The dos and don'ts of a vegan diet
Several scientific studies have shown that a balanced plant-based diet has a positive effect on your health. To ensure a vegan lifestyle meets your needs, it is especially important to eat a balanced and varied diet.
Just like a vegetarian diet, a vegan diet requires good planning and extensive knowledge. When switching, you should pay attention to the following points in particular:
- Supplement vitamin B12.
- Choose a variety of proteins and plan these into every main meal.
- Prioritize calcium-fortified milk alternatives and calcium-fortified mineral water.
- Eat nuts and seeds every day and regularly consume wholegrain products and pulses.
- Always use iodized salt.
- Use high-quality plant-based oils (preferably rapeseed oil).
- Supplement the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA through microalgae oil capsules.
If the diet is not composed carefully, it can lead to deficiencies in important nutrients. Yet by gaining in-depth knowledge, consciously choosing the right foods and taking supplements for certain nutrients, it is possible to create a diet that fulfils your nutritional needs. However, it can be difficult to fully meet the needs of infants and children, as well as pregnant and breastfeeding women and the elderly. For this reason, a vegan diet is not recommended during these phases of life.
We get a lot of essential nutrients from the food that we eat. With a plant-based diet, it is difficult – or even impossible – to incorporate nutrients found in fish, meat or other non-vegan foods into our diet. It is therefore important to take a closer look at the nutrients we need in order to avoid potential deficiencies.
Vitamin B12 is not found in plant-based foods. However, switching to a vegan diet does not immediately lead to a deficiency. Our body can store vitamin B12 for several years and make it available when necessary. It can take up to five years for the first signs of a B12 deficiency to become apparent. When maintaining a vegan diet in the long-term, you need to cover your B12 requirements with regular B12 supplements or fortified foods.
Animal protein is of high quality, as its composition is similar to that of the proteins in the human body. With the exception of soya and rapeseed, plant-based proteins are of a lower quality. To sufficiently cover our requirements for all important amino acids, different plant-based sources of protein should be consumed in a varied way. As a general rule, the recommendation is to consume at least 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. So an individual who weighs 70 kilograms should eat 56 grams of protein a day. However, discussions are ongoing as to whether people on a vegan diet should consume higher amounts of protein.
Omega-3 fatty acids
The omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) contribute to many important functions in the body, such as maintaining a normal heart function. A daily intake of 500 milligrams in total is recommended. EPA and DHA are mainly found in fish. As such, those on a vegan diet obtain almost none of these fatty acids from foods. However, limited amounts can be converted by our body from the omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is found in products such as rapeseed oil. Microalgae oil also contains EPA and DHA and is available in capsule or pure oil form.
Plant-based iron is not absorbed as effectively by the intestine as iron from animal products. If the vegan diet is varied, the recommended amount can generally be attained – anaemia (iron deficiency anaemia) is no more common than with a mixed diet. However, vegans sometimes have lower iron storage levels (ferritin). It is therefore wise to specifically incorporate foods rich in iron into your daily diet. If these are combined with foods rich in vitamin C, such as peppers, orange juice or strawberries, this ensures better iron absorption in the intestine.
With the help of vitamin D, calcium assists in building bones and gives them stability. Milk and dairy products as the most important source of calcium are omitted from a vegan diet. As such, those on a vegan diet should therefore prioritize calcium-fortified mineral water and calcium-fortified plant-based milks. Aside from this, you should include plant-based foods containing calcium in your meals more frequently. Calcium can be found in foods such as soya flakes, tofu, almonds, Brazil nuts, sesame seeds, broccoli, kale, spinach and rocket.
Our main source of vitamin D is sunlight. Our body can produce vitamin D in the skin by itself thanks to the sun's rays. However, in winter, the energy from the sun's rays is not enough to produce sufficient vitamin D. So it's no surprise that over 60% of the Swiss population are deficient in vitamin D in the winter months.
We also take in vitamin D from our food. Significant amounts are found in animal products (fatty fish, liver, egg yolk). When it comes to plant-based foods, though, there are just a few mushrooms (chanterelles, button mushrooms, porcini mushrooms) that provide a source of vitamin D. When eating a vegan diet, it is therefore sensible to take vitamin D supplements between December and March.
If you eat a varied diet and take additional vitamin B12 supplements, you have laid the foundation for a healthy vegan diet. However, if you start to notice health conditions such as chronic fatigue, loss of appetite or depressive episodes, you may have a nutritional deficiency. In this case, a doctor should test your blood for critical nutrients. If a deficiency is detected, you should adjust your diet or take an appropriate supplement.