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!…