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4 key nutrients to watch on a plant-based diet

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Vegetarian, vegan, flexitarian or pescatarian? Make sure you don’t run low on these key nutrients.

1. Iron

You may be vulnerable to a deficiency in this mineral if you’re eating lower amounts of readily absorbed (haem) iron from red meat. Plant sources (non-haem) of iron are less easily absorbed.

What do we need?

  • Girls (11–18) 14.8mg
  • Boys (11–18) 11.3mg
  • Women (up to 50) 14.8mg; (over 50) 8.7mg
  • Men 8.7mg

Signs of a deficiency

You may be tired, struggle to concentrate, suffer with palpitations and shortness of breath, be susceptible to infections, sensitive to cold and have a pale complexion.

You may also have a sore tongue or dry, flaky nails.

Boost your intake

  • Vegetarians Eggs are a good source.
  • Vegans Pulses, nuts, seeds, green leafy veg, dried fruit and fortified breakfast cereals for non-haem iron.
  • Flexitarians Choose from all the sources above.

Note Vitamin C helps our bodies absorb iron, so alongside iron-rich meals, eat berries, kiwis, citrus fruits, tomatoes and peppers. Avoid tea, coffee and red wine with iron-rich meals, as the tannins they contain inhibit absorption of non-haem iron.

2. Selenium

This important antioxidant helps to prevent damage to cells and tissues, and has been linked to protecting against certain cancers and heart disease. It also helps to maintain healthy reproductive and immune systems. The selenium content in food can vary, depending on the soil a crop has been grown in or what foods an animal has eaten. Top sources are meat and seafood, which is why vegetarians and vegans can be prone to a deficiency.

What do we need?

  • Girls (11–14) 45mcg; (15–18) 60mcg
  • Boys (11–14) 45mcg; (15–18) 70mcg
  • Women 60mcg
  • Men 75mcg

Signs of a deficiency

There aren’t any easy-to-spot signs. Mildly low levels don’t result in clear deficiency disorders, but you may have weakened immunity, so will be more prone to illness.

Boost your intake

  • Vegetarians Eggs are a good source.
  • Vegans Just 2–3 brazil nuts a day will meet an adult’s needs. If taking a daily supplement, the Department of Health advises no more than 350mcg.
  • Flexitarians Good sources include fish.

3. Vitamin B12

Essential to help keep our nervous systems healthy, enable energy release from the food we eat and make red blood cells. Vitamin B12 isn’t easily found naturally in plant-based foods.

What do we need?

  • Girls (11–14) 1.2mcg; (15–18) 1.5mcg
  • Boys (11–14) 1.2mcg; (15–18) 1.5mcg
  • Women and men about 1.5mcg

Signs of a deficiency

A lack of vitamin B12 can lead to a type of anaemia. Symptoms include a pale yellow tinge to the skin, a sore and red tongue, mouth ulcers, pins and needles, changes in the way you move and walk, disturbed vision, irritability, depression and changes to mood and behaviour. It may lead to irreversible nerve damage.

Boost your intake

  • Vegetarians and vegans Look for breakfast cereals, unsweetened soya drinks and yeast extracts such as Marmite, which are fortified with vitamin B12. Also consider a daily supplement.
  • Flexitarians and pescatarians If you include sufficient meat, fish or dairy foods in your diet, you should be getting enough.

4. Calcium

Calcium is essential for healthy, strong bones and teeth. If you don’t get enough in childhood and teenage years, it may lead to osteoporosis in later life – a condition where the bones become weak and fracture easily. As vegans cut out all dairy, they may have lower intakes, so it’s important to choose milk alternatives fortified with calcium.

What do we need?

  • Girls (11–18) 800mg
  • Boys (11–18) 1,000mg
  • Women and men 700mg

Signs of a deficiency

Deficiency is gradual and shows no symptoms, which is why osteoporosis is often called ‘the silent epidemic’ – you tend not to know you have it until you have a fall and suffer a fracture.

Boost your intake

  • Vegetarians Milk, cheese and yogurt are the best sources and provide calcium in a form that’s well absorbed by the body.
  • Vegans Choose green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, dried fruit, oranges, fortified milk alternatives and almond milk (which contains calcium naturally).
  • Flexitarians Include fish with soft and edible bones, such as canned sardines

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Date modified: May 8 2023
First published: Mar 2022

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