Vegan lifestyles have become mainstream in recent years, but specific nutrient considerations must be made when following it. Nutrition Expert Carly Slawson shares which plant-based foods can satisfy both your nutrition needs and your appetite.
Vegan diets that include a variety of nourishing foods are in vogue for a reason. They can significantly reduce type II diabetes and heart disease risk (and in some cases even reverse these conditions once they’ve begun). They are packed with anti-inflammatory phytochemicals (special superstar plant nutrients) through all the fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes that are at center stage in a well-planned vegan diet.
A plant-based vegan diet can also reduce your carbon footprint, reduce your use of valuable freshwater resources, and eliminate the need to consume animals (say hello to no more fuss in the kitchen by reducing your risk of food-borne illness when handling raw meats). It’s important to know that these days, given the variety of options of vegan-friendly, enticing foods on the market, vegan diets can be just as healthful (or unhealthful) as their omni counterparts. As with any diet, a little nutrition homework and planning goes a long way to ensure you’re supporting your body and mind to thrive. Eating enough foods with variety helps to safeguard nutrient needs across the board, especially the essential nutrients that are common pitfalls for some:
Protein, vitamin B12, iron, calcium, vitamin D, and zinc.
Protein is critical for more than just building muscle– it is made up of building blocks called amino acids that are used by our bodies to make just about everything: every cell in our body contains proteins, which enables them to function properly, and proteins are also used to send messages within and between cells in the body. There are 20 amino acids that our body uses regularly to build various proteins. 9 are considered “essential” because they must be obtained from our diet. Of the essential amino acids, vegans must pay careful attention to lysine, which is often found in lower amounts in plants. How do vegans meet the needs for those 9 essential amino acids? You guessed it– by eating a variety of protein sources! Beans and lentils are the best plant protein sources, followed by whole grains, nuts, and seeds.
There are few reliable sources of B12 in plant foods, with the exception of some fortified foods such as certain brands of nutritional yeast. B12 is required to help our red blood cells mature properly, protect the coating around our nerve cells, and maintain the production of vital neurotransmitters. The danger here is that the nerve damage that results from prolonged B12 deficiency is irreversible, so this is one micronutrient you don’t want to mess around with.
The solution? Take a supplement. B12 supplements are cheap, widely available, and you can find high-dose formulations that you only need to take once or twice a week. B12 is also available in some fortified foods, but if you are vegan or considering a vegan diet, a supplement provides the most peace of mind to ensure your B12 status stays topped up! Given the severity of what happens in deficiency, supplementing is the safest way to go to make sure you are getting enough to stay happy and healthy following a vegan diet.
Iron is what allows our red blood cells to function properly and deliver vital oxygen throughout the body to enable energy production. Heme iron is found in animal foods, and is highly absorbed by the body. Non-heme iron, found in plant-foods, is absorbed less than heme-iron, but that isn’t always a bad thing. Since vegan diets contain only non-heme iron sources, it is recommended that vegans and vegetarians consume about 1.8 times the RDA for iron.
Common plant-based and vegan foods that contain non-heme iron include fortified breakfast cereals, legumes, spinach, swiss chard, and blackstrap molasses. Maximize absorption of non-heme iron by eating those foods with a source of vitamin C like broccoli, bell peppers, or strawberries, as vitamin C increases iron absorption. You can also help keep your iron levels in check by cooking in cast iron pans, as some of the iron from the pan is absorbed by the foods cooked in it–how cool is that?
Calcium, along with vitamin D (discussed below), is known for its important role in healthy bone formation. Since vegan diets exclude dairy products, which naturally contain calcium, some care needs to be taken to assure proper intake. Luckily, non-dairy vegan products such as soy milk, almond milk, coconut milk, etc. are often fortified with calcium to match regular dairy products.
Another fantastic calcium source to include in your diet are dark leafy greens! Along with a myriad of other important benefits, dark leafy greens such as kale, collard greens, bok choy, and broccoli are also a good source of calcium–one cup of cooked collard greens contains 27% of your daily need for calcium! Lastly, don’t forget about dried figs, which contain 12% of the daily value in a half-cup serving, and tahini, a tasty sesame seed paste, which has 10% of the daily value for calcium is just two tablespoons.
Also known as the “sunshine vitamin” vitamin D plays many critical roles in the body such as ensuring proper bone health and preventing osteoporosis by regulating levels of calcium and phosphorus (which make up the bone mineral matrix.) When it comes to bone health, calcium and vitamin D are both necessary as a package deal. Vegan or not, most of us in the modern world require supplementation or finding more ways to incorporate extra vitamin D to achieve healthy vitamin D levels.
What do vegans in particular need to know about vitamin D? While not common in plant-based foods, there are now mushrooms available that have been exposed to UV light in part of their growth cycle, which enriches them with the plant-form of vitamin D. Do note the difference between the plant-based vitamin D2, and the vitamin D3 form that is synthesized in humans and animals. Both D2 and D3 are absorbed and utilized in the human body, but studies show that D3 lasts longer in the blood, which can be especially helpful to know if you’re the type who forgets to take their vitamins sometimes.
Is vitamin D3 vegan? For a long time the answer to that question was a simple “no,” but there are now vegan forms of supplemental vitamin D3 available. Just be sure to check the labels, as most of the vitamin D3 (or cholecalciferol) used in fortified foods are still from animal origin. When choosing a vitamin supplement, look for one that contains between 600-1000 IU of vitamin D, as 600 IU is the current RDA for most adults. Fortified non-dairy milks are also available that contain added vitamin D, but to regularly ensure adequate vitamin D, a supplement is the easiest and most effective way to go.
Zinc plays a role in immune function, collagen synthesis, and neurological function. Many of the body’s integral cellular chemical reactions require zinc to catalyze the enzymes involved. Zinc also has important interactions with vitamin A, which explains why a severe zinc deficiency can cause night blindness.
Detecting a zinc deficiency is not as easy as detecting deficiencies in other nutrients like iron, which is all the more reason to pay a little extra care to add some zinc sources to your diet. One of the best plant-based sources of zinc are pumpkin seeds; just ¼ cup meets 23% of the recommended daily value for adults. Other good sources include sesame seeds, tahini (remember tahini is a good calcium source too!), and most bean varieties.
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Carly Slawson, RD is a Registered Dietitian in San Diego, CA on a mission to share the joys of healthful plant-based living with those around her. As a lifelong vegetarian and vegan over the last decade, she helps individuals ranging from the simply veg-curious to dedicated vegans find the balanced, practical lifestyle they choose to lead. Visit Carly at The Mindful Vegan!