Hey friends! Today we are going to be talking about nutrition for vegans. If you’ve been on my page before, you may have noticed I frequently post about nutrition, and I also frequently post vegan recipes and lifestyle stuff. However, it recently dawned upon me, that besides this article about B-12, I rarely post nutrition for vegans.
Specifically, I want help vegans, vegetarians, and/or veg-curious people understand what nutrients they need to watch for on a plant-based diet.
There are a lot of misconceptions about vegan diets and their nutritional adequacy, so my goal is to provide you with the information you may want to help you make informed choices about your diet and health.
*Disclaimer: As always, this is general information intended for healthy adults. Your needs may vary based on medical status, lifestyle, or life-stage. Please never replace generalized health information you’ve read online with individualized clinical care.
Video version here.
So, what is a vegan diet?
In case you don’t know, a vegan diet is a diet that avoids all animal products, including meat, eggs, dairy products, fish, gelatin, etc, and sometimes (depending on the vegan) honey.
Are vegan diets healthy?
Vegan diets can be healthy. Vegan diets can also be unhealthy. The same holds true of pretty much every dietary pattern. It really depends on what you eat most of the time.
There is some data that suggests vegetarian diets are associated with lower blood pressure, lower LDL cholesterol levels, improved blood glucose control for those with type two diabetes, and lower rates of cancer.
It is likely that the increase in plant-foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, and seeds – all of which are beneficial for human health and prevention of chronic disease – among vegetarians and vegans is the reason for these findings.
Furthermore, vegans and vegetarians don’t consume processed meats and red meat, both of which have carcinogenic (cancer-causing) properties.
That said, ‘vegan’ does not automatically mean ‘healthy.’ Pre-packed vegan snack foods, baked goods, cookies, crackers and chips may not be better than their non-vegan counterparts. It’s important to eat a balanced vegan diet to ensure you get enough of the correct nutrients to be healthy, feel your best, and to thrive in your life. Hence this nutrition for vegans blog post!
Are vegan diets adequate?
If properly planned, vegan diets can be nutritionally adequate. Vegetarian and/or vegan diets can support all life stages, including childhood, adolescence, adulthood, pregnancy, and periods of lactation.
Vegan and vegetarian diets can also support active lifestyles. Yes, vegan diets are even appropriate for athletes. There isn’t too much research looking into dietary patterns and athletic performance, but one recent study I found showed no difference in athletic performance between meat eaters and vegans.
I have heard some people believe (or have been told by health professionals) that it is not possible for growing adolescents, children, pregnant or breastfeeding women, or females with amenorrhea to be healthful on a vegan diet. This is not true.
The American Dietetics Association and Dieticans of Canada, have stated it is possible to maintain a healthful vegan diet at any life-stage if done properly.
And from my prospective, it’s all about what you eat. You can do any diet properly or improperly; it’s all about making sure you get a diverse, balanced diet that contains all the macro and micronutrients you need in optimal amounts.
What nutrients do vegans need to watch?
As I mentioned above, properly planned vegan diets can be nutritionally adequate. Notice the phrase properly planned. There are some specific nutrients vegans should be keeping track of to ensure they are obtaining a healthy diet that meets their physiological needs.
If I could urge vegans to monitor only one micronutrient in their diet, I would tell the watch their vitamin B-12 intake. Vitamin B-12 is an essential micronutrient that plays a role in DNA synthesis, the formation of red blood cells, and helps maintain proper neurological function.
Vitamin B-12 also acts as a cofactor for methionine (an amino acid) synthase, which catalyzes the conversion of homocysteine to methionine. This is important because high levels of homocysteine are associated with increased risks of cardiovascular disease, heart attack, and stroke, and the formation of methionine is important, as it is required for the formation of S-adenosylmethione (or SAM), which is considered a universal methyl-donor for a multitude of substrates, including DNA, RNA, proteins, hormones, and lipids.
Signs and symptoms of deficiency include weakness, fatigue, lightheadness, pale skin, pale skin, diarrhea or constipation, tingling or numbness (especially in hands and feet), depression, memory loss, behavioral changes, depression, and vision loss.
If you want to know more about B12, I wrote an entire post about it. But basically, it is very important, and it can also be very hard for vegans to get enough of!
Vitamin B-12 is found mostly in animal products, like fish, meat, eggs, poultry, milk, milk products.
It’s also found in a couple vegan-friendly foods, like algae products, nutritional yeast, vitamin B-12-fortified breakfast cereals, and other fortified foods. Some plant milks and mock-meats are also fortified with B-12. If you’re curious, read labels.
I advise vegans who do not eat a lot of nutritional yeast and algae products (heck, even meat eaters or vegetarians who don’t eat a lot of eggs/meat/dairy) to seek out plant milks, cereals, and/or mock meats or other foods that are fortified with B-12. If these foods aren’t your thing or you can’t find them, I’d encourage you to take a B-12 supplement.
It’s very important to consume on a regular basis, even if you feel no symptoms of deficiency. Vitamin B-12 can be stored in the liver and if you have ample stores, you may not experience signs of clinical deficiency for a couple years.
However, you still need to make sure you’re getting enough B-12! Besides increasing the risk of heart disease, inadequate B-12 intake can cause irreversible neurological damage. So, please, vegans, make sure you get enough!
I think it’s important to mention calories for vegan diets. While plenty of calorie-dense plant-based foods exist, it’s easy to get full on high-fiber, high-volume plant foods. I see a lot of raw vegan influencers on the internet who seem to eat nothing but raw fruit, vegetables, and minimal amounts of fat.
But it’s important to make sure you get enough energy from your diet, especially if you are growing, pregnant, breastfeeding, or lead an active lifestyle.
It’s also important to make sure you are eating a good balance of macronutrients – protein, fat, and carbs – at most of your meals and snacks.
If you are struggling to consume enough calories, try adding nutrient-rich, energy-dense foods to your diet, such as nuts and nut butters, seeds, full-fat oils, avocados, dried fruits, dark chocolate, and calorie-rich starchy foods like potatoes, yuca, and corn.
Increase portions of other foods like lentils, beans, whole grains, cereals, hummus, etc and consume liquid calories from juices and smoothies to further add calories to your diet.
Essential Fatty Acids:
Fats are made of chains called fatty acids. There are some fatty acids your body can make, and there are some they can’t make – the later category is called ‘essential fatty acids’ because it’s essential to consume them from the diet.
Two essential fatty acids necessary to consume in the human diet include alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is an omega-3 fatty acid, and the other is linolenic acid (LA), which is an omega-6 fatty acid.
The adequate intake level of omega-3 fatty acids is 1.3 grams per day for adult females and 1.6 grams for adult males.
Omega-3 fatty acids (ALA) are often harder for vegans to get enough of. There are plant sources of these fatty acids, but it’s important to make sure you are eating enough omega-3s consistently to avoid adverse health outcomes, including scaly skin, poor immune responses, and decreased visual and neural function.
Vegan foods rich in ALA essential fatty acids include flaxseed oil (7.26 grams per tablespoon), flax seeds (2.35 grams ALA per tablespoon), chia seeds (5.6 grams ALA per tablespoon), canola oil (1.28 grams ALA per tablespoon), soybean oil (0.92 grams per tablespoon), and kidney beans (0.20 grams per cup)
Iron is a mineral that’s important for proper physical growth, neurological development, cellular function, and helping your red blood cells deliver oxygen from the lungs to your other body tissues.
Most adult males need 8mg of iron each day, and adult females need about 18mg each day (to replenish what’s lost due to bleeding associated with menstruation).
There are two forms of dietary iron: heme and non-heme. Non-heme iron is found in plant foods and supplements. Heme iron is typically found in animal-based foods and is much more bioavailable (ie, absorbable) than non-heme iron.
Many plant-foods contain or are fortified with iron. However, phytates (a polyphenolic compound) may inhibit iron absorption.
So, how do vegans make sure they get enough? Well, I suggest eating a variety of vegan iron-rich foods, including white beans (8mg/cup), lentils (6mg/cup), spinach (6 grams per cooked cup), tofu (6 grams per cup), chickpeas (4 mg/cup), and canned tomatoes (4 grams per cup), and incorporating iron-fortified foods like breakfast cereals and mock meats (check labels, and select those with fortification if desired).
If you eat a varied diet, and eat iron-rich foods regularly enough, you should be able to get enough from your food sources to counter the lower bioavailability of plant sources of iron, and/or . the inhibitory action of phytates.
Vitamin C intake also increases iron absorption, so adding vitamin C-rich foods (like oranges, red bell peppers, and strawberries) alongside your iron-rich foods may help.
Protein is actually not often a major concern for vegetarians and vegans, unless a very monotonous diet is consumed. However, I thought it was worth mentioning because I feel like if I don’t address it, questions about protein will arise, as they inevitably always do when the topic of nutrition for vegans is brought up.
If you are curious about how much protein you need, please see this post. But basically, you really only need 10-35% of your total caloric intake to come from protein. It’s easy to achieve this range, even if you don’t actively try to consume a protein-rich diet.
The whole thing about getting ‘complete protein’ usually isn’t a concern either. Research has shown you actually don’t need to eat ‘complete complementary protein’ sources together. You just need to get a full range of amino acids over time. And, there are some vegan sources of complete protein, including soy beans and quinoa.
Vegans can get protein from a variety of sources. Foods like tofu, tempeh, lentils, and beans, are simple and delicious protein-sources. Mock-meats are also often rich in protein, and can make for easy substitutions in classic-meat dishes.
Adding nutritional yeast, hemp hearts, flax, and chia seeds to your salads, toasts, oatmeals, and baked goods, are other easy ways to sneak in protein. And many vegetables contain protein. A medium potato has 5-7 grams, and a cups of kale has 3 grams!
If you are concerned about protein, adding a vegan (soy or pea) protein powder to your diet can of course, help supplement.
Zinc is a mineral necessary for proper cellular function, wound healing, protein synthesis, growth and immune function, among other functions.
Adults females ended about 9mg per day, and males need about 11mg per day.
Zinc is found in many animal foods including meat and dairy products, but it is also found in some plant foods, including pumpkin seeds (2.2mg per ounce), kidney beans (1.8mg per cup), tofu (4 mg per cup), peas (1mg per 1 cup), cashews (1.6 mg per ounce), chickpeas (2.6mg per cup), and almonds (0.9 grams per ounce). Fortified breakfast cereals can be an excellent source of zinc. Check labels to find a fortified cereal.
Like with iron, phytates in many plant-foods may inhibit zinc absorption. Eat a diverse diet to ensure you get iron sources you are able to absorb.
If you are concerned about your zinc levels, try incorporating a zinc-fortified breakfast cereal or zinc supplement to your diet (but watch out for crazy high levels of zinc in zinc supplements – this can lead to harmful side effects).
Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body, and is important for proper vascular contraction and vasodilation, muscle function, intracellular communication, and bone strength.
Adults need roughly 1,000mg of calcium per day.
Milk and other dairy products are what most people think of when asked to think about ‘calcium-rich foods.’ However, they are most certainly not the only sources of calcium! There are many vegan calcium sources to add to your diet.
Fortified plant milks and yogurts are a great source of calcium. Again, a risk of making your own plant milks is that you may be missing out on a calcium opportunity. Fortified orange juices are also available. Tofu, when set in calcium, can be a rich source of the micronutrient. 1 cup of tofu has just over 500mg of calcium.
One cup of cooked kale contains 94 grams of calcium, 1 cup of bok choy has 74mg, and 1 cup of broccoli contains 42mg. ¼ cup of almonds has 93mg of calcium. Spinach also contains calcium, but it’s not very bioavailable.
If you are concerned about your calcium intake, opt for fortified plant milks and juices, or add a supplement to your diet. But practice caution with calcium supplements – some data suggests too large a dose of calcium from supplements may lead to some unpleasant side effects.
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that is important for proper calcium absorption, bone health, and immune function. Vitamin D is often listed as a nutrient of concern for vegans, as fortified milk (and other fortified products) are the primary sources of the micronutrient for many people in the US.
The average adult needs 600IU (or 15mcg). Vitamin D can be produced endogenously (ie, you can make it!) and about 10-15 minutes of daily sun exposure provides your body with enough to meet the nutrient requirement.
If you drink vitamin D-fortified plant milks or orange juices, or eat vitamin D-fortified cereal, you may avoid this deficiency. However, many people select organic unfortified cereals and/or make their own plant milk. These people are at particular risk of deficiency.
If you are opposed to consuming vitamin D-fortified plant milks, juices, or cereals, you are not left with many vegan food-based options to meet your vitamin D requirements. Mushrooms are one of the few vegan dietary sources of vitamin D. Otherwise, spending 10-15 minutes in the sun daily, and/or adding a vitamin D supplement may be necessary.
When done correctly, a vegan diet can be nutritionally adequate for people of all ages, lifestyles, and activity levels. That said, there are a few nutrients that vegans should monitor to make sure they are getting all the nutrients their bodies need to function optimally.
I hope this ‘nutrition for vegans’ post helped you understand what to watch if and when planning a plant-based diet.
Vegans should pay particular attention to their vitamin B-12 and essential fatty acid consumption. It’s also important for vegans to monitor their intake of iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin D, and for some, protein. Certain vegans, particularly those who eat large volumes of low-calorie plant foods, should also make sure they consume enough calories (energy) to thrive.
How do you have a healthy vegan diet?
Aim to fill your diet with nutrient-rich plant foods like fruits, vegetables, legumes, seeds, nuts, and whole grain products most of the time. Adding things like flax, chia seeds, and hemp hearts to your meals is an easy way to increase essential fatty acid consumption.
Selecting fortified plant-milks and cereals can help you bridge gaps for some key hard-to-get nutrients. And strive to get B-12 either from nutritional yeast, fortified foods, or supplements.
And when it comes to vegan cakes, cookies, snack foods, and packaged dinners, don’t assume just because it’s vegan that it’s good for you. As with all dietary patterns, it’s best to try to fill up on nourishing foods that you and enjoy and that make you feel your best most of the time, and of course, enjoy snack foods when the mood strikes (rather than all of time).
That’s all for now! I hope you learned more about nutrition for vegans, and feel informed about how to make healthful choices for your diet.
You may also like:
- How Much Protein Do You Actually Need
- What You Should Know About Vitamin B-12, Especially if You’re Vegan
- What are Macros? Should You Count Them?