You are what you eat: Can we get all our nutritional needs from plant-based food?

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By Nutritionist Bonnie Chivers – BAppSc, MHumNutr, PhD Candidate

It’s a long-standing debate in many households and social conversations – does a vegetarian or vegan diet provide you with everything you need?

Yes, absolutely it can.

If it is a well-planned out diet, a vegetarian or vegan diet can provide all the essential vitamins and minerals for a long and healthy life, and offer many health benefits.

Commonly when people shift to a predominant or complete plant diet they tend to prioritise carbohydrate foods like pasta or rice to provide the bulk of their food. In this approach many people fall short on some essential nutrients, and this is why these diets need to be well planned.

The following nutrients need consideration and may take a little effort to obtain adequate amounts:

Protein: focus on adding high protein to foods like legumes, hummus, nuts and nut butters, seeds, and soy (tofu, edamame, soy milk etc.) to every meal and snack. Higher protein vegetables like peas and spinach should also be regularly incorporated. When in doubt, a protein supplement can also be helpful, protein shakes are certainly not just for gym junkies!

Iron: many reproductive aged females, including those who are not vegetarian or vegan, may find they need to take an iron supplement to reach their requirements. To increase iron absorption, supplements or iron-containing foods should be consumed with food or drink that is high in vitamin C; and coffee/tea or calcium supplements should be consumed between meals as these inhibit iron absorption. 

Calcium: for those following a vegan diet calcium requires effort and attention, as most people get the majority of their calcium from dairy products. Bok choy, kale, mustard greens, turnip greens, watercress, broccoli, chickpeas, calcium-set tofu, black beans and almonds are all good plant-based sources of calcium. Some fortified products have calcium added during processing; these may include non-dairy milk, orange juice, and some breakfast cereals.

Zinc: zinc is not stored in the body in large amounts so it is important to consume it on a daily basis. Whole grains and legumes are good sources of zinc. Soaking legumes and sprouting grains can increase the absorption of zinc.

Vitamin B12: B12 is not found in plant foods and for this reason vegans need to supplement their diet with B12 fortified foods or a supplement. Fortified foods include nutritional yeast, some breakfast cereals, meat alternatives and non-dairy milk.

Omega-3 fatty acids: daily consumption of seeds (chia seeds, flaxseed and hemp seeds), seaweed, edamame, kidney beans and walnuts help to optimise omega-3 fatty acid levels.

Vegetarian, vegan or plant focused diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood, and for athletes. Be sure to check food labels to see if foods are fortified, check with your GP or an accredited nutrition professional about supplements you may require, and remember to assess your diet every few months to check you haven’t lapsed on your intake of anything mentioned above.  

Bonnie (Chivers) Brammall
Monash Centre for Health Research and Implementation – MCHRI School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, Monash University

By Nutritionist Bonnie Chivers – BAppSc, MHumNutr, PhD Candidate

It’s a long-standing debate in many households and social conversations – does a vegetarian or vegan diet provide you with everything you need?

Yes, absolutely it can.

If it is a well-planned out diet, a vegetarian or vegan diet can provide all the essential vitamins and minerals for a long and healthy life, and offer many health benefits.

Commonly when people shift to a predominant or complete plant diet they tend to prioritise carbohydrate foods like pasta or rice to provide the bulk of their food. In this approach many people fall short on some essential nutrients, and this is why these diets need to be well planned.

The following nutrients need consideration and may take a little effort to obtain adequate amounts:

Protein: focus on adding high protein to foods like legumes, hummus, nuts and nut butters, seeds, and soy (tofu, edamame, soy milk etc.) to every meal and snack. Higher protein vegetables like peas and spinach should also be regularly incorporated. When in doubt, a protein supplement can also be helpful, protein shakes are certainly not just for gym junkies!

Iron: many reproductive aged females, including those who are not vegetarian or vegan, may find they need to take an iron supplement to reach their requirements. To increase iron absorption, supplements or iron-containing foods should be consumed with food or drink that is high in vitamin C; and coffee/tea or calcium supplements should be consumed between meals as these inhibit iron absorption. 

Calcium: for those following a vegan diet calcium requires effort and attention, as most people get the majority of their calcium from dairy products. Bok choy, kale, mustard greens, turnip greens, watercress, broccoli, chickpeas, calcium-set tofu, black beans and almonds are all good plant-based sources of calcium. Some fortified products have calcium added during processing; these may include non-dairy milk, orange juice, and some breakfast cereals.

Zinc: zinc is not stored in the body in large amounts so it is important to consume it on a daily basis. Whole grains and legumes are good sources of zinc. Soaking legumes and sprouting grains can increase the absorption of zinc.

Vitamin B12: B12 is not found in plant foods and for this reason vegans need to supplement their diet with B12 fortified foods or a supplement. Fortified foods include nutritional yeast, some breakfast cereals, meat alternatives and non-dairy milk.

Omega-3 fatty acids: daily consumption of seeds (chia seeds, flaxseed and hemp seeds), seaweed, edamame, kidney beans and walnuts help to optimise omega-3 fatty acid levels.

Vegetarian, vegan or plant focused diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood, and for athletes. Be sure to check food labels to see if foods are fortified, check with your GP or an accredited nutrition professional about supplements you may require, and remember to assess your diet every few months to check you haven’t lapsed on your intake of anything mentioned above.  

Bonnie (Chivers) Brammall
Monash Centre for Health Research and Implementation – MCHRI
School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, Monash University
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