A vegan diet eliminates all animal products, including meat, fish, eggs, dairy and, often, honey. If you eat a balanced plant-based diet and enough overall calories to meet your energy needs, it’s easy to get enough carbohydrates, protein and fat. If you eat more processed foods (pretzels, instant rice, cookies) than whole foods (nuts, seeds, vegetables), however, you could end up lacking protein.That said, there are some nutrients that can be more challenging to reap from plants alone. Nutrients vegans should pay special attention to include vitamin B-12, iron and omega-3 fatty acids. You may also need to make extra efforts to get enough vitamin D, zinc and calcium. Read on to find out how vegans can get these seven nutrients without supplements and to learn a few extra tips to ace the plant-based diet.
fatty acids play an important role in brain function and heart health.
There are three types: EPA, DHA and ALA. Plant sources provide EPA,
which the body then converts into DHA and ALA. While non-vegetarians can
fulfill their needs through two to three servings of fish per week,
vegans require more routine intake. “These healthful fats are found in
abundance in many vegan foods including oils like flaxseed, canola,
walnut, wheat germ and soybean,” says Christen Cooper, registered
dietitian, founder of Cooper Nutrition and doctoral candidate in
nutrition and education at Columbia University. Other rich sources
include microalgae and some nuts and seeds.
does your body good, and you don’t need animal products to reap it.
Moderate amounts are found in green vegetables including kale, turnip
greens and broccoli. Fortified plant milks, orange juice, tofu and
cereals all provide calcium, which allows for healthy bones. Meeting the
adult Recommended Daily Allowance of 1,000 milligrams per day also
helps ensure normal muscle and hormone function. One cup of fortified
soy milk supplies about 30 percent of the Daily Value, which is the same
contained in cow milk. One serving of tofu provides about 25 percent.
Vitamin B-12 allows for normal red blood cell formation and nervous system function and assists with overall cellular energy in the body. It’s recommended that adults consume 2.4 micrograms of vitamin B-12 each day, yet it’s common for strict vegans (and even vegetarians) to fall short of this amount. Vegans must rely on fortified foods to meet their vitamin B-12 needs; for example, plant milks, breakfast cereals and nutritional yeast. One cup of Organic Valley soy milk has 50 percent of your vitamin B-12, and when paired with just a three-fourths of a cup of Kashi Heart-to-Heart Oat Cereal, about 150 percent of the daily vitamin B-12 needs are met.
body creates vitamin D in response to sun exposure. If you don’t spend
much time in sunlight, it’s important to get enough of the vitamin — or
600 International Units daily — from your diet. Vitamin D promotes
bone health by helping your body absorb calcium and plays an important
role in immune function. The few foods that naturally contain vitamin D
derive from animals (with the exception of mushrooms exposed to
ultraviolet light, which aren’t easy to find). While omnivores meet
their needs through fortified dairy products and seafood, vegans can
meet their needs through fortified plant alternatives. Brand depending,
one cup of fortified soy or almond milk can fulfill 25 percent of the
Daily Value for vitamin D; a serving of fortified orange juice can
provide about 25 percent or more.
While many plant foods contain iron, it’s not as easily absorbed as iron from animal products. “If you struggle with energy levels throughout the day, you could be deficient in iron,” says Angela Onsgard, a registered dietitian and integrative health coach at Miraval Resort and Spa in Tucson, Arizona. This is because iron helps oxygen flow through your body and helps keep certain hormones in check. Men and non-menstruating women need eight milligrams of iron per day. Women need 15 to 18 milligrams (or more) daily during pregnancy. Valuable plant sources include dried fruit, spirulina, beans, lentils, tofu, cooked leafy greens and fortified cereals. Some fortified cereals fulfill 100 percent of the Daily Value per serving. To better absorb iron, pair vegan iron sources with vitamin C-rich foods, such as tomatoes, citrus fruits and strawberries.
Zinc is similar to iron in that it’s not as easily absorbed by the body when it’s sourced from plants instead of animal products. Phytates, which are present in whole grains and legumes, etc., reduce the absorption of this mineral. Thus, the vegan diet has potential to be lower in zinc compared to non-vegans although research has shown conflicting results. Zinc can be found in legumes, nuts and whole grains.
With the popularity of high-protein diets, protein has gained the misleading reputation that more is always better. “A plant-based diet can easily meet the recommendations for protein, as long as calorie intake is adequate and appropriate,” said Eric C. Sharer, a registered dietitian and nutrition advisor for the Vegetarian Resource Group in Albany, New York. A range of 10 to 35 percent of your total calories is recommended, and where you fall on that spectrum depends on your goals, gender and physical activity, etc. Eating on the higher of the range may help support weight loss while preserving muscle mass. Half a cup of tofu provides 20 grams of protein; four ounces of seitan, 24 grams; black beans provide more than 15 grams per cup. Other valuable sources include soy milk, nut butters, lentils and quinoa.
To meet your nutrient needs through vegan fare, eat a variety of healthy foods in good balance. To create balanced plates at each meal, include at least one or two servings of fruits or veggies along with reasonable portions of nutritious starches, such as brown rice or sweet potatoes, and a protein-rich food like tofu or lentils. Include fat for optimal nutrient absorption. Good choices include nuts, seeds, avocado and olive oil.
PANTRY AND FREEZER STAPLES
Stock up on nutritious ingredients and prepared foods to ease meal prep — especially during hectic weeks. One frozen vegan burger can provide 10 percent of the Daily Value for iron. Grill a patty to serve over cooked brown or wild rice, or dice it to add to a veggie stir-fry. Keep baked tofu blocks on hand for use in similar dishes or to serve over salad. Nut butters provide convenient sources of healthy fats, protein and iron. Some are fortified with omega-3s. For enhanced iron absorption from vitamin C, buy tomato sauce to add to pastas and soups. Keep ground flaxseeds and nutritional yeast in your fridge for freshness. Add ground flaxseed to smoothies and cereals for omega-3s. Add nutritional yeast to popcorn, pastas and salads for a cheese-like flavor and ample vitamin B-12.
If you’re unsure whether your vegan diet is providing enough nutrients, consult your doctor or dietitian. If you’re experiencing medical symptoms of a deficiency, such as weakness, fatigue, muscle cramping, pale skin, thinning hair or numbness in your hands or feet, seek medical counsel promptly. In some cases, a plant-based multivitamin can help fill in the gaps. Overall, aim for a variety of foods, seeking enjoyable ways to eat them. Eat when you’re hungry, making sure you consume enough to keep you satiated and energized until your next meal or snack. Balance it all out with regular exercise, healthy sleep habits and stress relief for a kind lifestyle that powerfully promotes wellness.