The Most Important Nutrients When Following a Vegan Diet
When you are transitioning to a vegan diet, you probably feel a bit overwhelmed at first. That’s completely normal! Many of us are used to eating whatever foods we have on hand and consider tasty. Plus, most of us didn’t grow up worrying about meeting all our nutritional needs. However, when we switch to a vegan diet, all of a sudden, we start to really think about what we put into our bodies. In the beginning, this can be confusing because we have learned that animal products play a vital role in our diets. Therefore, we want to shed some light on the most important nutrients when following a vegan diet.
Nutrients vital for disease prevention, growth, and good health
Let us clear up one thing right away: Don’t think that a vegan diet is much more complicated than meeting all of your nutrients as a non-vegan! It is always vital to pay attention to what you eat. Nutrients are vital for disease prevention, growth, and good health, no matter which diet you follow. Read on to learn more about the most important nutrients when following a vegan diet and how to best replace the nutrients you’d get from meat, eggs and dairy products.
What are essential nutrients?
Essential nutrients can be described as compounds that our body can’t make or can’t make in sufficient quantities. This means that, to maintain optimal health, these nutrients must come from the food we eat.
According to the World Health Organization, there are two types of nutrients: macronutrients and micronutrients. While macronutrients are consumed in relatively large quantities and include proteins, carbohydrates, fats and fatty acids, micronutrients are consumed in smaller quantities. Micronutrients include vitamins and minerals and are essential for body processes. There are six groups of nutrients: carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, minerals and water.
- Carbohydrates are the main sources of energy in our bodies.
- Protein is made of amino acids, which are the building blocks of our tissues.
- Fat is our most concentrated source of energy.
- Minerals are crucial to performing many functions — from building strong bones to transmitting nerve impulses.
- Vitamins bolster our immune system, convert food into energy and repair cellular damage.
- Water makes up 45-75% of our bodies and is important for good health.
We want to take a closer look at seven key nutrients and their daily recommended intakes (DRI):
Iron is a trace mineral and supports red blood cells and hormone creation. It helps to preserve many vital functions in the body, including general energy and focus, the immune system and the regulation of body temperature. Without enough iron in our bodies, we can quickly feel sluggish and tired.
The DRI for elemental iron depends on a person’s age and sex. For males, it’s 8 mg and for females in their reproductive years, it’s 18 mg.
Moreover, adding vitamin C sources, such as peppers, broccoli, cabbage, oranges or grapefruit, to iron sources can enhance the absorption of iron.
Foods that contain high amounts of iron:
- Grains: Brown rice, quinoa, oatmeal
- Legumes: Lentils, beans, soybeans, chickpeas, peanuts
- Nuts and seeds: Pumpkin seeds, cashews, sunflower seeds, almonds
- Vegetables: Spinach, broccoli
- Other: Tofu
This is probably one of the vitamins we’re most familiar with. Our bodies produce vitamin D, which is actually a hormone, in response to sun exposure. Nevertheless, the vitamin’s many health benefits, including maintaining healthy bones and teeth, suggest that we should boost our vitamin D intake during the colder and darker months of the year.
The DRI for vitamin D is 15 microgrammes (mcg) or 600 International Units (IU) for adults.
Many of the foods highest in vitamin D come from animal products. Nevertheless, a few sources of this vitamin are vegan-friendly.
Foods that contain high amounts of vitamin D:
- Grains: Fortified cereals
- Fortified soy milk, rice milk or almond milk
- Vegetables: Mushrooms exposed to ultraviolet light while growing (it will say so on the package).
Stepping into the sun for about 10 to 30 minutes three times a week is enough for most people. Alternatively, taking a vitamin D supplement will help prevent any deficit during the winter months.
Zinc is a trace element that is essential for a strong immune system and that helps stimulate the activity of at least 100 enzymes. Many plant-based foods contain zinc.
The DRI for zinc is 11 mg for males and 8 mg for females. Pregnant women have an increased need for zinc, at 11-13 mg per day, depending on age.
Foods that contain high amounts of zinc:
- Grains: Wild rice, wheat germ, quinoa
- Legumes: Beans, chickpeas, peas, lentils, tofu
- Nuts and seeds: Pecans, peanuts, walnuts, cashew nuts, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds
Omega-3 fatty acids are a healthful and essential type of fat and are linked to reduced inflammation and decreased blood triglycerides. There’re even studies that suggest they have the potential to reduce the risk of dementia. Plant-based foods typically contain only one of three types of omega-3 fatty acids: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is converted to omega-3 in our bodies.
The DRI for omega-3 is 1.6 g for males and 1.1 g for females. Pregnant women have an increased need for omega-3, at 1.4 g per day.
Plant-based foods that contain high amounts of omega-3:
- Legumes: Kidney beans, edamame
- Vegetables: Brussel sprouts
- Nuts and seeds: Chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, flax seeds
- Other: Algal oil, perilla oil, soybean oil
Calcium plays a crucial role in keeping our bones and teeth strong and also supports our nervous system. High levels of calcium are usually found in dairy products. Still, a few powerful plant-based foods contain high amounts of calcium, too.
The DRI for calcium is 1,000 mg for adults.
Plant-based foods that contain high amounts of calcium:
- Legumes: Beans, peas, lentils
- Vegetables: Kale, broccoli, spinach
- Nuts and seeds: Tahini, chia seeds, flax seeds
B12 is an important nutrient that plays a critical role in the maintenance of the nervous system and in the formation of red blood cells. It is the only essential nutrient that is not made by plants. However, B12 is not “made” by animals, either. Instead, vitamin B12 is produced by bacteria, which means that animals and humans must obtain this vitamin directly or indirectly from bacteria. Interestingly, B12 would naturally occur in our food and drinking water. However, it is being removed by modern, hygienic food production and the exposure of soil to more antibiotics and pesticides.
People who consume animal-based products can obtain B12 only because either the animals’ feed or water is contaminated with these bacteria or they are being supplemented.
Vegan or non-vegan, vitamin B12 deficiencies are not uncommon in the general population, even among those who eat large amounts of animal foods.
As there are no reliable plant sources of vitamin B12, the easiest method of obtaining this vitamin is supplementation. The DRI for B12 is 2.4 mcg for adults.
Last but not least is probably the most controversial nutrient when it comes to a plant-based diet: protein. Protein is vital for the repair and growth of our muscles and bones, as well as for supporting our immune system.
Despite the common concern that vegan diets might lack sufficient protein, there are actually a large number of plant-based protein sources, making it easy to meet our daily protein needs. In fact, many experts agree that a well-planned vegan diet can provide all the nutrients you need.
The human body can produce 11 amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein, but must get another nine, also called essential amino acids, from food. Animal products provide “complete proteins”, meaning they contain adequate amounts of all nine essential amino acids. Some plant products, like soy, buckwheat and quinoa, also contain complete proteins, while others are considered incomplete proteins, meaning they don’t contain ample amounts of all essential amino acids.
This suggests that while vegans can get all of the protein they need from plants, they should pay attention to eating a great variety of plant-based foods to get the required range of amino acids.
A protein low in one specific amino acid can be called “limiting protein”. The protein quality in food containing limiting proteins can be improved by eating it along with protein that contains sufficient amounts of the limited amino acids. For example, rice is low in the essential amino acid lysine, while beans are low in the essential amino acid methionine. By combining these two foods, you improve the proteins in both.
- Nuts or seeds with whole grains (peanut butter on whole wheat toast)
- Whole grains with beans (hummus and pita bread; bean-based chilli and crackers; refried beans and tortillas)
- Legumes with nuts or seeds (salad with chickpeas and sunflower seeds)
Interestingly, in the Western world, we tend to eat way too much protein. The DRI for protein is only 0.8 grammes per kilogram of body weight. For a woman following a normal lifestyle and with a healthy weight of 70 kg, this translates into 56 grammes of protein per day. To put that into perspective: A serving size of tofu (150g) contains 24 grammes of protein, which would already cover 42% of the daily recommended protein intake in this case. Also, tofu is derived from whole soybeans, which are considered to be complete proteins.
The example above demonstrates that it is not hard to meet daily protein needs when one is following a balanced, whole-foods vegan diet. Here are some more plant-based foods that contain high amounts of protein:
- Grains: Seitan, spelt, quinoa, wild rice, whole-wheat pasta, oatmeal
- Legumes: Tofu, tempeh, edamame, lentils, chickpeas, beans, soya milk
- Nuts & Seeds: Chia seeds, almonds
If you’re interested in learning more about proteins and related studies, as well as the relationship between diet and the risk of developing disease, we recommend T. Colin Campbell and Thomas M. Campbell’s book, “China Study”.
Please don’t forget that everybody is different and has different needs. It’s crucial to listen to your body and always consult your doctor if you have any pre-existing conditions or are on medications when switching to a vegan diet. We’re not qualified nutritionists ourselves and rely upon our own experience from following a plant-based diet over the last four years. In addition, we’re looking at what experts at the World Health Organisation, the Vegan Society and Medical News are recommending. We highly encourage you to use additional resources to support your transition to a plant-based diet and to try different foods whenever you feel like it.
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Co-Founder of Veano