Discover the most important nutrients for your body and how to make sure you have them in your vegan or vegetarian diet.
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One of the biggest concerns when going vegan is whether or not a vegan lifestyle can offer all of the nutrients you need to live a long and healthy life. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, you can get most of the nutrients you need from a balanced vegan diet.
We’ve also explored how going vegan actually has health benefits, like lowered blood pressure and reducing the risk of heart disease. That being said, it is still more common to eat meat than not, and it can be hard for new vegans to make sure they are eating all the nutrients they need.
Today, we’re looking at some of the most important nutrients for your body and how to make sure you have them in your vegan or vegetarian diet.
Protein in a Vegan Diet
The most obvious nutrient that you’ll miss from eating animal products, particularly meat, is protein. Thankfully, because of this, protein is one of the most well-documented nutrients in vegetarian and vegan diets.
You can keep protein in your diet by consuming legumes and soy-based vegan meats. Popular (and delicious) legumes include beans, peas, peanuts, and lentils. Soy foods include tofu and tempeh, which can almost magically imitate the texture of meat.
As we explored in our article, How Vegans Get Protein, adults in western countries actually consume about 2x more protein per day than necessary. This is based on a 0.66/g/kg/day estimated daily protein need cited in a research article published in Nutrients in 2019.
Depending on the vegan-friendly foods you decide to use to fulfill your protein nutrient intake, you might be happily surprised to find that you don’t need to stuff your stomach to stay healthy. You might have been overeating in meat protein this whole time!
Essential Iron for Blood Health
Red meat is known as a heart source of iron, however, vegans have to work a bit harder to provide their bodies with adequate amounts of this essential element. Iron in the body helps our red blood cells carry oxygen throughout our limbs and veins.
In fact, iron deficiency can cause long-lasting harm, and iron supplements are commonly used to address iron deficiency anemia. However, receiving an adequate amount of iron through food is preferred.
While iron found in meat products is known as “heme iron,” iron found in plant-based foods is known as “non-heme iron.” This doesn’t matter day-to-day, but you should know that the body absorbs heme iron more easily than non-heme iron.
So while 30 percent of heme iron you consume is absorbed by the body, about 2 to 10 percent of non-heme iron is absorbed from plant-based foods. To help increase absorption, you can opt for foods that have a high vitamin C content like citrus fruits, peppers, and tomatoes.
Spinach, sweet potatoes, broccoli, string beans, and collards are all great options for plant-based sources of iron.
Vitamin B12 in Vegan Diet
Unfortunately, vitamin b12 is one of the only nutrients that doesn’t occur naturally in plant-based foods. It is, however, an essential nutrient vital for neurological function as well as healthy red blood cell formation. So how can you get an adequate amount of vitamin B12 as a vegan?
You’ll have to look for foods that are fortified with B12, including various soy milk and cereal options. These foods have the vitamin added in as chemical additions and don’t automatically equate to added animal products.
Alternatively, you can ask your doctor about a potential B12 supplement, which can eliminate the need for you to search for fortified foods that might also have added-in animal products.
Did you know that a huge percentage of individuals, both vegan and not, are vitamin D deficient? About 42 percent of the United States population is vitamin D deficient, and the statistics only get worse in minority populations.
82 percent of Black individuals in the United States are vitamin D deficient, as are 70% of Hispanics. Vitamin D deficiency can result in muscle weakness and an increased risk of bone fractures.
Your body actually produces vitamin D in response to sunlight, so depending on where you live in the world and how often you go outdoors, vitamin D deficiency doesn’t have to be as scary as it seems. You can also find vitamin D in fortified products, similar to finding vitamin B12. Soy milk, rice milk, and cereals are popular items for this.
Finally, you can take supplements for adequate vitamin D intake.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for maintaining a healthy heart and reducing the risk of heart disease. The most popular foods that include omega-3 fatty acids are fish products and simple fish oil pills.
Thankfully, there are a plethora of plant-based foods that include omega-3 fatty acids, such as flaxseed, tofu, and walnuts. Similar to heme vs. non-heme iron, omega-3 fatty acids come in different forms.
Fish provide EPA and DHA acids, while plant-based foods like flaxseed have ALA omega-3 fatty acids. Our bodies can convert ALA to EPA and DHA, but it’s not an efficient conversion.
Therefore, you want to be extra careful about including omega-3 fatty acid foods when you can and perhaps even consult with your general doctor on best practices otherwise.
The Vegan Diet and Essential Nutrients
Whether you’ve just started your vegan journey or have been vegan for years, it’s never too late to start learning about food items and essential nutrients. Learning which foods are absolutely essential and which foods can be swapped for others will allow you to live a happier, healthier vegan life.
Protein and iron are relatively easy nutrients to find in plant-based foods. But vitamin B12 and vitamin D are a bit harder to compensate for and may require external supplements. When in doubt, don’t be afraid to ask your regular doctor for assistance.
Ready to learn how to prepare vegan meals that are full of nutrients while also being delicious? Explore our vegan recipes here on Happy Food Healthy Life.