Vitamins, Minerals and the Vegan Diet
A well balanced vegan diet tends to be naturally rich in vitamins as many of the foods that are eaten in abundance are good sources. Naturally vegan foods such as fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and pulses are all rich sources of a range of vitamins and minerals. However, eating a vegan diet does not guarantee that the foods chosen will be healthy as there are many vegan friendly foods that are considered to be unhealthy such as cakes and pastries or deep fried foods.
Ensuring the consumption of the vitamins and minerals required by the body is vital for maintaining optimum health and well-being. These are essential for many processes within the body including keeping the immune system strong and healthy, growing and maintaining health bones and teeth, tissue repair, hormone production and ensuring health and efficient digestion of the foods eaten. Vitamins and minerals are needed in varying amounts depending on type and deficiency is likely to results in health problems. These included anaemia, tiredness, brittle hair and nails and dry skin. Vitamins and minerals can also be taken in the form of supplements or by consuming foods such as cereals and plant based milks that have been fortified with them.
Types of Vitamins and Minerals
Vitamin A is needed by the body for good immunity, vision, and in keeping the skin, bones and hair healthy. This vitamin is also believed to be useful in protecting against respiratory infections, premature aging and even some forms of cancer. It helps to keep the surfaces of the eyes healthy as well as the linings of the respiratory, urinary and intestinal tracts. If these linings break down it becomes easier for bacteria to enter the body and cause infection and illness. Vitamin A can be obtained within the vegan diet by eating foods rich in carotenoids. These occur naturally in plants, algae and some types of fungus and bacteria and can be converted to vitamin A by the body. Deficiency of this vitamin can lead to problems with vision and the ability to fight infection.
Vitamin A can be found in a range of foods suitable for a plant based diet. Carotenoids are abundant in vegetables and fruits including apricots, red peppers, watermelon, carrots, spinach and sweet potatoes. It is also added to other foods such as breakfast cereals. Vitamin A can be stored in the body so any excess consumed one day can be saved to be used at a later date.
These are a group of vitamins that tend to work together and have similar roles within the body. The B vitamins are known as thiamin (vitamin B1), riboflavin (vitamin B2), niacin (vitamin B3), pantothenic acid, vitamin B6, folic acid and vitamin B12.
B vitamins are important for many functions in the body such as maintaining a healthy nervous system, skin, eyes, and digestive system and in the creation of red blood cells. They promote normal growth and also enable energy to be released from the food we eat
This vitamin group are found in a wide variety of foods including peas, dried fruits, wholegrain breads, rice, leafy greens and nuts. Further sources of B vitamins include avocados, potatoes, broccoli, soya beans, spinach and chickpeas. Vitamin B12 can be harder to obtain when eating a vegan diet so it is important to eat foods that have been fortified with this essential vitamin. Some examples of these are fortified breakfast cereals, soya milk or yeast extracts such as Marmite. The body is not able to store B vitamins so they need to be consumed every day.
Vitamin C is also known as ascorbic acid and is important for the maintenance of healthy connective tissues and wound healing. This vitamin strengthens the immune system, skin and gums. It also aids iron absorption and may be helpful in treating urinary tract infections. It is also believed to help protect against some forms of cancer, reduce cholesterol and fight against the common cold.
Vitamin C can be found in a range of fruits and vegetables. These include oranges and orange juice, red and green peppers, strawberries, broccoli and potatoes. Like the B vitamins, vitamin C cannot be stored in the body so food sources need to be included in diet every day.
One of the functions of vitamin D is to regulate the amount or calcium and phosphate that are present in the body. A lack of vitamin D can lead to bone pain and deformities as the body will be unable to maintain optimum bone health.
Our main source of vitamin D is obtained by exposing the skin to sunlight. Our bodies can make the vitamin in reaction to sunlight. It can also be found in fortified foods such as cereals and milks.
Vitamin E is used by the body to maintain cell structure and protect cell membranes. It is believed to help reduce the risk of several cancers including prostate, breast and colon cancers. This vitamin has strong antioxidant properties and helps to ensure our blood clots correctly.
Vitamin E can be obtained from oils made from vegetable and nut sources such as corn, soyabean and sesame oils. Many nuts including walnuts, pecans and peanuts are rich in vitamin E along with rice, corn and leafy vegetables. Vitamin E that the body does not need to use can be stored for use later.
Vitamin K can be found in green leafy vegetables such as broccoli and spinach as well as in vegetable oils, cauliflower, oats and soya products. It aids in blood clotting, helping wounds heal and is thought to be important for good bone health. Like several other vitamins, vitamin K can be stored so you do not need to consume it every day.
Ways to Maximise Vitamin Intake on a Vegan Diet
As the above information shows it is not hard to obtain these vitamins while enjoying a varied and balanced vegan diet. However there are many ways in which you can boost the amount of vitamins that are available to the body.
- Buy small amounts of fruits and vegetables at a time and eat them within a day or two. This means that they can be consumed at their freshest.
- If you wish to or need to store fruit and vegetables for longer, frozen vegetables are a good choice.
- Even if you only have a small amount of space to use, give growing your own fruit and vegetables a try. Many can be grown in pots quite easily. For example, strawberries can be grown in hanging baskets and small herb plants can be kept in pots on your kitchen windowsill. By growing your own food you can know exactly what went into producing it and pick and eat it within a short time, maximising the available vitamins and other nutrients.
- Plan your meals for a week or a few days at a time and only buy what you will use in that time. Not only does this save waste and money but it ensures that fruit and vegetables will be used up at their freshest.
Are Vitamin Supplements Needed?
If you are eating a vegan diet that is varied and full of fresh natural foods and low in processed, packaged or fast foods then you may not need to take a vitamin supplement. The only exception to this is vitamin B12 which is harder to obtain from vegan sources. Due to this fact some vegans do decide to take a B12 supplement or at least take extra care to actively include this vitamin in their diets using fortified foods.
However there are some cases where a vitamin supplement may be useful or needed. For example the government recommends that all women who are planning to become or who are pregnant take a folic acid supplement until the 12th week of pregnancy. Folic acid has been shown to reduce the risks of a baby being born with a neural tube defect such as spina bifida. Another case where a supplement may be useful is for women who have heavy periods and are at risk of low iron levels. This of course applies to all women and not just those who are following a vegan diet. It is also possible for a person to have difficulties absorbing one or more vitamins and so be more at risk of deficiency and illness. In these cases supplements can be helpful or even essential to maintaining good health.
It is important to remember that although vitamins are essential to good health in large amounts they can also be dangerous or have unwanted side effects. Too much vitamin C can cause diarrhoea and stomach cramps in some people for example and regularly exceeding the recommended daily dose of vitamin D can lead to heart problems.
© 2014 Claire