If you are a vegetarian or vegan, or simply wish to cut back on meats, a balanced diet is key to ensuring you get all the nutrients you need. If a plant-based diet is well planned, it can provide health benefits such as lowering the risk of heart disease, colorectal cancer and type 2 diabetes.
However, if not planned appropriately, you risk falling short on nutrients that are crucial for overall good health. Dietitian Sally Shi-Po Poon shares how you can get these five essential nutrients while sticking to a meat-free diet:
It's important to get enough dietary protein to keep our muscles, hair, skin and nails healthy. The main plant-based sources of protein include lentils, legumes, seeds, nuts, soy milk, firm tofu and meat substitutes. Eggs and dairy, as well as grains such as quinoa, millet, oats, wheat, and rice are also good sources of protein.
It is important to eat a variety of protein-rich foods to get the amino acids that your body requires.
Iron is essential for producing red blood cells, and an 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, guava, strawberries, sweet peppers, tomatoes and broccoli.
3. 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, yoghurt, juices, milk and soymilk. If you think you have trouble getting enough omega-3s, consult with a doctor, dietitian, or pharmacist regarding dietary supplements.
99% of the body’s calcium supply is stored in the bones and teeth to support 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 (breakfast cereals, fruit juices, tofu, soymilk, almond milk), dark green vegetables (Chinese cabbage, broccoli, kale, broccoli), almonds, and sesame seeds.
In addition to consuming enough calcium, vitamin D from the sun and fortified foods is essential 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.
5. Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 helps keep the nerve and blood cells healthy in the body. Inadequacy can lead to megaloblastic anaemia that leave you feeling tired and weak, and can also lead to nerve damage.
Vegetarians can get vitamin B12 from eggs and dairy. If you are a vegan, you can get vitamin B12 from a variety of fortified foods such as breakfast cereals, nutritional yeasts, as well as soy yoghurts and beverages. If you're having trouble getting enough vitamin B12 from food, consult with a doctor, dietitian, or pharmacist regarding dietary supplements.
Does “plant-based” necessarily mean healthy?
Food products labelled "vegetarian" or "vegan" do not necessarily mean they're healthy or nutritious. Cookies, chips, sweetened cereals, vegetarian burgers and sausages might be plant-based, but they are likely high in fats, added sugar and sodium. Therefore, it's important to eat smart by checking food labels.
In addition, fortified foods vary in formulation, so it's important to check product labels to determine which added nutrients they contain.