Whether you’re simply extending your “Veganuary” resolution or you’ve been plant-based for a while, it’s a great idea to have a targeted plan for your diet to make sure all of your nutritional requirements are being met.
Adhering to a plant-based or vegan diet - or even a vegetarian diet where you may still eat dairy and eggs - does require you to be conscious of getting enough of certain nutrients , including specific vitamins and minerals. However, it’s not difficult to do!
The simple fact is that with reducing or eliminating animal products in your diet, you have a different range of foods to choose from than omnivores. However, this doesn’t mean you need to be downing handfuls of supplements with every meal! Most essential dietary requirements can be met with vegan-friendly whole foods, rather than relying on processed foods to get through your day. (Potato chips may be vegan, but that doesn’t make them a good lunch!)
Getting your daily dose
Consciously including a rainbow of nutrient-rich whole foods in your meal planning is important for maintaining your body’s balance! Here are some of the essential vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients to be aware of when following a plant-based diet.
It’s a common misconception that omitting meat from your diet means you won’t get enough protein. However, not all plant-based protein sources are ‘complete proteins,’ wherein they contain adequate amounts of all nine essential amino acids.
To circumvent this, you can prepare two foods together to get a complete protein, like the classic nutritious combination of rice and beans. As well, some plant-based foods such as tofu and quinoa are complete proteins all on their own. Including a variety of different protein sources will help ensure you’re getting enough protein in your diet.
Adequate intake of iron on a plant-based diet is a valid concern! Taking an iron supplement is common for vegans, as many plant sources of iron, called ‘non-heme’ iron, are harder for the body to effectively absorb than ‘heme’ iron from animal sources - but not always necessary. Iron is important for healthy red blood cells that carry oxygen. Lack of it can cause anemia with symptoms including tiredness, lack of energy, and even dizziness.
Avocados, leafy greens, legumes, and seeds like hemp and flax are loaded with heme iron. You can maximize your iron efforts by taking vitamin C alongside your high-iron foods or iron supplement, as this helps optimize its absorption.You can also cook with a cast-iron skillet to up your iron intake!
Because zinc isn’t stored in the human body, we need to make sure we’re consuming foods rich in zinc regularly. Zinc supports your body’s mucous membranes, wound healing, the immune system, and is a vital co-factor in many metabolic processes. Like iron, zinc from vegan sources may not be as bioavailable as those from animal products. It’s advisable to ensure adequate intake of zinc with a plant-based diet.
However, the good news - nutritional yeast (also known as nooch), a popular vegan seasoning due to its almost cheese-like, umami flavor - is rich in zinc! Other plant-based sources of zinc include beans, oats, and pumpkin seeds.
Omega-3s are a little more complicated! Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of beneficial fat we require in our diets. There are three types of omega-3 fats: ALA, DHA, and EPA. While plant-based diets include sources of ALA like hemp, chia, and flax seeds, excluding fish and seafood makes it difficult to get DHA and EPA directly from your food. Our bodies do convert ALA into the longer-chain fatty acids DHA and EPA - but we need to make sure we are getting lots of ALA-rich foods in order to make that conversion!
Since getting all three forms of omega-3s directly from a plant-based diet is challenging - unless your diet includes algae - you may wish to consider an algae-derived EPA and DHA supplement.
Calcium & Vitamin D
These two are a 2-for-1 deal since your body needs vitamin D to properly absorb calcium! Vitamin D also supports healthy immune function. Getting enough calcium is essential for supporting bone health and may reduce the risk of developing osteoporosis.
Although it’s always best to source your nutrients from whole foods, it can be difficult to find vegan-friendly vitamin D-rich fare. This is one instance where foods with added nutritional content may be a good choice, such as fortified unsweetened vegan milks. Vegan D3 supplements derived from lichen are also now widely available.
Calcium is comparably easier to source on a plant-based diet and some excellent whole food sources include dark leafy greens, legumes, and soybeans. Similar to vitamin D, there are also many calcium-fortified foods available.
Lesser-known when it comes to plant-based dietary awareness is the essential intake of vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 deficiency can cause a type of anemia where your body does not make enough healthy red blood cells. This can manifest as mood swings, shortness of breath, and fatigue, and affect your circulation as well as nervous system.
Vitamin B12 is another nutrient that can be difficult to obtain from whole foods on a purely plant-based diet; while it is available in fortified foods and nutritional yeast, it can be beneficial to supplement your B12 intake. A B-complex supplement that includes all of the B vitamins, including B12, is ideal as these nutrients work synergistically to support healthy red blood cell production, metabolism, energy, and nervous system function.
The best thing you can do for your physical and mental wellness is to be proactive. Stay up-to-date and educated on the nutritional requirements for a plant-based diet and be sure to check in with an accredited nutritionist or dietician, or a trusted medical care provider if you have any concerns. In the meantime - get creative with nooch!