This article was written by our regular contributor; registered dietitian – Maeve Hanan.
Thousands of people sign up to the ever-growing Veganuary movement each year, which involves following a vegan diet and lifestyle for the month of January.
This article will go through 10 important nutrition-related tips if you are considering getting involved in Veganuary.
Reflect on your motivation for trying Veganuary:
Many people feel pressure to take part in this challenge, but this is a very individual decision based on your values, lifestyle, available food and time, relationship with food etc.
It’s important to think about your ‘why’ and to weigh up the pros and cons for yourself. For example, you may want to give it a go if you are in good health, motivated by ethical and animal welfare reasons and if you have the time and headspace to commit to it. Whereas, Veganuary may not be in your best interest if the motivation is guilt or to restrict your diet, particularly if you have a difficult relationship with food. If Veganuary doesn’t feel like a good idea for you there are other ways of supporting the environment and animal welfare, and it’s important to take good care of yourself before you can properly show up for other causes. This also doesn’t need to be black and white decision, as it can be approached in a more flexible way without specifically labelling your diet, by adding in more plants and reducing animal-based foods without going fully vegan.
At the end of the day, you get to decide what is best for you. If you decide to give Veganuary a go, or to experiment with eating more plants and less animal-based products, the rest of the tips in this article highlight some important nutrition considerations.
Eat a variety of plant-based proteins:
Protein has a host of important roles in our body, it is needed for growth, repair, creating enzymes and certain hormones, immune system function and more.
There’s a common misconception that vegans struggle to eat enough protein. This isn’t true for the majority of vegans as many foods contain plant-based proteins, such as:
- soya-based drinks and yogurts
However, those who have higher protein requirements, like athletes, may need to pay more attention to the amount of protein they consume.
A more important focus for most vegans is consuming a variety of plant-based proteins, as most of these are not ‘complete’ sources of amino acids (i.e. they don’t contain sufficient amounts of all 9 of the amino acids that are essential to consume in our diet). Soya, quinoa and chia seeds are considered ‘complete’ or high-quality protein sources, whereas beans tend to be low in the amino acid methionine and grains tend to be low in lysine (1). So consuming a variety of plant-proteins across the day means that you get a good combination of amino acids.
Note: Combining plant proteins doesn’t necessarily need to occur at every meal, as the body extracts the amino acids from the proteins and adds them to the ‘amino acid pool’ which it draws from to create the proteins that the body needs.
Omega-3 is an essential fatty acid that we need to consume in our diet for the health of our heart, eyes and brain. This is particularly important for pregnant women as omega-3 plays a crucial role in the eye and brain development for a foetus (2).
The active forms of omega-3, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), are found mainly in oily fish. These are also present in seaweed and algae. Another form of omega-3 called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is found in plant-based foods like:
- flax and chia seeds
- rapeseed and soybean oil
- soya-based foods
But only a small amount of ALA is converted into EPA and DHA. Studies have found that less than 21% of ALA is converted into EPA and for DHA this is often closer to 8-9% (3, 4). Therefore, as well as consuming seaweed and sources of ALA, vegans may want to consider taking an algae-based omega-3 supplement.
Note: Caution is advised with seaweed as it can be dangerously high in iodine, especially with brown seaweed like kelp. So it is advised not to eat seaweed more than once a week is not recommended, particularly during pregnancy (5).
Consider taking a vitamin B12 supplement:
Vitamin B12 plays an important role in converting food to energy, DNA formation and keeping blood cells and the nervous system healthy. The only reliable dietary sources of this vitamin are animal-based foods or fortified foods, like fortified breakfast cereals, yeast spreads, nutritional yeast, plant-based drinks and certain mock meats. But the level of B12 in these foods can vary due to things like light exposure. Studies have also found that vegans are more likely to have low levels of B12 (6).
So the most reliable way to consume enough vitamin B12 on a vegan diet is to take a supplement. This is particularly important if you are following a longer-term vegan diet, but less of a concern if you are doing Veganuary for one month as vitamin B12 stores can last in our body for two to four years (7).
Consume enough iodine:
This mineral is needed for the formation of thyroid hormones, which play an important role in metabolism, growth and thyroid health. Iodine is also vital for fertility and the brain development of a foetus and baby.
As milk, yogurt and seafood are the main sources of iodine in the UK diet, vegans can benefit from taking iodine supplements. Iodine can also be found in seaweed and certain fortified plant-based milks (check the label!). Iodised salt is another option, although this can be difficult to find in the UK and Ireland. As too much iodine can be harmful to the thyroid, caution is advised with seaweed and supplements should be age-appropriate and contain no more than the daily recommended intake of iodine in the form of potassium iodate or potassium iodide (5).
Include sources of selenium:
Selenium is an antioxidant that plays an important role in our immune system, fertility, thyroid health and DNA production.
This mineral is found in a number of animal-based foods like:
It is also found in plant-based foods such as:
Brazil nuts are a particularly good source of selenium, with some Brazil nuts providing our daily selenium requirement in just one nut! But the selenium content of plant-based foods varies based on the selenium content of the soil the plant was grown in. Consuming too much selenium can be harmful, so avoid very high doses in supplement form.
Pay attention to zinc:
This mineral is important for wound healing, taste, smell, DNA formation, and a healthy immune system. It is also needed for the growth of babies and children.
Zinc is found in a number of plant-based foods like:
However, chemicals that are naturally found in plants called phytates can bind to minerals like zinc and reduce its absorption. Luckily, you can reduce the phytate content of foods using cooking methods such as soaking, rinsing, fermenting and sprouting (8, 9).
Iron is needed to create a protein called haemoglobin that carries oxygen around the body. This mineral is also needed for producing certain hormones, a healthy immune system and for infant growth and brain development.
Iron deficiency is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in the world, symptoms include fatigue, weakness, shortness of breath, pale skin and dark circles under the eyes (10).
Iron comes in two main forms: haem and non-haem iron. Haem iron is found in animal-based foods like red meat and offal. Non-haem iron is found in:
- green leafy vegetables
- dried fruit
- fortified cereals
Non-haem iron is slightly more difficult for the body to access and use as plants contain substances like phytates and tannins that reduce iron absorption. Therefore, the cooking methods discussed above for reducing phytate content and leaving at least an hour between tannin-containing drinks like tea and coffee and meals containing haem-iron can be helpful. Consuming food or drinks high in vitamin C, like orange juice, peppers, kiwis and green leafy vegetables alongside foods containing haem-iron also boosts iron absorption (11).
Consume enough calcium:
Calcium is a vital building block of bones and teeth, and also plays a role in hormone secretion and muscle, nerve and blood vessel function.
Plant-based sources of calcium include:
- calcium-set tofu
- dried figs
- calcium-fortified drinks, yogurts, cereals, flour and bread
Green leafy vegetables contain calcium, but they also contain compounds called oxalates that bind to calcium and reduce it’s absorption. Spinach is high in oxalates whereas kale, bok choy and okra contain lower levels, boiling vegetables can also lower oxalate levels (12). Calcium supplements are another option, but caution is advised on the dose as a high intake of calcium from supplements may increase the risk of hardening the arteries over time (13).
Don’t forget about vitamin D:
This important vitamin (which is actually a hormone!) is essential for bone, tooth and muscle health as it regulates calcium and phosphate levels. There is more research emerging about it’s importance for our immune system and in reducing the risk of a number of diseases.
There are a few dietary sources of vitamin D including:
- oily fish
- egg yolks
- mushrooms grown in UV light
- fortified drinks, cereals and spreads
But it is difficult for both omnivores and vegans to get all the vitamin D they need from their diet, as sunlight and supplements are the best sources of vitamin D. In the UK children over 4 and adults are advised to consider taking a 10 microgram vitamin D supplement during the autumn and winter (14). This may be needed year-round for those with darker skin and those who don’t get much sunlight on their skin.
- NutritionData Website [accessed November 2021 via: https://nutritiondata.self.com/]
- Coletta, J. M., Bell, S. J., & Roman, A. S. (2010). Omega-3 fatty acids and pregnancy. Reviews in obstetrics and gynecology, 3(4), 163. [accessed November 2021 via: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3046737/]
- Burdge, G. C., Jones, A. E., & Wootton, S. A. (2002). Eicosapentaenoic and docosapentaenoic acids are the principal products of α-linolenic acid metabolism in young men. British Journal of Nutrition, 88(4), 355-363. [accessed November 2021 via: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12323085/]
- Burdge, G. C., & Wootton, S. A. (2002). Conversion of α-linolenic acid to eicosapentaenoic, docosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acids in young women. British Journal of Nutrition, 88(4), 411-420. [accessed November 2021 via: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12323090/]
- BDA Website “Iodine: Food Fact Sheet” [accessed November 2021 via: https://www.bda.uk.com/resource/iodine.html]
- Gilsing, A. M., Crowe, F. L., Lloyd-Wright, Z., Sanders, T. A., Appleby, P. N., Allen, N. E., & Key, T. J. (2010). Serum concentrations of vitamin B12 and folate in British male omnivores, vegetarians and vegans: results from a cross-sectional analysis of the EPIC-Oxford cohort study. European journal of clinical nutrition, 64(9), 933-939. [accessed November 2021 via: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20648045/]
- NHS Website “Vitamin B12 or folate deficiency anaemia” [accessed November 2021 via: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vitamin-b12-or-folate-deficiency-anaemia]
- Gupta, R. K., Gangoliya, S. S., & Singh, N. K. (2015). Reduction of phytic acid and enhancement of bioavailable micronutrients in food grains. Journal of food science and technology, 52(2), 676-684. [accessed December 2021 via: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4325021/]
- Gustafsson, E. L., & Sandberg, A. S. (1995). Phytate reduction in brown beans (Phaseolus vulgaris L.). Journal of Food Science, 60(1), 149-152. [accessed December 2021 via: https://ift.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1365-2621.1995.tb05626.x]
- WHO Website “Anaemia” [accessed November 2021 via: https://www.who.int/health-topics/anaemia#tab=tab_1]
- Saunders, A. V., Craig, W. J., Baines, S. K., & Posen, J. S. (2013). Iron and vegetarian diets. The Medical Journal of Australia, 199(4), S11-S16. [accessed December 2021 via: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25369923]
- Chai, W., & Liebman, M. (2005). Effect of different cooking methods on vegetable oxalate content. Journal of agricultural and food chemistry, 53(8), 3027-3030. [accessed December 2021 via: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15826055/]
- Anderson, J. J., Kruszka, B., Delaney, J. A., He, K., Burke, G. L., Alonso, A., … & Michos, E. D. (2016). Calcium intake from diet and supplements and the risk of coronary artery calcification and its progression among older adults: 10‐year follow‐up of the Multi‐Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA). Journal of the American Heart Association, 5(10), e003815. [accessed December 2021 via: https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/10.1161/JAHA.116.003815]
- NHS Website “Vitamin D” [accessed November 2021 via: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vitamins-and-minerals/vitamin-d/]