The vegan diet has many health benefits including lower rates of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer. However, cutting out major food groups like meat and dairy without knowing how to replace them could put you at risk of nutritional deficiencies. Before starting out on the vegan lifestyle, it is important to inform yourself of the nutrients you are at risk of missing out on, and the best way to plan on getting them into your new diet.
Iron is a key mineral. It is a component of our red blood cells that takes oxygen to our cells. Iron is also found in the red blood cells in our muscles and helps us to keep our bodies on the move.
To keep our bodies healthy we need to eat small quantities of iron daily. According to the NIH, adult men aged 19-50 need 8mg of iron per day, and women 18mg. When we don’t get enough, the levels of iron circulating in our bodies become low and we cannot move enough oxygen to our cells for them to function optimally.
The most easily absorbed forms of iron come from animal foods, such as meat, fish, and poultry. This is because our bodies naturally recycle iron from our red blood cells when they have completed their lifecycle making it much easier for our bodies to capture the iron from other animals red blood cells. We call this type of iron, heme iron.
Since vegans don’t eat foods containing heme iron, they must rely on the iron found in plant foods. This type of iron known as non-heme iron, and unfortunately is in a form that is harder for the body to absorb. Because of this, vegans must eat more iron-rich foods to meet their daily needs. Luckily there are many good plant sources of non-heme iron:
- Beans, peas, lentils
- Dark green leafy vegetables
- Dried fruit
- Dark Chocolate 45-70% cacao
- Black strap molasses
Cooking with a cast-iron skillet will also help vegans consume more iron. The iron of the pan literally goes into the food as it cooks. When cooking in a cast-iron skillet, add foods high in vitamin C such as tomatoes, cabbage, and broccoli or by adding a finishing spritz of lemon or orange juice to your food, one of our favorite things to do, which will help you to absorb more of the non-heme iron foods you are eating.
Calcium and Vitamin D
Calcium plays many roles in the proper maintenance and health of our bodies. Not only is calcium required for proper bone health, but it also is involved in muscle function and maintaining proper pH balance in our blood. Calcium is very tightly regulated in our bodies which is one of the reasons osteoporosis is considered a silent disease. When our intake is low, our bodies will remove calcium from our bones, and over time (decades or faster) our bones can become so deficient of calcium that they become brittle and fractures occur at an increased rate than normal.
The rate at which we absorb calcium varies depending on how much calcium we consume throughout the day. Because our bodies cannot consume more than 500 mg of calcium at any one time when our diets are high in calcium we can’t always take in all that is available in the food. To get the most benefit from high calcium foods it is important to spread their consumption throughout the day and to stagger any calcium supplements you may be taking.
Calcium can cause problems if it travels by itself, so it is typically bound to what is known as binding factors, such as phytates, found in beans, or oxalates found for example in spinach. This means it is harder for our bodies to absorb calcium from plant-based sources, so to get enough vegans to need to make sure they are including enough high calcium plant-based sources with each meal. Plant-based sources of calcium include
- Tahini (sesame seeds)
- Dark leafy green vegetables
- Soy, especially tofu.
Vitamin D is created in our bodies from exposure to sunlight. It is naturally present in very few foods. Vitamin D is critical for adequate calcium absorption and low levels may severely impact your ability to absorb adequate calcium even when you are consuming enough.
Vitamin D has many other roles to keep us healthy and reduce our risk of developing chronic diseases. Notably, it plays a critical role in reducing inflammation in the body. Vitamin D has also been shown to be involved in the cell cycle regulation to inhibit the growth of abnormal cells, thus reducing the risk of cancer development.
There is a lot of controversy over how much vitamin D is needed to maintain proper health. It is worth speaking to your doctor about checking your blood levels of vitamin D and taking a supplement if you are not consuming many dietary sources. Because the few foods that do contain vitamin D are non-vegan, barring sun exposure it is difficult to get enough on a vegan diet. Vegans should make sure to eat vitamin D fortified foods such as plant milks, and breakfast cereals or take a supplement as recommended by their healthcare provider
People often claim that it is impossible to get enough protein eating a vegan diet. While this is untrue, it is true to say that vegans must focus on consuming high-quality plant-based sources of protein daily to meet their body’s needs.
Protein is made up of building blocks called amino acids. Some amino acids, called essential amino acids (EAAs), cannot be made by the body and must be sourced from food. While animal-based protein sources contain all essential amino acids, plant-based foods such as grains and beans fall short. To ensure that you receive all EAAs, it is important to eat a variety of protein sources in your diet. Suitable foods include:
- Whole food forms of soy such as edamame beans, tofu, tempeh, and soy milk.
- Beans, peas, lentils, nuts, and seeds,
- Whole grains (quinoa, rolled or steel-cut oats, brown rice, farro, and wheatberries, hulled barley, and buckwheat)
- Nuts and seeds
As a rule of thumb, making sure to eat both legumes and whole grains either together in a meal or in the course of a day, will give your body the EAAs it needs.
B12 also known as cobalamin and is one of the B vitamins predominately found in meat. It can be made by bacteria, fungi, and algae, but not by plants or animals. B12 is not found in plant products unless they have been contaminated with bacteria, such as fermented foods, soil insects, or other sources of B12, or the food products that have been fortified with B12.
B12 plays an important role in the production of energy for our cells. B12 is also important to maintain proper nerve function. B12 deficiency is one of the biggest concerns of the vegan diet, as the main sources of B12 in the diet, meat and dairy, are non-vegan, and unfortunately, the B12 in fermented vegetable foods such as kimchi and tempeh is the inactive variety.
For vegans, the main sources of B12 are yeasts, fortified foods (for example fortified soy products and breakfast cereals or some nutritional yeast flakes), and B12 supplements. B12 is best absorbed in small amounts, so if you do not consume fortified products regularly it is worth considering a B12 supplement.
- Nutritional yeast
- Fortified plant-based milks
- Shiitake mushrooms
Omega 3 fatty acids are considered essential because our bodies are not capable of making this type of fat. Therefore we have to get it from our diets. Omega 3 fatty acids are important for keeping inflammation low in our bodies along with keeping our bowels functioning normally. Omega 3 fatty acids are also important for healthy eye and brain function. Vegan sources of omega 3 fats include:
- Dark leafy vegetables
- Macadamia nuts
- Chia seeds
It is important to grind flaxseeds before eating them to obtain the benefit of their omega 3 fatty acid. Whole flaxseeds do not breakdown in the gastrointestinal tract and are only good as fiber. Chia seeds are nutrition powerhouses, but we recommend introducing them gradually into your diet and to soak them before eating. Chia seeds are very high in fiber – 1 ounce has 40% of your daily fiber needs – plus they can absorb a lot of liquid, so if you are new to chia, eating too much may cause gastric discomfort like cramping and bloating. Go easy.
Final tips for going vegan
With proper planning, a vegan lifestyle can be a delicious, healthy way of living, but the diet does require a major rethinking of what and how you eat, especially if you’ve been a meat-eater. This article should help you include the right foods for your health, and to help get you started in the kitchen we’ve put together some vegan kitchen basics. We have many recipes suitable for vegans which are well balanced in terms of nutrition and perfect for weeknight eating.