Recent research has shown that more than 12.1% of the Australian population now follow a plant-based, vegetarian or vegan diet. This totals to more than 2.5 million Australians, up from 1.7 million in 2012. And whether people are making the switch for ethical, environmental or health reasons, eating more plants in place of animal and processed foods is optimal in all respects. However, despite majority of people eating healthier in general when making the switch to a plant-based diet, knowing the key nutrients for a plant-based diet is vital to ensure all needs are met.
Below you will find information on three of the six key nutrients to plan for when following a plant-based diet.
This vitamin is required for red blood cell formation, DNA synthesis and your nervous system, including brain cognition and memory. Most people require about 2.4mcg of Vitamin B12 per day. A deficiency in this nutrient is characterised by anaemia, fatigue, weakness, constipation, poor memory, depression and tingling in the hands and feet. In relation to a plant-based diet, vitamin B12 is the only nutrient that you cannot obtain directly from plants. For those avoiding animal foods it is therefore recommended that you consume foods fortified with Vitamin B12 such as (some) plant-milks, certain veggie patties and nutritional yeasts, or take a daily vitamin B12 supplement daily (1).
Iron is an essential component of haemoglobin, which is a complex protein that carries oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body. Iron is also required for myoglobin, which is a special protein that stores oxygen in your muscle cells. Further to this, iron is a component of many enzymes in your body, including those involved in energy production. Iron also supports the proper functioning of your immune system. If you are deficient in iron you can experience fatigue, weakness, pale skin, shortness of breath, a fast or irregular heartbeat and brittle nails (2,3).
Dietary iron comes in two major forms, haem-iron from animal sources and non-haem iron from both animal and plant sources. Non-haem iron does not absorb as well as haem iron. This is due to a number of factors including anti-nutrients, such as phytates and oxalates, that block it’s absorption. These anti-nutrients are found in plant foods such as legumes, wholegrains and nuts. Because of non-haem iron’s reduced absorption, those following a plant-based diet require up to 80% more dietary iron on a daily basis (3).
Legumes, soy foods, spinach, amaranth, quinoa, pumpkin seeds and nuts are all good sources of plant-based iron. Interestingly, if you consume iron rich foods with vitamin C rich foods, such as citrus, red capsicum or broccoli, you can enhance the iron absorption from plant foods by up to six times. Furthermore, by soaking your nuts, wholegrains and legumes before cooking and eating, you can reduce their phytate levels (2, 3).
Commonly known to be important for strong bones and teeth, calcium is also essential for muscle contraction and relaxation, a regular heart beat and blood clotting. Short-term, it is very unlikely you will feel the effects of inadequate calcium intake, because your body will just harvest it from your bones. However, if dietary intake is inadequate long term, you will eventually end up with brittle and weak bones; known as low bone mineral density (e.g. osteoporosis). For most people, the recommended intake for calcium is between 1000-1300mg per day. And contrary to popular belief, dairy foods are not the only source of it. You can find rich amounts of calcium in a number of plant foods, including tofu, green leafy vegetables, chia seeds and plant-milks fortified with calcium (4,5).