butter – ensure the butters are free from hydrogenated fat and sugar)
  • Beans (kidney beans, mung beans, soya beans, etc)
  • Lentils       
  • Chick peas                         
  • Hummus   
  • Soya milk, Oat milk, Rice milk, Nut based milks, eg almond milk Soya yoghurt                                             
  • Tempeh                             
  • Tofu
  • Fruit
  • Vegetables (especially dark green leafy vegetables)
  • Sea vegetables
  • Sprouted seeds, beans and lentils (or buy a sprouting kit to grow your own)

Further support:

There are many vegan websites, which are dedicated to the vegan way of life and which offer support groups, information and recipe ideas:

Article by Jo Rowkins dipNT MBANT, Nutritional Therapist at Awakening Health.

Nutritional Therapy consultations to address your specific needs.

5 thoughts on “How to be healthy as a vegan”

  1. This is a great article but I am disappointed in your discussion on Omega 3 fatty acids. I am sure that you know that plant based omega 3 is ALA (with the exception of seaweed & algae) and the body needs EPA and DHA, which are both found in oily fish/seafood and grass-fed meat. The body will convert ALA into EPA & DHA but looses 85 – 90% in the meantime (somewhat better in women than men) and requires other nutrients to be present to do this. Vegans do need to pay much more attention to their omega 3/omega 6 intake ratio as too much omega 6 (prevalent in some plant based foods – corn, grapeseed, safflower, sesame, and/or sunflower oil) can make Omega 3 conversion even less efficient.

      1. You rightly highlight the need for Omega3 as a key nutrient to pay attention to in a vegan diet (it’s also sadly lacking in most other diets as well!). However, your list of plant-based sources of Omega3 provide the ALA varient which your body needs to convert to EPA and DHA to be useful. Our bodies are not good at making this conversion (males lose 92% and females 85% of the quantity in the conversion). This requires a large quantity of plant-based Omega3 to be any use.
        When you consider that most western diets (of all types) are typically 16:1 Omega6:Omega3 and a healthy diet should be 3:1 at worst, sufficient Omega3 is a challenge for a vegan diet.

        1. Hi Martin, yes, you’re right. It’s hard for vegans to get enough omega 3 through veg sources. The best way to get a decent dose of EPA & DHA without any conversion at all is via fish oils. Thanks for your input.

          1. If only it was that simple. With fish oils, one tends to think of mackerel & salmon – great and correct for wild fish. However, farmed salmon (which, unfortunately is most of it) is very low in Omega3. Grass fed beef is as high as wild salmon, but corn or soya fed beef (again, most of the beef sold in supermarkets) is very low. We can all only do our best!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *