By Virginia Messina, MPH, RD
Everybody eating a mostly or entirely vegan diet should learn the basics of vegan nutrition. The main pitfalls of a plant-based diet are easy enough to avoid, once you find out which nutrients are of special interest to vegans.
Going vegan, or merely taking a few steps in that direction, can deliver important health benefits. Diets built primarily on plants are associated with lower cholesterol levels and reduced risk for type-2 diabetes. Plant foods also contain compounds with anti-cancer properties. Some people find that replacing meat, dairy and eggs with fiber-packed vegan foods helps them shed weight, too.
Simply eating a variety of whole plant foods along with healthy fats can increase your odds of avoiding chronic diseases. But meeting nutrient needs on a vegan diet requires a little additional attention. This article highlights the main things to keep in mind to ensure adequate nutrition on a vegan or near-vegan diet. Nothing presented here is all that difficult, it’s just that it isn’t exactly intuitive.
Moving toward a vegan diet means finding new ways to meet needs for some nutrients. But once you learn the basics of sensible menu planning, following a healthful vegan diet becomes second nature.
Nutrient Intake Recommendations for Vegans
Whether you’re vegan or not, it’s wise to eat a wide variety of vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds.
But even after making these healthful foods the basis of your diet, it’s certainly possible to come up short on one or more nutrients. The nutrients that require extra attention from vegans are:
In a Western diet, many of the above nutrients are typically associated with animal foods. But vegans don’t need to worry, since everything except B12 and vitamin D is easily found in vegan foods as well. Later in this article, I’ll cover how to meet your B12 and D needs on a vegan diet.
You may have heard that vegans face no risk of protein deficiency as long as they eat enough calories and choose whole plant foods. That’s not quite true, though. While we never see vegans with overt protein deficiency, it doesn’t mean that all vegans consume protein in optimal amounts. Marginal or suboptimal protein status may damage health by affecting bone health and muscle strength. It’s especially important to include legumes in your diet to ensure adequate amounts of amino acids. These are the building blocks of protein and some of them, the essential amino acids, must come from food. Vegan diets that don’t include legumes (this food group includes beans, soyfoods and peanuts) could fall short of one particular essential amino acid called lysine.
Two servings per day of legumes will probably provide you with sufficient lysine, but three servings delivers an extra margin of safety. Older people or anyone on a weight loss diet might want to aim for even more of these foods.
How to Eat More Protein-Rich Legumes
Two or three daily servings of legumes may sound like a lot, but serving sizes of these foods are surprisingly small. Any of the following counts as a serving of legumes:
- ½ cup cooked dried beans or lentils
- ½ cup tofu or tempeh
- 3 ounces veggie meat
- 1 cup of soy milk or milk made from pea protein (but not other plant milks since most are too low in protein)
- ¼ cup peanuts or soy nuts
- 2 tablespoons of peanut butter
Even if some of these foods are relatively new to your diet, increasing your intake of legumes is easy. Here are some examples of familiar menu items that feature legumes.
- Peanut butter and jelly (or sliced banana) sandwiches
- Scrambled tofu
- Baked tofu
- Veggie burgers
- Hummus wraps
- Lentil soup
- Vegetables with peanut sauce
- Tossed salads topped with soy nuts
- Bean burritos
- Cereal with soy milk
- Tacos with veggie “ground beef”
Iron and Zinc
Whole grains and beans are rich in iron, and many other vegan foods also provide this mineral. But the iron in plant foods is bound to compounds called phytates, which inhibit its absorption. Luckily, it’s easy to counter the effects of phytates on iron absorption. Toasting nuts and seeds and sprouting grains help make iron more available. But by far, vitamin C offers the most effective way to enhance iron absorption. When it’s consumed at the same time as iron-rich foods, vitamin C breaks the bond between iron and phytate, thereby measurably boosting absorption.
To meet your iron needs as a vegan strive to eat plenty of beans, whole and enriched grains, leafy green vegetables, and dried fruits and to add vitamin C-rich foods to as many meals as possible. Rich sources of vitamin C include citrus fruits and juices, cantaloupe, kiwifruit, mango, papaya, pineapple, strawberries, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, peppers, tomato juice, cabbage, and cauliflower.
The best sources of zinc in vegan diets are whole grains, legumes, nuts and especially seeds. Like iron, zinc is also bound to phytates which reduce its absorption. In this case, vitamin C doesn’t help, but certain food preparation practices enhance zinc absorption. For instance, the yeast or sourdough used to bake whole grain bread will render its zinc much more absorbable which means that whole grain bread is a better source of zinc than crackers, flatbreads, or cooked grains. Sprouting grains and legumes helps with zinc absorption, too.
Vegan foods don’t contain preformed vitamin A, but fruits and especially vegetables provide precursors that the body converts to vitamin A molecules. These vitamin A precursors, which include the antioxidant beta-carotene, are abundant in dark leafy vegetables, especially kale and spinach. These precursors are also abundant in deep orange vegetables like winter squash (including pumpkin), sweet potatoes, and carrots.
Just one or two servings of these vegetables each day should take care of your vitamin A needs. A light drizzle of oil over vegetables or a dressing of avocado or tahini will increase absorption of vitamin A from these foods.
One nutrient that often eludes vegans who otherwise eat healthfully is a fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (usually abbreviated as ALA). This is an essential omega-3 fat that is present in just a handful of plant foods. To meet your body’s needs, you should include any of the following in your diet every day:
- 1 tablespoon of ground flaxseed (note that it must be ground; otherwise you won’t absorb the ALA)
- 1 ½ tsp chia seeds
- ½ tbsp hemp seeds
- 1 tablespoon of walnut or canola oil
- ½ tbsp chopped walnuts
- 1 ½ teaspoon flaxseed oil
- 1 ½ tsp hemp seed oil
Although the list of foods providing ALA is short, it’s easy enough to meet needs. It’s as simple as stirring a handful of walnuts into your morning cereal or a tablespoon of ground flaxseed into cooked rice or quinoa at dinner.
DHA and EPA
Two other omega-3 fats, called DHA and EPA, aren’t considered essential dietary components because the human body can synthesize them (but only if it receives the necessary ALA first). Unfortunately, the conversion of these fats is inefficient and research shows that vegans often have low blood levels of DHA and EPA.
How much this matters isn’t clear. On the one hand, research into whether these fats improve heart health and cognitive function has yielded conflicting results. But some experts speculate that inadequate DHA and EPA intakes may cancel out some of the heart-healthy benefits of vegan diets. Also, some evidence suggests that EPA is helpful for people who are prone to depression. Although most people get their DHA and EPA from fatty fish or fish oil supplements, several companies sell vegan versions of these supplements. The omega-3 fats in these vegan DHA/EPA capsules come from microalgae, which is the same place that fish get their omega-3 fats.
Other Fats of Interest for Good Vegan Nutrition
Don’t hesitate to include other fat-rich foods in your diet, too. Current recommendations support a wide range of fat intakes for good health, anywhere from 20 to 35 percent of daily calories. (This translates to 22 to 39 grams of fat for every 1,000 calories you eat.) What matters most isn’t how much fat you consume, but rather the type of fat you choose. Unsaturated fats from plant foods are associated with healthier cholesterol levels and lower risk for heart disease.
Additionally, certain high-fat plant foods may offer unique health benefits unrelated to their fat content. For example, tree nuts like almonds, cashews, walnuts, and pecans are linked to reduced risk for heart disease. Soyfoods, which are higher in fat than other legumes, are rich in isoflavones—phytoestrogens that may reduce cancer risk and improve artery health. Extra-virgin olive oil is a unique source of certain compounds with anti-inflammatory properties.
In addition to their health benefits, some fat-rich foods can help vegans meet specific nutrient needs. Seeds are especially good sources of zinc, and avocados and certain vegetable oils are rich in vitamin E.
Some early research suggested that vegans might require less dietary calcium than omnivores.. The theory was that animal protein causes bones to lose calcium, raising requirements for people who eat meat, milk and eggs. As the research has evolved, though, it’s become clear that protein in fact protects bone health. And how much protein you eat doesn’t seem to impact calcium needs.
While it’s important to consume adequate calcium, it’s also important to pay attention to how calcium absorption differs from one food to the next. For instance, spinach has a high calcium content, but the calcium is mostly bound to compounds called oxalates which block your body from absorbing most of it. Swiss chard and beet greens also contain oxalates in substantial amounts. In contrast, calcium absorption from vegetables in the cabbage family –including kale, bok choy, turnip greens, and broccoli—is excellent.
Calcium is also well absorbed from calcium-fortified plant milks and from tofu made with calcium sulfate. (Note that unless the tofu lists calcium sulfate on the label, its calcium content is insignificant.) Beans, tahini, and almonds all contain moderate amounts of calcium that is not especially well absorbed.
How to Meet Your Calcium Needs Through Vegan Foods
A good rule of thumb for getting ample calcium on a vegan diet is to consume at least three cups per day of foods rich in well-absorbed calcium. These include:
- cooked Chinese cabbage, turnip greens, mustard greens, collards, bok choy, kale, and broccoli
- tofu with calcium sulfate
- plant milks and juices fortified with calcium
Then aim to eat at least a few servings of other foods that provide more moderate amounts of calcium like beans, almond butter, almonds, broccoli, kale, okra, sweet potatoes, figs, navel oranges, corn tortillas, and blackstrap molasses.
If you are over 50, bump up your consumption of the most calcium-rich foods by an additional half-cup. Older people are less efficient at absorbing calcium, so you’ll want to increase your dietary calcium intake slightly as you age.
If you don’t eat calcium-rich foods regularly or are otherwise worried about meeting your needs, it’s wise to take a small daily supplement of 300 mg or so.
The internet abounds with misleading information about vitamin B12. Specifically, countless websites and forum posts make unfounded claims that vegans don’t need to worry about their B12 status. But nutrition experts are in clear agreement that there are only two reliable sources of vitamin B12 for vegans. These are foods fortified with this nutrient and supplements.
Contrary to popular belief, sea vegetables, fermented foods and organic vegetables don’t provide vitamin B12. Nutritional yeast often contains significant B12, but only if it’s grown on a B12-rich medium. And while people can store significant amounts of vitamin B12 in their livers, this is not a reliable source of the vitamin for anyone.
B12 Supplement Recommendations
When you go vegan or become nearly vegan you should start taking B12. There is no persuasive reason to wait, and every reason to start right away. Vitamin B12 deficiency results in anemia and can also lead to nerve damage—irreversible in some cases—so it’s essential to make sure you get enough.
Figuring out appropriate dosages of B12 is tricky because absorption varies by dosage size. It’s absorbed best in small frequent doses which means you need larger and larger amounts of B12 the less often you consume it.
Here are three ways to meet your vitamin B12 needs. They all refer to the cyanocobalamin form of the vitamin, which is the only one proven reliable as a supplement.
- Take a daily supplement providing 25 to 100 mcg of vitamin B12. Opt for chewable since this may allow for greater absorption.
- Take a supplement providing 1,000 mcg of vitamin B12 twice per week.
- Eat two servings per day of foods fortified with at least 2 to 3.5 mcg of vitamin B12 each. You’ll need to eat these servings at least 4 hours apart to allow for optimal absorption.
Humans evolved to make vitamin D whenever strong summer sunlight hits bare skin. But smog, clouds and sunscreen all block vitamin D synthesis. Older people and people with darker skin require more sun exposure to make vitamin D. In temperate climates, winter sunlight is often too weak for adequate vitamin D synthesis. Exposing your face and arms (without sunscreen) to midday summer sunlight for 10 to 20 minutes per day, or 30 minutes if you’re over 70, should enable your body to generate sufficient vitamin D. If you aren’t regularly getting this amount of sun exposure, you’ll need a dietary source.
Vitamin D occurs naturally in eggs and some types of fish, but the amounts are too low to meet daily needs. This means that many people, vegan or not, must take vitamin D supplements or fortified foods to avoid deficiency.
Vitamin D3 is the most common form of vitamin D found in foods and supplements, and is almost always derived from animals. Vitamin D2 usually comes from yeast and until recently was the only vegan form of the vitamin. If you have adequate vitamin levels, vitamin D2 supplements are sufficient for maintaining those levels. There is evidence, though, that D3 is more effective for reversing a deficiency of vitamin D. So if your vitamin D levels are currently too low, you may need D3 to bring them back up to a healthy level. Although it’s a little harder to find, vegan D3 supplements have recently become available. Recommended intake of vitamin D is 600 IUs per day.
The body needs iodine for a healthy thyroid gland. Although plant foods provide iodine, the amount present depends on where the food was grown. Many people get most of their iodine from iodized salt and dairy products. The iodine in cow’s milk comes primarily from cleaning solutions applied to milking equipment and udders prior to milking.
Although sea vegetables are often rich in iodine, levels of this nutrient vary considerably. Some seaweed may even contain excessively high amounts of iodine. It’s therefore best to use sea vegetables in moderation rather than to depend on them for iodine. A small amount of additional iodine, from either ¼ teaspoon of iodized salt per day or a supplement providing 75 micrograms of iodine three or four times per week will help you meet needs.
Five Simple Guidelines for Good Vegan Nutrition
If wading through all of this detail felt overwhelming, don’t despair. You can substantially improve your diet by developing a few easy habits. The following five guidelines crystalize most of the information in this article into simple steps that can ensure a healthy, well-balanced vegan diet.
- Eat at least three servings per day of beans, tofu, tempeh, soymilk, veggie meats, peanuts or peanut butter.
- Consume a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, including leafy greens and dark orange vegetables plus good sources of vitamin C like peppers, citrus fruit, and strawberries.
- Get most of your fat from healthy sources, like nuts and nut butters, avocados, seeds, and moderate amounts of oils. Be sure to eat a good source of the essential omega-3 fat ALA found in flaxseed, hempseed, canola oil, and walnuts.
- Eat three cups of calcium-rich foods every day including fortified plant milks, fortified juices, tofu made with calcium sulfate, and cooked kale, collards, bok choy, or turnip greens (double the amount of greens if you eat raw greens instead of cooked).
- Don’t shun supplements. All vegans need vitamin B12 from supplements or fortified foods. Most also need a supplement of vitamin D, at least during the winter months. You may wish to consider vegan DHA and EPA supplements. If you don’t regularly use iodized salt, it’s prudent to take an iodine supplement. Vegan.com maintains a supplements page that provides current and helpful information for all these nutrients.
Avoid Needless Dietary Restrictions
Placing needless restrictions on food choices can make it harder to meet nutrient needs and also harder to stick with your vegan diet. More restrictive versions of vegan diets, like raw foods or very low-fat patterns, have no advantages over diets that include cooked foods and higher fat foods.
While it’s smart to eat plenty of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds, there is no reason to avoid vegan meats, plant milks, or oils. These foods not only make vegan diets convenient and more tasty, they also contribute important nutrients. There is no evidence that vegans who shun these foods enjoy better health than others.
Following the guidelines in this article will not only help you meet vegan nutrition requirements, but can also give you an edge against heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and perhaps even certain cancers. No diet offers a guarantee against these illnesses. But by paying attention to the guidance here, you can feel confident that you’re laying the groundwork for excellent long-term health.
Ginny Messina MPH, RD publishes TheVeganRD.com. She has co-authored a number of vegan-oriented books including Vegan For Life, Vegan For Her, Never Too Late to Go Vegan, Even Vegans Die, and The Dietitian’s Guide to Vegetarian Diets.