The keys things to look out for if you go vegan

Dr Nick Fuller
Leading Obesity Expert at the University of Sydney and founder of Interval Weight Loss.

Veganism is a type of vegetarian diet that means abstaining from all animal products. This means no meat, poultry or fish. It also means no by-products such as eggs and dairy products. This eating plan consists of fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes and can be quite challenging to meet your nutritional requirements.

There are also other types of commonly followed vegetarian diets. These different types of vegetarian diets make it much easier to meet your nutritional requirements.

Pescatarian and flexitarian are two varieties of vegetarian diet that are growing more following as people choose to move away from having meat all the time. A pescatarian will avoid meat and allow fish. A flexitarian will only occasionally eat meat, for example, a couple of times per week. 

And then there is the lacto-ovo category of vegetarian diets. Lacto-ovo-vegetarians include dairy products and eggs but not meat; lacto-vegetarians include dairy products but not eggs or meat; and ovo-vegetarians include eggs but not dairy or meat.

If you’ve decided to go vegetarian or vegan, here’s how to do it whilst considering the 7 most important nutritional alarms:

1. Calcium

99% of the body’s calcium supply is stored in the teeth and bones to support their structure and function. Calcium is vital for preventing osteoporosis and the first two to three decades of our life are the most important for laying the foundation for healthy bones.

The richest source of calcium is dairy. It is also a bio-available source of calcium meaning this nutrient is highly absorbed in the body. 

However, if you are avoiding dairy products, opt for calcium fortified soy products, which are the next closest nutritionally complete alternative. 

Almonds, dark green leafy vegetables and tofu are also good sources of calcium but their bio-availability is low meaning you need much more of this food source to meet your recommended nutrient intake. 

A calcium supplement may be needed.

2. Iron

Iron helps transport oxygen around the body so we tend to feel very tired when our levels are low. 

Meat is a haem source of iron meaning it is highly absorbed in the body. There are lots of non-haem sources of iron including dark green leafy vegetables, fortified cereals, kidney beans, chickpeas, lentils and almonds, but again like calcium you need much more of these plant-based sources to meet your recommended dietary intake. 

Females 19-50 years have a much higher iron requirement than males - more than double - due to the monthly loss of blood. An iron supplement is most likely needed. 

3. Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is required for the formation of red blood cells as well as a healthy brain and nervous system. 

It is found in animal products – much higher in the animal itself rather than a by-product - and only a small amount is required for healthy body functioning. It is not found in plant sources of food and therefore it is vital to choose fortified foods such as breakfast cereals and soy products – soy milk, tofu and miso. 

A supplement may be required if you are not having a varied diet. 

4. Omega-3

Your body needs omega-3 fatty acids to function. EPA and DHA are two crucial ones for brain health. ALA is the plant based form of omega-3 which is converted to EPA and DHA in the body. However, this conversion process is not all that efficient and again you need more of the plant-based source to meet your recommended dietary intake.

EPA and DHA are found in fish whilst ALA is found in oil, nuts and seeds and vegetables.

5. Iodine

Iodine is essential for a healthy thyroid. The thyroid is responsible for your metabolism which regulates your body weight. 

Iodine is found in the earth’s soils but farming practices have resulted in iodine-deficient soils increasing the risk of iodine deficiency.

The richest sources of iodine is fish – found in the skin – and dairy. Plant-based sources include seaweed, wholegrain bread and beans. 

6. Vitamin D

Vitamin D helps to absorb calcium from the stomach. Together, calcium and vitamin D are vital in preventing weak or brittle bones.

The richest source of vitamin D is the sun but it is also found in by-products of animals including cheese, eggs and the skin of fish.

A supplement may be required if you are not getting any sunlight.

7. Last not least, understanding that "vegan" products are not consequently healthier 

Many foods labelled vegan are often highly processed and high in added sugar and fat. Just because something is devoid of a particular food doesn’t make it healthier so beware of this clever marketing! Anything that is processed is a ‘treat’ and must be kept in the occasional pile.

If you are unsure whether you should be taking a calcium, iron, vitamin B12 or vitamin D supplement, consult with your GP who can perform a blood test to check and advise.

About Dr Nick Fuller

Dr Nick Fuller is the founder of Interval Weight Loss and is a leading obesity expert at the University of Sydney with a Ph.D. in Obesity Treatment. Dr Fuller is also the author of three best-selling books and his work been published in top ranked journals in the medical field, including JAMA, Lancet and American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.