Getting the nutrients you need in your vegan diet is crucial, and can be tricky sometimes. We’ve tried to take some of the sting out of it with this handy quick-guide to eating vegan – and don’t forget our Sheese range contains many of the important components to a healthy diet.
If you’re breastfeeding or feeding your child a vegan diet you should get advice from NHS guidelines and your doctor as to what supplements you or your child should be taking.
A vegan diet consists of vegetables, grains, nuts, fruits and other foods made only from plants. We have a variety of recipes which are suitable for vegans on our website, but it’s important when following a vegan diet to plan meals properly – try and vary the food you eat as much as possible and be aware of any nutrients that may be missing from your diet. Here are the most common nutrients that people on a vegan diet risk missing out on:
Vegans can get enough protein from their food as long as they are eating a good variety. Sources of protein include beans and pulses, soya products (milk, yogurt, tofu), nuts, seeds and also in cereal foods like rice, bread, pasta etc.
Calcium helps build strong bones and teeth, regulates muscle contractions including your heartbeat, and ensures blood clots normally. Deficiencies can lead to debilitating bone diseases such as osteoporosis. Calcium requirements are particularly high for young children who would normally get this from cow’s milk, so it’s vitally important to ensure their calcium intake from non-dairy milk sources is sufficient. Calcium is found naturally in dried fruit (apricots, raisins, and figs), ground almonds, sesame seeds, tahini (sesame paste), tofu and pulses, as well as fortified products such as flour, bread and non-dairy milks e.g. unsweetened soya or almond milk.
Insufficient vitamin D can directly impact calcium absorption, and again is especially important for young children. Vegan sources of Vitamin D include fortified breakfast cereals and soya spreads. The most natural way of boosting your vitamin D intake is through exposure to sunlight.
Zinc is required for a healthy metabolism and immune system among other things, so it’s important to try and avoid a zinc deficiency at all costs. Phytates found in plant tissue make zinc less bioavailable, so making sure that you’re eating zinc-rich foods on a regular basis is important. Vegan sources of zinc include beans and pulses, whole grains, wheat germ, tofu, seeds and nuts.
Iron’s important in making red blood cells which carry oxygen around the body. A lack of iron can lead to deficiency anaemia, and in kids can impact intellectual performance and behaviour. Short term effects of iron deficiency can include impaired immunity, tiredness, loss of appetite and lowered vitality. Like zinc, the iron found in plant sources is less bioavailable, so again making sure iron rich foods are eaten regularly is important. Vegan sources of iron include dark-green leafy vegetables, pulses, wholemeal bread and flour, fortified breakfast cereals, soya products, nuts and dried fruit (in particular, dates and apricots). Women also require more iron than men and need to be even more aware of the amounts they’re consuming.
Iodine helps make thyroid hormones, which help keep cells and the metabolic rate – the speed at which chemical reactions take place in the body – healthy. In children iodine deficiency can result in permanent brain damage so making sure iodine is sufficient in young children is especially important. Vegan sources of iodine include cereals and grains, such as rye, and sea vegetables such as nori, wakame and arame. It’s important to note that excessive intake of iodine can also have negative health implications – some sea vegetables, for example, contain very high levels of iodine.
Vitamin B12 is involved in making red blood cells and keeping the nervous system healthy, releasing energy from food and using folic acid. A deficiency can lead to energy loss and a drop in appetite. Children will show signs of deficiency quicker than adults will. Vitamin B12 is found almost exclusively in animal products so the only vegan sources are fortified cereals and unsweetened soya milk, as well as in yeast extracts, such as marmite.
Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin)
Vitamin B2 is very important for brain and nervous system development and maintenance. It keeps the eyes, skin and nervous system healthy, and helps your body release energy from food.
Vegan sources of Vitamin B2 include wheat germ, beans and pulses, almonds, avocados, mushrooms, dark green leafy vegetables and fortified unsweetened soya milk. Nutritional yeast is also a source of vitamin B2 (amongst other nutrients); a strain of yeast grown on molasses and can be added to savoury dishes as an extra source of nutrients. Most children get their vitamin B2 from cow’s milk so it’s especially important to make sure your child is eating enough of the alternative sources to make up for this.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Omega 3 fats have been linked with a reduced risk of heart disease as well as having other health benefits, similar to those that can be attained through eating a variety of fruits and vegetables and reducing saturated fat and salt levels in your diet. Usually found in oily fish, vegan sources include nut and seed oils, such as linseed, walnut, rapeseed and soya bean oil. Using these oils when cooking is a great way to increase your omega 3 intake.
Take care of yourself
Vegans should also take care with ingredients such as gelatine, cochineal (E120 – a red food colouring), suet, milk powders, egg powders. If you’re ever in doubt look for a vegan friendly logo or consult the NHS website or your doctor for further dietary advice.
You should also try and avoid artificial replacements for animal-based preservatives as these risk containing added preservatives, colours and flavours, and make sure you are keeping an eye on the saturated fat, sugar and salt content of the foods you are buying.
We hope this guide goes some way in helping you and your children stay healthy. If you’d like some ideas for your vegan cooking, check out our recipes page for some healthy ideas.