To vegan or not to vegan?

*Article written by SBF dietician Peita HYNES BAppSc (HMS) hons. BHlth Sc (Nutr & Diet) hons. 

Move over Paleo, VEGANISM is gaining in popularity and I must admit I do like some of the concepts of this way of eating. Adding more vegetables in your diet and consuming less processed foods addresses many of our current “diet” problems such as consuming excess calories, sugar, salt, fat, preservatives, additives, colouring etc

A vegan diet is centred on whole, unrefined or minimally refined plants. It is based on fruits, vegetables, wholegrain and legumes and excludes meat and meat products such as dairy and eggs. It can also exclude highly refined foods like sugar, oil and bleached flour.

Nutritional benefits of a vegan diet:

  • Vegetables: They’re jam packed with vitamins, minerals, fibre, antioxidants, phytochemicals and they’re also low in calories.
  • Fruit: Also provides us with good sources of vitamins (particularly C), minerals and fibre.
  • Legumes: Legumes additionally provide us with a great protein source as well as a healthy carbohydrate and fibre source.
  • Whole grains: Provide us with B vitamins, fibre and some protein as well as healthy carbohydrates like legumes.

Considerations of a vegan diet:

Like many “diets” a vegan diet is often lacking in some important nutrients which need to be made up elsewhere. It’s important to understand what these nutrients are and how these can be consumed through other sources.


Protein is required for growth and repair of cells, for enzymes, for normal function of muscles and for hormones. Foods high in protein should to be eaten at all meals and may include:

  • Legumes: lentils and beans such as chickpeas, cannelloni beans, kidney beans, broad beans, butter beans etc
  • Soy foods: Tofu, soy milk, soy yoghurt
  • Textured Vegetable Protein (soy derived)
  • Nuts and Seeds
  • Grains such as quinoa, amaranth and whole grains


Iron is important for the transport of oxygen around the body. There are two types of iron: haem and non-haem. Haem iron is found mostly in animal foods (especially in red meat) and is easily absorbed by the body. Non-haem iron is mostly found in plant foods and does not absorb as efficiently as haem-iron. It therefore can be harder for vegans to obtain sufficient iron through their diet and requires careful planning of foods with good sources of iron.

Sources of iron include:

  • Legumes
  • Iron Fortified foods (many breakfast cereals and breads are fortified with iron)
  • Tofu and tempeh
  • Nuts and Seed
  • Green leafy veggies – such as spinach, asian greens, broccoli
  • Dried fruit – apricots, dates, sultanas, prunes
  • Quinoa
  • Whole grains

To increase absorption of non-haem iron, it helps to:

  • Consume with vitamin C at meals. Examples of foods high in vitamin C include citrus fruits (oranges, lemons etc), strawberries, kiwi fruit, tomatoes, broccoli.
  • Avoid drinking tea and coffee with meals (tannins in tea and coffee inhibit iron absorption)
  • Avoid taking calcium supplements with a meal


Calcium is extremely important for healthy bones and teeth, muscle and nerve functioning and blood clotting. You need to be consumig regular sources of the following in your diet:

  • Calcium fortified products: such as soy, nut, oat and rice milks
  • Nuts such as brazil nuts, almonds, sesame seeds,
  • Dried apricots and figs
  • Soy beans, calcium set tofu
  • Asian greens, kale, collard greens and broccoli


Zinc is important for growth, healing, healthy skin and a strong immune system. Foods high in zinc for vegans include:

  • Legumes
  • Grains
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Soy products: tempeh, soy milk, soy yoghurt


Omega 3’s are essential for good health and in particular for protection against heart disease. They are also great for mental health with evidence suggesting they help with depression.

Food Sources:

  • Oils such as flaxseed, canola, chia seed oil, soybean
  • Nuts and seeds such as chia seeds, linseeds (stored in fridge), walnuts, hemp seeds
  • Tofu, soybeans, omega-3 fortified soy milks (soy milk that has omega-3 added)

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is important for cell division, the nervous system and the formation of red blood cells. Your best bet is to check for foods fortified with B12 (which will be some soy milks and marmite). A low intake can be responsible for anaemia and a B12 supplement may be required. It’s best to consult your GP for advice on your vitamin B12 status if following a vegan diet for a prolonged period of time.


Iodine is needed for human growth and development and is important for the normal functioning of the thyroid. Iodised salt and bread fortified with iodine are two of your only sources of consuming iodine.

A balanced vegan diet requires careful planning and a variety of foods in your daily food intake to hit all your vitamin, mineral and protein requirements.

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Author: Sally Brouwer

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