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But won’t your kids miss out on essential nutrients?

Being plant based as a family can sometimes be met with concern, many questions and sometimes outright criticism. While most parents don’t get lectured when they take their children to a fast food restaurant or send them to school with a ham and cheese sandwich for lunch, many people seem to have strong opinions about a vegan diet and all the nutrients it apparently lacks. A vegan diet isn’t necessarily a healthy diet as lots of processed foods, which are high in saturated fats and salt, are vegan and so is sugar in any form. However for a varied whole food plant based (WFPB) diet the facts are very different.

 

A diet that mainly consists of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds leads to better outcome for the health of both us humans and the planet. What most people fail to consider is that a plant-based diet is abundant in a number of vital, health-promoting nutrients that are often lacking in the typical Western diet. These nutrients include fibre, beta-carotene, potassium, magnesium, vitamin C and K, folate, plus thousands of phytochemicals and antioxidants. It is associated with a reduced risk of developing heart disease, type 2 diabetes, some cancers and other chronic diseases, which are sky rocketing in all societies with a typical Western diet.

 

While there is a long list of benefits of a WFPB diet for our health and the health of our children, it also has a huge impact on the health of our planet, not to forget the ethical aspect of animal welfare (or the lack of such in our modern world of factory farming and mass slaughtering). There are a few notable nutrients to be aware of if you eat a diet completely free of animal products. Like I mentioned earlier it’s important to remember that the benefits of a WFPB diet outweigh any risks by far and that many people with a traditional omnivore diet suffer from deficiencies as well (it just so happens that they seem to get questioned about it a lot less).

Notable nutrients on a WFPB diet:

 

  • Protein: It isn’t a problem to get enough protein on a WFPB diet, as long as an adequate calorie intake is guaranteed. Great plant-based sources of protein are:  Soya foods (including tofu and tempeh), legumes incl. peas, baked beans and lentils, nuts incl. peanuts, peanut butter, seeds e.g. sunflower, poppy, linseed, pumpkin, chia and quinoa.
     

  • Omega 3 (ALA): Linseeds/flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, rapeseed oil, micro algae supplement (vegan source of EPA and DHA). Short chain fatty acids (ALA) are essential, which means they have to be obtained from food sources. ALA can be converted to the longer chain EPA and DHA, but the rate of conversion varies. Daily requirements of ALA can be met by eating a tablespoon of chia seeds or ground flaxseeds (linseeds), two tablespoons of hemp seeds or six walnut halves (for an adult). It remains unclear if there are benefits from taking EPA/DHA directly through a micro algae supplement and it is currently only advised for pregnant or breastfeeding women and older people.

 

  • Calcium: Fortified plant milk, calcium set tofu, sesame seeds (tahini), chia seeds, almonds, flaxseeds (linseeds), baked beans, chick peas, red lentils, red kidney beans, broccoli, cooked low oxalate dark leafy greens like kale, turnip greens, mustard greens, collard greens and bok choi.
     

  • Iron: There are plenty iron rich plant foods, so as long as you eat a varied WFPB diet you shouldn’t worry. However some people have trouble absorbing enough plant iron (non-haem iron from plants has a lower bio-availability than haem iron from meat) and special attention should be paid to intake in teenage girls. Adding a source of vitamin C at meals increases the absorption of iron from plant foods. Good sources of iron are: Pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds (tahini), hemp seeds, linseeds, nuts (cashews, hazelnuts, almonds, walnuts), oats, dried apricots/figs/prunes/raisins, lentils, tofu, soya beans, kidney beans, chick peas, spinach, swiss chard, quinoa, whole wheat bread or pasta, kale, broccoli.
     

  • Zinc: Zinc can be found in plenty of plant foods and similar to iron vitamin C increases its absorption. Good plant sources of zinc are legumes, peanuts/peanut butter, almonds/almond butter, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, oatmeal, wholemeal bread, tofu, tempeh and miso.
     

  • Selenium: Selenium is found in both plant and animal-sourced foods, entering the food chain through plants and selenium-supplemented animal feed. In countries like Canada and South America the soil is very rich in selenium, which leads to selenium rich crops of grains and legumes. Unfortunately this is not the case in Europe (apart from Finland where the soil gets enriched with selenium) and it can therefore be hard to get enough of it, especially for people on a plant-based diet. The best plant-based source of selenium are brazil nuts, it’s likely that 3-6 nuts/day will roughly cover the daily need of a teenager or grown up. Selenium concentration varies widely in nuts and soil however and a supplement might be a more reliable source.
     

  • Iodine: Similar to Selenium, our soils are often depleted of iodine. Meat and dairy contain some iodine because of supplemented animal feed. Various types of seaweed like nori and kelp contain large amounts of iodine, but like with brazil nuts and selenium, it’s hard to know exactly how much iodine you are getting through the consumption of seaweed (it’s also possible to get too much), so a supplement or the regular use of iodized salt is preferable.
     

  • Vitamin A: Vitamin A in plant foods comes mostly in the form of beta-carotene. Carrot juice and boiled carrots are a great source of beta-carotene, other recommended foods are pumpkin, sweet potato, butternut squash, cantaloupe melon, broccoli, apricots, mango, kale and tomatoes. Adding a source of fat to your meal will increase the absorption of Vitamin.
     

  • Vitamin B12: It is absolutely essential for everyone on a plant-based diet and for all people over the age of 50 to supplement with a reliable source of vitamin B12 (fortified foods contain some B12, but it might be easier to keep track on how much you are getting by taking a supplement). Isn’t it unnatural to exclude all animal foods if you can’t get B12 in any plant foods? This is an argument I often hear and although it is a fact, that you can get B12 in meat, milk, cheese and eggs, you could also get it by eating B12 contaminated plants/soil (you’d have to eat a lot of dirt basically) or insects, if you were willing to go down that road in order not to kill vertebrate animals. It is important to note that the vast majority of farm animals get B12 supplemented feed, since they don't graze in fields where they would naturally get it from eating grass and soil. In fact, around 95% of all B12 supplements manufactured are actually given to farmed animals.
     

  • Vitamin D: Most people get a significant amount of Vitamin D from the exposure to sunlight. Generally speaking the body can store Vitamin D from sunnier months to use during darker, less sunny months. Unfortunately this doesn’t work in the same way for everyone and some people who live in very sunny climates, still develop a Vitamin D deficiency. It is therefore recommended to supplement with a reliable source of Vitamin D2 (vegan) or labelled vegan D3 (D3 is normally from an animal source like oily fish or wool, but can be made from lichen too). Plant sources of Vitamin D are fortified plant milks or UV exposed mushrooms (like human skin, mushrooms can convert sunlight into Vitamin D).

 

This can feel like a lot to take in, how could we possibly ensure to get enough of all these different foods on a daily basis? I think as important as it is to be aware of these micronutrients, they shouldn’t become a constant worry. As long as a plant-based diet consists of a large variety of fruit and vegetables of all colours, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds and we make sure to supplement with Vitamin B12, Vitamin D (at least during the winter months), a reliable source of Iodine and Selenium, we are definitely off to a good start.

 

YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT

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