Diets based on a wide variety of plant foods can provide all the nutrients you need for good health. There are a few nutrients to pay attention to if you are avoiding all animal foods or cutting a lot of them out of your diet.
Calcium has several important roles in the body such as building strong bones and teeth, making sure blood clots normally, and controlling your muscles.
Low fat dairy foods are good sources of calcium. If you don’t eat these, make sure you get calcium from other foods such as:
- plant-based alternatives to milk and yogurt which are fortified with calcium, choose the non-organic varieties (as organic options are not fortified)
- green leafy vegetables such as pak choi, brussel sprouts, broccoli and kale
- calcium set tofu
- dried figs
- red kidney beans
- nuts, particularly almonds
- sesame seeds and tahini.
Iron is needed for healthy red blood cells which carry oxygen around the body.
Plant foods containing iron include:
- fortified wholegrain breakfast cereals
- lentils, chickpeas and beans
- seeds including chia, pumpkin, hemp and linseed
- tofu and soya beans (edamame)
- dried fruit
- green leafy vegetables
- wholemeal bread.
Make sure you eat plenty of iron-rich foods and try to include these foods with all meals and snacks.
The body does not absorb the form of iron in plant foods as well as the iron in meat. To help your body absorb the iron in plant foods, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables rich in vitamin C with your meals.
Good sources of vitamin C include citrus fruit, strawberries, green leafy vegetables (broccoli, cabbage and Brussel sprouts), kiwi fruit, peppers and orange juice.
Avoid drinking tea and coffee with your meal, as these contain plant compounds which can make it difficult for your body to absorb iron from plant foods.
Iodine is needed to make thyroid hormones which help control our body’s metabolism, as well as other important functions. The body also needs thyroid hormones for proper brain development during pregnancy and infancy.
Most iodine in our diet comes from dairy products and fish. If you eat these regularly, you should be getting enough iodine.
If you don't eat dairy
Consider an iodine-fortified plant-based milk alternative. Not all plant-based milk alternatives are fortified with iodine, so check the label.
Seaweed contains iodine but the amount present is variable and can be excessive. Some varieties can be particularly high, such as kelp. Having too much iodine is harmful and so current guidance is that sea vegetables should not be eaten more than once a week.
If you don’t eat fish or dairy
The most reliable way of meeting your iodine requirements is to consider an iodine supplement (not from seaweed). It should contain no more than the daily requirements, which are 150mcg a day for adults, or 200mcg for pregnant and breastfeeding women.
Another option is to use an iodine fortified plant-based milk alternative, and drink enough to meet your daily needs.
Iodised salt is not recommended as, on average, we should cut down on salt to manage our blood pressure.
Vitamin B12 helps our bodies make red blood cells, keeps the nervous system healthy and releases energy from food. A lack of vitamin B12 could lead to vitamin B12 deficiency anaemia. Low B12 status can also result in a high homocysteine level, which has been linked to an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Vitamin B12 is only found naturally in animal foods. If you are avoiding all animal foods, the only reliable sources of Vitamin B12 are fortified foods and supplements.
Fortified plant foods include:
- yeast extract
- fortified plant-based alternatives to milk and yogurt (check the label)
- most fortified breakfast cereals (check the label)
- fortified nutritional yeast flakes.
Aim to eat these foods at least twice a day.
Alternatively, have a supplement of 10mcg a day or 2000mcg a week, but not both.
Vitamin D helps regulate the amount of calcium and phosphate in your body, which is important for healthy bones, teeth and muscles. It is also necessary for making certain hormones and for a healthy immune system.
Vitamin D is made in our bodies when our skin is exposed to the right type of sunlight. In the UK, this is usually between April and September, when most people should be able to get all the vitamin D they need from sunlight on their skin.
In the winter months, we need to rely on getting enough vitamin D from food because the sun isn’t strong enough for the body to make it.
Vitamin D is found in egg yolks and oily fish, and plant-based sources of vitamin D include:
- sun-exposed mushrooms
- fortified vegetable spreads
- fortified breakfast cereals
- fortified plant-based dairy alternatives.
It’s difficult to get enough vitamin D from food alone and so it’s recommended that everyone should consider taking a daily supplement of 10mcg/day during autumn and winter. Some vitamin D supplements are not suitable for vegans, but vitamin D2 and lichen-derived vitamin D3 are suitable.
Some people will need to consider taking a supplement all year round, for example if you don’t often go outdoors or you usually wear clothes that cover most of your skin when outside. If you have dark skin – for example if you have an African, African-Caribbean or south Asian background – you also might not get enough vitamin D from sunlight.
Selenium is needed for your immune system to work properly and helps prevent damage to your cells and tissues. It is also needed for sperm production and a healthy thyroid system.
Plant sources include grains, seeds and nuts. Brazil nuts are thought to be a particularly good source of Selenium, although the amount does vary.
To make sure you’re getting enough selenium:
- sprinkle seeds or nuts onto breakfast cereals and salads
- choose Brazil nuts as a snack
- choose wheatgerm or seeded bread or rolls
- boiled green and brown lentils, kidney beans and chickpeas also contain selenium, use these in soups, curries, stews and casseroles.
Our bodies need zinc for many functions including immunity, fertility and reproduction, wound healing, making new cells and enzymes, as well as helping to process fat, carbohydrate and protein.
Make sure you eat plenty of zinc-containing foods. Plant sources of zinc include
- QuornTM (mycoprotein)
- wheatgerm or wholemeal bread,
- seeds, especially sesame, pumpkin, chia and hemp seeds as well as flax/ linseeds.
Getting enough protein isn’t usually a problem, even if you exclude all animal foods from your diet. Eat a variety of protein-rich plant foods and include them in most meals, and make sure you’re getting enough calories.
These include beans, peas, lentils, tofu, soya mince, QuornTM (choose plain, low salt varieties), seitan, unsalted nuts and seeds. Include these in most meals.
Plant sources of protein tend to be low in saturated fat, and many also provide healthy unsaturated fat, fibre, vitamins and minerals.
Be aware of meat substitutes like vegetarian burgers, sausages and pies as these can be high in salt and saturated fat. Always check the label.