Going plant-based? Here’s what you need to know.
Dietitian, Sophie Medlin shares the nutrients that need to be on your radar if you’re considering a plant-based diet.
Eating a plant-based diet is a solid choice, no matter your reason—environmental, moral, you name it—and it’s growing exponentially in popularity. But, there are a few things to bear in mind nutritionally, to make sure it’s a solid choice for your brain and body too.
Everyone needs a delicate balance of nutrients to make sure you’re getting everything you need to be at your best. Vegan and plant-based diets can be a great way to improve your health, but there are certain nutrients that can be a bit more difficult to find. We’ve rounded up what they are, and where you can find them—so you can make sure you’re not missing out on anything.
There is also an episode on our Braincare Podcast where we explain the science behind the potential nutritional deficiencies linked to some of today's most popular diets including veganism.
Already eating plant-based? Take our vegan nutrition survey to see how you’re doing.
The plant-based foods your brain needs every day: a checklist
Getting enough protein on a plant-based diet
Probably the most common question from omnivores that vegans and plant-based eaters have to answer on a daily basis. “How do you get enough protein?” And actually, according to the results of our survey, 74% of people don’t get enough. It’s vital to get enough protein, and it can be a challenge on a plant-based diet because just one source of protein isn’t enough to ensure that all the essential amino acids you need. To make sure you have all your bases covered, try to eat three or more portions of protein every day, from different sources such as lentils, beans, brown, or tofu.
For recipe inspiration try these:
Getting omega 3 on a plant-based diet
For omnivores, omega 3 EPA and DHA are primarily found in oily fish. One of the best vegan sources of omega 3 is seaweed, but it’s very difficult to eat enough seaweed every day. Flax seeds are another commonly-cited vegan source of omega 3—but they contain ALA, rather than DHA and EPA (the other two fats in omega 3). And yes, flaxseeds turn ALA into EPA and DHA but only 5% and 0.5% respectively. That’s just not enough. You can learn more about it here.
Omega 3 EPA and DHA are crucial for many of the science-backed benefits of omega 3, from improving sleep and helping with anxiety as well as normal brain and heart function. Michael Greger from NutritionFacts, recommends that vegans supplement with 250mg of DHA omega 3 a day.
From the results of our Brain Nutrition Assessment, we know that 74% of vegetarians and vegans don’t take an omega 3 supplement.
How to get B12 as a vegan
Another common question you might have before starting a plant-based diet is around getting enough vitamin B12.
Needed for maintaining a healthy nervous system, energy, and mood-regulation, vitamin B12 is largely found in animal sources—although it can also be found in fortified foods and supplements, of course. It is something that those on a plant-based diet need to keep an eye on, as studies show that around 20% of us are deficient. And we know from our Brain Nutrition Assessment, that 65% of vegans and vegetarians don’t take a B vitamin supplement.
Getting enough zinc on a vegan diet
Since animal protein is one of the primary sources of zinc in the western diet, vegetarians and vegans are at a greater risk for zinc deficiency. Zinc is important in the creation of DNA, helps with immunity, and is vital for normal brain function. Zinc deficiency may result in issues with attention span, neuropsychological behaviour and motor development.
A review of 27 studies shows that vegetarians, and especially vegans, have lower zinc intake, so it could be well-worth considering supplementing, as in order to get enough zinc to make a difference—you’d have to eat 2oz of pumpkin seeds (!).
Iodine and the vegan diet
Iodine is commonly found in dairy products, which makes it problematic for those on a plant-based diet.
It’s important for the normal functioning of the thyroid, metabolism, and contributes to normal cognitive function. In brain scans, structures like the hippocampus and neurotransmitters are affected by iodine deficiency.
In a vegan diet, you can find iodine in seaweed or iodized salt.
Getting vitamin D on a plant-based diet
In fact, Public Health England started recommending it as a daily supplement in May 2020,
While it’s true that we can get it from some fortified foods or from sunlight, there’s little to no chance of us getting the right amount of exposure between 10am and 3pm to produce enough of it—especially with the vast majority of people working from home.
Many studies have shown that vitamin D3 is essential for the proper functioning of the immune system, as it enhances the function of immune cells that actively protect your body from pathogens. It’s also thought that vitamin D3 reduces harmful amyloid plaques in the brain.
How to find iron on a vegan diet
People who eat a solely plant-based diet may have a greater chance of being iron deficient because high-fat meat products are the best source of iron. Heme iron is only available from animal products, whereas non-heme iron is found in plants—but isn’t as easily absorbed.
Because heme iron is more easily absorbed from your diet than non-heme iron, vegans are often recommended to aim for 1.8 times the normal RDA, but more studies are needed to establish whether such high intakes are needed.
If you choose a plant-based diet but have a low iron intake should aim to eat more iron-rich food sources such as cruciferous vegetables, beans, peas, dried fruit, nuts, and seeds. You can also boost your intake with fortified foods like cereals, enriched bread, and some plant milk, or with a high quality supplement.
Finding calcium on a plant-based diet
As you’ll doubtless remember from ‘milk time’ at school, calcium is found in dairy products. It’s essential for the daily functioning of the body, so much so that for every day that we don’t get enough calcium, vitamin D and other minerals from our diet, our bones will release some calcium in order to keep the calcium in our bloodstream stable. Over time, this decalcification of bones leads to osteopenia and later, osteoporosis.
We have recently had a shift in the messages we’re getting about dairy, with influencers and documentaries encouraging the use of plant-based milk rather than cow’s milk. Unfortunately, these plant-based milks are far less good for our bone health, even when they’re fortified. This is because of the matrix of nutrients in dairy which includes vitamin D, calcium, protein and other minerals that allows for optimum bone health.
We recently found out that even when vegans match their calcium protein intake, their risk of hip fracture is 2.3 times higher than omnivores. What this means that those on a vegan diet or who have moved to plant-based milks, need to be even more aware of all the things that affect bone health in order to minimise their risk as far as possible.
Vegan sources of calcium include soy foods, beans, fortified plant-based milks, green vegetables, wheat-based bread or of course, a high-quality supplement. (Calcium isn’t in the Smart Supplement as it’s not essential for brain function, but it is vitally important to consider if you’re eating a plant-based diet).
Want a list of the foods you need every day to make sure you’re taking care of your brain? Check out the top 12 foods for long-term brain health (there are plant-based options for all of them too).
Check out the Braincare Podcast episode "How Can Plant-Based Diets Affect Your Mental Health" where we talk more about potential nutrient deficiencies on a plant-based diet and how this can potentially impact your mental health.