5 ESSENTIAL NUTRIENTS FOR PLANT-BASED DIETS
By Sally Shi-po POON (Registered Dietitian)
If you are a vegetarian or want to cut back on meats, make sure you get all the nutrients you need through a balanced diet. If a plant-based diet is well planned and nutritionally adequate, it may provide health benefits and lowering the risk of heart disease, colorectal cancer and type 2 diabetes. However, if the diet is not planned appropriately, you can fall short on the following nutrients easily:
It is important to get enough dietary protein to keep our muscle, hair, skin and nails healthy. Main plant-based sources of protein include lentils, legumes, seeds, nuts, nut butter, soy milk, firm tofu, and meat substitutes. Eggs, milk, cheese, and yogurt are also good sources of protein if you eat these. Grains such as quinoa, millet, oats, wheat, and rice also contain some protein. It is important to eat different kinds of protein food every day to get all the amino acids required.
Iron is essential for making red blood cells and insufficient iron intake can result in iron deficiency anaemia. Signs and symptoms include fatigue, weakness, pale skin, headache, dizziness, cold hands and feet, and brittle nails.
Plant sources of iron include white beans, kidney beans, chickpeas, lentils, fortified breakfast cereals, dark chocolate, firm tofu, raisins, spinach, and cashew nuts. Your body absorbs plant-based iron better when you eat it with foods that contain vitamin C, such as oranges, kiwi fruits, guavas, strawberries, sweet peppers, tomatoes, and broccoli.
- Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are important for brain, eye, and heart health. The three main omega-3 fatty acids are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA is found mainly in plant oils such as chia seed, flaxseed, soybean, walnuts, canola oil, and soybean oil. DHA and EPA are found in fish and other seafood.
Your body can only convert very small amounts of ALA into EPA and then to DHA. If you do not eat fish and seafood, you should get EPA and DHA from fortified foods such as eggs, yogurt, juices, milk, and soymilk. If you think you have trouble getting enough omega-3s from food, consult with a doctor, dietitian, or pharmacist regarding dietary supplements.
99% of the body’s calcium supply is stored in the bones and teeth where it supports their structure and function. Dairy foods are rich in calcium but if you are not eating these make sure you obtain calcium from other sources like fortified foods (e.g. breakfast cereals, fruit juices, tofu, soymilk, almond milk), dark green vegetables (e.g. Chinese cabbage, broccoli, kale, broccoli), almonds, and sesame seeds.
In addition to following a calcium-rich diet, you also need to get some vitamin D from the sun and fortified foods to enhance calcium absorption. And don’t forget about weight-bearing exercise which is the best type of exercise for your bones. Examples include weight training, walking, hiking, jogging, climbing stairs, tennis, and dancing.
- Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 helps keep the nerve and blood cells healthy in the body. It also helps make the genetic material in cells called DNA. Inadequacy can lead to megaloblastic anaemia that makes people feel tired and weak, as well as nerve damage.
Vegetarians can get vitamin B12 from eggs and dairy foods. If you are a vegan, you can get vitamin B12 from a variety of fortified foods such as breakfast cereals, nutritional yeasts, soy yogurt, and beverages. If you think you have trouble getting enough vitamin B12 from food, consult with a doctor, dietitian, or pharmacist regarding dietary supplements.
Does “vegetarian” necessarily mean healthy?
Food products labelled with “vegetarian” or “vegan” do not necessarily mean healthy. Cookies, chips, sweetened cereals, vegetarian burgers and sausages might be vegetarian foods, but they are likely high in fats, added sugar and sodium. Therefore, eat smart by checking the food labels and look for products that carry less saturated fat, trans fat, added sugar and sodium. In addition, fortified foods vary in the formulation, so it is important to check product labels to determine which added nutrients they contain.
Sally’s Nutrition Blog @ Hong Kong Tatler: https://hk.asiatatler.com/life/essential-nutrients-plant-based-diet