How to have a balanced diet with a vegan lifestyle

by Steffani on July 17, 2018

So, you’ve made the commitment to becoming a vegan? It is also now time to make the commitment to ensuring that your diet is nutritionally adequate. Vegan or plant-based diets can provide your body with all of the required nutrients (vitamins, minerals, protein, carbohydrates, fats) but a little more planning and care is often required.Below we have compiled a list of nutrients to be mindful of to ensure that your vegan diet is as nutritionally complete as it possibly can be!

Protein

Protein is an important part of our diet, it is required for growth, repair and maintenance of body tissue as well as the immune system. Typically, protein is found in animal products such as meat, dairy and eggs, but there are also plant-based sources of protein

 

Plant source of protein include:

  • Dairy alternatives (soy milk, soy cheese & soy yoghurt)
  • Legumes (chickpeas, lentils, kidney beans & other beans)
  • Tofu & tempeh
  • Nuts & seeds
  • Special vegetarian products
    • Textured vegetable protein (TVP), derived from soybeans and can be used as a meat substitute
    • Nutmeat, vegan sausages and vegie burgers

Adults need about 40-100g of protein a day, in order to consume enough protein vegans should eat at least 3 serves of dairy alternatives and at least 2 serves of meat alternatives per day. One serve of meat alternatives provides about 12g protein and is equal to:

  • ¾ cup cooked legumes/beans (e.g. ½ can baked beans)
  • 50g nuts/seeds
  • 100g tofu

 

Calcium

Milk and milk products are the major source of calcium in our diets. To ensure adequate calcium intake (1000mg/day for adults), at least 3-4 serves of dairy alternatives should be consumed. In order to meet your calcium needs on a vegan diet at least 3 or 4 serves (300mg calcium/serve) of the following foods should be included each day:

  • 250ml (1 cup) calcium fortified soy or almond milk
  • 200g of soy yoghurt
  • 150g tofu set in calcium
  • 200g green vegetables
  • 50g nuts and seeds, particularly, almonds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, tahini and LSA

 

Calcium absorption can be decreased by the presence of phytic acid (unprocessed bran), oxalic acid (spinach, coffee, chocolate) and tannins (tea). Because of this the calcium in tea and coffee is not readily absorbed, it is recommended to include other sources of milk or alternatives in your diet as well as tea and coffee.

 

Iron

Without sufficient iron in your diet you may be at risk of becoming anaemic. There are two types of iron available from food sources; haem and non-haem iron. Haem iron is found mostly in animal foods such as red meat which is more easily absorbed by the body. Non-haem iron is found mostly is plant foods, this type of iron isn’t as easily absorbed by the body. Plant sources of non-haem iron include:

  • Legumes e.g. baked beans, kidney beans, lentils, chickpeas
  • Wholegrain breads and cereals
  • Dried fruit e.g. apricots, prunes, dates and sultanas
  • Green leafy vegetables e.g. spinach, bok choy and broccoli
  • Raw nuts and seeds
  • Fortified breakfast cereals
  • Fortified orange juice

 

Although non-haem iron isn’t as easily absorbed by the body it can be increased by eating foods that are high in ascorbic acid (vitamin C) with each meal, for example; a glass of orange juice with a breakfast cereal, tomato or red capsicum in a sandwich or salad for lunch, citrus fruit or pawpaw with a breakfast cereal or sandwich at lunch.

 

Similar to calcium, iron absorption can be decreased due to the presence of phytic acid, oxalic acid and tannins as well as the presence of calcium. It is important for a vegan to have tea and coffee an hour before or after a meal.

 

Vegan women in particular may find it difficult to consume enough iron due to losses through menstruation. It is recommended that women include 18mg of iron each day and men 8mg. Due to the lower absorption of non-haem iron sources vegans may need even higher intakes of iron. Some women (and men) may require an iron supplement if they are unable to maintain a high enough iron intake through their diet.

 

Vitamin B12

In diets that do not contain any milk, milk products or eggs, such as the Vegan diet, a deficiency of vitamin B12 may occur. Vitamin B12 is stored in the liver and it can take several years for these stores to be depleted.

 

Plant foods that may include a small source of vitamin B12 are mushrooms, alfalfa, seaweeds, fermented soy products, low salt Vegemite and B12 fortified soy milk/rice milk. Many of these are unreliable sources of B12 however, and some include sources which are not active in the human body. Additionally, these foods are unlikely to be adequate to meet your requirements.

 

If you believe you may be at risk of a vitamin B12 deficiency be sure to speak with your doctor or dietitian for more information.

 

Our final tips:

  1. Frozen vegetables can be just as nutritious as fresh vegetables, they can be used when certain vegetables are out of season or when fresh vegetables are just too expensive.
  2. Be careful not to overcook your vegetables – it is best to lightly steam or microwave them to ensure the nutrient content stays high
  3. When cooking dried beans or lentils it is best to soak them overnight – this can reduce the cooking time. Canned beans, lentils and chickpeas are also just as good!
  4. If you find that you are losing weight now that you are vegan you may need to eat more often during the day, 4-6 smaller meal could be the way to go. It also may be more appropriate for you to choose more energy dense carbohydrate foods such as juices and dried fruits (as well as your fresh fruit).
  5. Typically, we require at least 6-8 glasses of water per day, people who are on high fibre diets and/or exercise regularly require an even higher fluid intake. Your vegan diet is likely to be high fibre, so aim to increase that water intake!

 

Do you have any further concerns or questions about your vegan diet? Contact one of our Eat Smart Dietitians for some further individualised advice. We’d be happy to help!

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