Nutrition isn’t just a vegan concern. No matter your diet, adequate intake (AI) of not just micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, & phytochemicals) but, macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats, proteins) and fatty acids (ALA, LA, & EFA, EPA & DHA) is essential. It might seem overwhelming with all of these acronyms, but, don’t worry! Ensuring a well-balanced vegan diet is easy.
While there is a veritable alphabet of vitamins to consider, most are easy to meet AI with virtually any diet. The dietary guidelines developed jointly by the U.S. Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS) (think old-school food pyramid, now MyPlate) are still focused on the Standard American Diet–although they have started to include mention of vegan alternatives for dairy and meat products. This organization is also responsible for the way the nutrition facts percentages are calculated on packaged foods, that is, based on a 2,000 calorie a day diet. While this would work for some people, most of us need to understand how to read these labels for our own needs.
The best place to start is to calculate your exact needs based on your age, sex, height, weight and activity level. This will give you an at-a-glance look at how many grams, milligrams, and micrograms of all the nutrients you need.
The vegan diet gets a bad rap for being “deficient” in certain things. In this article, we hope to clear the air, and dive deeper into ways you can properly get all of the vitamins you need within a vegan diet.
Adequate intake of vitamin B12 is a valid concern while on a vegan diet. It helps keep nerve and blood cells healthy and helps make DNA. Yes, it is only found in (grass-fed) meat and animal products naturally. But the fact is most B12 rich food now, even meat, is fortified (vitamins are added to it). This is because animals do not make vitamin B12. It is caused by microorganisms in soil and water. This means only animals eating grass (and thus dirt clinging to roots) are consuming B12. So, vegans are just bypassing the transportation vehicle: animals.
This vitamin comes in three forms methylcobalamin (naturally-occurring), cyanocobalamin (synthetic, not found in nature), and hydroxocobalamin (man-made, used in injectables). Cyanocobalamin may be absorbed better in your body, while methylcobalamin likely has a higher retention rate. However, the jury is out as to which is the better form to take in a supplement. The most important thing to note with B12 is that your body can only absorb a small amount within a given time. This means eating several fortified foods throughout the day would be better serving your body than sitting down to a plate of liver!
RDA for adults: 2.4 µg/ day (no upper limit)
How to meet my needs: 2–3 servings of fortified foods like cereals, plant-based milk, tofu) OR a daily supplement (e.g., Garden of Life mykind Organics B-12 spray)
Where do you get your protein?
That’s a common question vegans hear. Luckily, there are a lot of answers. Protein is found in a variety of beans, seeds, nuts, vegan protein powders, and most non-dairy milk. Mixing up your protein sources daily will ensure you are getting all your amino acids.
Why do you need it?
Protein is essential for making muscle, blood, antibodies, hair and more. When you eat protein, your body breaks it down into amino acids. There are 20 different amino acids that your body needs but only 9 of them are considered “essential,” that is, your body can’t make them naturally. These are histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine.
RDA for adults: 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (1 kilogram approx. 2.2 lbs)
How to meet my needs: Let’s look at an example:
Example Person: Susie
|Height||5 ft. 4 in.|
|Protein Required||45 grams|
One serving of soybeans (31 g or protein) and one serving of red beans (15 g of protein) would easily meet her macronutrient goal. You can see in the graphic below how easily she could mix and match her meals to support her protein needs.
We all know calcium helps build your bones and teeth. It is also responsible for a lot of enzyme activity in your body. Thanks to the iconic Got Milk? ads that started in 1993, dairy products are often seen as the only true source of calcium. However, seeds, leafy greens, beans, oatmeal, and quinoa all pack a lot of calcium. For example, one tablespoon of poppy seeds provides 126 mg of calcium.
RDA for adults: Approximately 1000 mg
How to meet my needs: Incorporating a calcium-rich food into each daily meal is easy. Check out a sample menu below that provides almost double the minimum calcium daily requirement.
|Breakfast||½ cup of oatmeal prepared with 1 cup of almond milk & topped with 2 tbsp almonds & sliced strawberries||636 mg|
|Lunch||Tofu “egg” salad wrap|
1 cup of tofu
½ tsp kala namak salt
½ tsp turmeric
Herbs of choice: chives, dill, etc.
1-2 collard green leaves for wrapping
|Snack||½ cup roasted chickpeas with spices of choice (we really love this recipe)||100 mg|
|Dinner||Vegetable Stir-fry (these are easy and versatile with whatever veggies and greens you have on hand. This version packs a calcium punch!)||Approx 350 mg|
Vitamin D helps our bodies use calcium. It has also been shown to affect mood. We ingest it or our bodies produce it after sunlight exposure.
RDA for adults: between 400–800 IU (10–20 micrograms) and 1000–4000 IU (25–100 micrograms) per day
How to meet my needs: Look for a D3 supplement or vitamin D-fortified foods that use cholecalciferol sourced from lichens (e.g., Vitashine) or a D2 using ergocalciferol, sourced from fungi. Avoid supplements that are sourced from fish oils or sheep lanolin.
Omega Fatty Acids
Omega-3, -6 and -9 fatty acids are powerhouses for our bodies. Our bodies cannot make omega-3s (EPA, DHA), but they are essential for many functions including improving heart health, have shown signs of improving mental health, and fighting inflammation. Omega-6s also need to be obtained from our diets. They are primarily used for energy but most Western diets actually include too many omega-6s. Omega-9 is a monounsaturated fat that can be produced by the body (and is therefore not considered an “essential” fatty acid). However, studies have shown people with diets rich in monounsaturated fats and low in saturated fat have less inflammation and better insulin sensitivity.
Omega-3s can be found in algal oil, nuts, and seeds. Omega-9s can be found in almonds, cashews, and walnuts.
How to meet my needs: Nuts, seeds, algal oil, supplements.
Eating vegan and maintaining nutrients is easy. In fact, the more we pay attention to our diets, the easier it is to recognize the best food sources of the nutrients we need.