Are you eating a vegan or a plant-based diet or want to start? Then this blog post is for you! Let’s dive into the details of the two diets to better understand how to optimise this dietary choice and what is important to know before you start. This post will look at the science and provide practical suggestions to easily implement and get the most out of these dietary strategies.
What are the differences between plant-based & vegan diets?
Not many people know this, but vegan and plant-based diets (PBD) are not the same thing. In fact, they are far from it. Vegan diets contain no animal products whereas PBD mean the majority of your diet comes from plants but may occasionally include some animal food sources if desired. Vegans still include the use of various oils and processed foods no matter their health implication, as long as they are vegan. PBD on the other hand, use no oil when cooking and avoid eating any processed foods, as the diet aims to only include wholefood sources. Some people believe vegans are usually driven by ethics whilst PBD are usually driven by health. Saying that, although there is truth in this when looking at the construction of the diets, this is a generalisation and can´t be assumed.
What should I look out for on a vegan or plant-based diet?
Due to the exclusion of a rather large food source (animal products), there are various concerns regarding vegan diets and PBD. However, if done correctly these concerns can be resolved.
1) Vitamin B12: The most common issue is the lack of vitamin B12 in the diets. Vitamin B12 is almost solely found in animal food sources such as dairy, eggs and meat, which is why a B12 deficiency is common among people eating a vegan diet or PBD (1). Supplementation may be useful in preventing B12 deficiency. This is best done with a methylcobalamin supplement compared to the commonly used cyanocabolomin (2).
2) Omega-3 (n-3): N-3 deficiency is another nutrient that is best received through animal sources. Although plant sources are eventually broken down into n-3 in the body, many people are not good convertors - meaning the plant sources may not provide sufficient or any amounts of n-3. Whereas fish oil has already been broken down into pure n-3 by the fish to be easily utilised by the body.
3) Protein: It is often said that vegans do not get enough protein. This may be the case if the correct plant-based approach is not followed. A variety of grains, nuts, seeds, tofu or high quality protein powders should be consumed on a daily basis to ensure sufficient protein intake.
4) Iron deficiency anemia: Iron is another mineral to keep an eye on as a vegan or when on a PBD. Heme iron is found in red meat, poultry and seafood whereas non-heme iron is found in plants. Heme iron is much better absorbed than non-heme iron. Since it is not advised to supplement with iron unless deficient, it is best to get annual or quarterly blood tests to avoid deficiency before it occurs.
How can I avoid deficiencies on a vegan or plant-based diet?
1) Regular tests: Get regular blood tests to assess your levels. Knowing your levels will tell you which nutrients need attention and whether or not supplementation is necessary.
2) Supplementation: Supplementing with certain nutrients (e.g. B12, n-3 or iron), protein and green powders may help prevent the onset of deficiencies and reverse them. As mentioned above, supplementation of iron is only necessary if deficient. Getting regular blood tests can help verify your status.
3) Combine foods: Combining various foods together can improve the quality of protein intake by providing a full spectrum of essential amino acids. An example of this: rice and lentils. Micronutrient food sources are also best combined such as iron and vitamin C. Vitamin C is needed to improve the absorption of iron. An example: broccoli and black beans.
4) Educate yourself: Make sure to read books and articles from experts in nutrition and sports nutrition. Be critical of people giving information from experience alone and those without nutritional credentials (this is common on social media).
5) Work with a nutritionist: Working with a nutritionist or dietician can help you through the process of changing your nutritional habits and making sure that you have the necessary information to optimise your diet and avoid deficiencies.
How can I optimise my vegan or plant-based diet?
Nutrient-density is important for any type of diet preference. Due to the soil quality of crops these days, nutrients and certain minerals are often low or depleted in fruits, vegetables and grains. Knowing this, taking steps to implement more nutrients into your day can be beneficial. Variation and colour is the best way to do so. Make sure your plate has multiple colours on it (not Skitles or gummy bears) or at least 4 different sources of wholefoods. This is best achieved by not eating the same meal every day to ensure variety. Adding a green powder or the alike to your smoothies or sprouts, mixed seeds, fresh herbs and spices to your meals can also help increase nutrient-density.
Ensuring protein and fat with every meal will help keep blood sugar levels stable and keep you feeling satisfied for longer. Aim to make all your main meals from scratch to ensure your meals are nutrient-rich and keep you on the right track. This may include prepping your food to have meals to take to work, uni or for directly after training. Keep your eyes peeled foor my upcoming posts for more info on food prepping!
Do you want personalised nutrition advice?
Woo, K. S., Kwok, T. C., & Celermajer, D. S. (2014). Vegan diet, subnormal vitamin B-12 status and cardiovascular health. Nutrients, 6(8), 3259–3273.
Paul, C., & Brady, D. M. (2017). Comparative Bioavailability and Utilization of Particular Forms of B12 Supplements With Potential to Mitigate B12-related Genetic Polymorphisms. Integrative medicine (Encinitas, Calif.), 16(1), 42–49.