Vegan Nutrition

Since the early 2000s, more and more people have started showing an interest in vegan diets. And why not? It is a lifestyle that is great for our beloved planet, animals, and most importantly, everyone’s health. A German report stated that the number of vegetarians and vegans has doubled from pre-COVID (5%) to post-COVID (10%).

However, it is very important to ensure that the vegan diet should be well-planned to meet all the nutritional needs. But with all this enthusiasm, there are also a lot of myths and misconceptions widespread among the general population and health professionals.

There are numerous studies demonstrating that a vegan diet reduces the risk of cardiometabolic diseases, which include cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes mellitus, obesity, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease; it has also been linked to adverse health outcomes.

It may also include impairments in the nervous, skeletal, and immune systems, hematological disorders, and mental health issues, primarily due to potential deficiencies in micro and macronutrients.

Vegan diets can be health-promoting compared to typical Western eating patterns and help in maintaining a healthy body. So, before switching to a vegan diet, it is important to clarify which vitamins or nutrients are important for our health, and if we are interested in a vegan diet, which nutrients we should get as supplements.

Nutrition for Vegans

It has been observed that protein intake was found to be lower in people following plant-based diets compared to meat-eaters. Fiber, polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA), folate, vitamin C, E, and magnesium intake were higher in comparison, and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) intake was lower in vegetarians and vegans, which is a point of concern.

Studies show that vegetarian and vegan nutrition may risk vitamin B12, vitamin D, iron, zinc, and calcium deficiency because these micronutrients can mostly be found in animal foods and have a lower bioavailability in plant foods. Most importantly, EPA and DHA intake was low. This is because these are mainly present in fish and seafood, and it becomes hard for vegetarians and vegans to meet the recommended level.

Protein Sources for Vegans

Protein intake is the concern point of vegan nutrition. As it is very important for muscle repair, immune function, and enzyme production. It is well known that meat, dairy, and eggs are rich protein sources, but numerous plant-based alternatives can also meet the body’s protein needs.

  • Legumes- Legumes are plant-based foods such as beans, lentils, and chickpeas, these are excellent sources of proteins.
  • Nuts and Seeds- Nuts are the seeds of plants, mostly trees. These are highly nutrient-dense dietary components rich in micronutrients. Such as almonds, walnuts, and chia seeds, which are not only rich in proteins but also have high amounts of healthy fats and fibers.
  • Soy Products- Soy products are the foods that come from soybeans. These are very rich in vitamins and proteins. Soy is considered to be a complete protein because it contains all nine essential amino acids.
  • Grains- Grains are small, hard, and edible dry seeds. These are very rich in nutrients, some examples are; quinoa, farro, and bulgur are grains that pack a protein punch. Quinoa, in particular, is a complete protein.
  • Seitan- Seitan is a plant-based meat substitute made from wheat gluten. It is a low-carb, low-fat, high-protein food. It can be used in various dishes.

It is important to include these foods in the diets because they contain all essential amino acids and maintain optimal health.

Natural Sources of Nutrients for Vegans

Obtaining all essential nutrients is really challenging for vegans, but it can be possible with the right food choices. Certain nutrients require special attention in a vegan diet to avoid deficiencies.

Some of the natural sources of key nutrients are mentioned below:

Vitamin B12 for Vegan Nutrition

Vitamin B12 is an essential nutrient as it is involved in many important functions like red blood cell formation, nerve function, and the production of DNA. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for vitamin B12 for adults is 2.4 mcg per day. Vegans are at risk of developing vitamin B12 deficiency because it does not naturally exist in large enough quantities in plant-based foods.

It is mainly found in animals, so vegans need to rely on fortified plant-based milk (soy, almond, oat), nutritional yeast, fortified tofu, and tempeh. In severe cases, it is recommended to take vitamin B12 supplements. The most common supplemental forms of B12 are cyanocobalamin and methylcobalamin, both of which are good options.

Calcium for Vegan Nutrition

Calcium is absolutely essential for bone health, but it also helps regulate the contraction of cardiac and skeletal muscles, helping to keep the bones and teeth healthy. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for calcium is 1000mg per day for women up to 50 years old and 1200mg per day for women over 50. For men, it’s 1000mg per day up to age 70, and 1200mg per day for men over age 70.

Vegans can obtain calcium from Leafy green vegetables (kale, collard greens, bok choy), fortified Plant Milk, almonds, sesame seeds, and broccoli. But the fact is that plant-based calcium isn’t always a very concentrated source of the mineral, especially compared to dairy products. Therefore in case of calcium deficiency, food alone can not help, so taking calcium supplements can be a good option.

Zinc for Vegan Nutrition

Zinc is an important mineral that plays a crucial role in immunity, and growth, and helps in wound healing and tissue repair. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for zinc is 11mg for men and 8mg for women.

It is a very important nutrient that can be obtained naturally from Legumes (chickpeas, lentils, beans), nuts and seeds (pumpkin seeds), whole grains (oats, brown rice), tofu, and tempeh. Sometimes, zinc deficiency can delay the healing process, in such situations zinc supplements can be very helpful, zinc gluconate or zinc sulfate are good options.

Iron for Vegan Nutrition

Iron is considered to be the bodyguard of the body, it fights infection and builds the immune system. It is also essential for red blood cell formation and also helps in transporting oxygen throughout the body. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for iron— is 36mg for adult women up to 50 years old, and 16mg for adult men. Women over 50 only need 16mg per day.

Plant-based iron also known as non-heme iron, is less readily absorbed by the body compared to heme iron from animal products. It is advised by health professionals to consume vitamin C-rich foods alongside iron-rich foods, to enhance iron absorption. Iron can be obtained from Legumes (lentils, chickpeas, beans), tofu, quinoa, pumpkin seeds, leafy vegetables like spinach, and dried fruits (apricots, raisins). 

In severe iron deficiencies, supplements are recommended. However, iron supplements can cause constipation, so it is advised to stay hydrated.

Vitamin D for Vegan Nutrition

Vitamin D is a nutrient that is very important for bone health and proper functioning of immune function. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for vitamin D is set at 600IU per day for adults up to 70 years of age and bumps up to 800IU per day for anyone older than that. However, some health authorities assert that daily intakes should be closer to 1500-2000IU.

Meeting appropriate vitamin D levels is very challenging for those vegans living in areas with limited sunlight exposure. So, vitamin D can be naturally obtained from sunlight exposure (the skin synthesizes Vitamin D when exposed to UVB rays), fortified plant-based milk (soy, almond, oat), fortified cereals, and mushrooms exposed to UV light.

The most effective form of vitamin D is D3, So choose it if going for vitamin D supplements. But most of the D3 supplements are animal-based. So, for vegans, it is advised to make sure the supplement has been extracted strictly from plants, such as Nordic Naturals Vegan D3.

Omega 3 for Vegan Nutrition

Omega-3 fats are very beneficial in anti-inflammatory functions. These are also crucial for maintaining heart and brain health. ALA is a type of omega-3 found in plants and can convert to EPA and DHA, though the process is inefficient. EPA and DHA can easily be obtained from fatty fish but for vegans, it is not an option. So, vegans can obtain these nutrients from algal oil (a direct source of EPA and DHA) or from microalgae, chia seeds, flaxseeds and flaxseed oil, hemp seeds, and walnuts.

The fact is most of the food sources of EPA and DHA are animal-based, so for vegans or vegetarians, a supplement may be necessary.

Vegan Nutrition Guidelines

Adopting these guidelines will help all vegans or vegetarians maintain a balanced and nourishing vegan diet.

  • Eat a Variety of Foods- Make sure your diet includes different types of fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, nuts, and seeds. Focus on fresh and whole foods like whole grains and natural proteins.
  • Use Fortified Foods and Supplements- Some nutrients are hard to get from a vegan diet. Include fortified foods and take supplements for vitamin B12, vitamin D, Omega-3s (EPA and DHA), and possibly iodine and calcium if needed.
  • Choose Nutrient-Rich Foods- Pick whole, nutrient-rich foods over processed ones. Eat at least three servings daily of beans, tofu, tempeh, soy milk, veggie meats, peanuts, or peanut butter. Include a variety of fruits and vegetables, especially leafy greens, dark orange veggies, and vitamin C-rich foods like peppers and citrus fruits.
  • Get Healthy Fats and Calcium- Get most of your fats from healthy sources like nuts, nut butter, avocados, seeds, and oils. Make sure to include omega-3 fats from flax or chia seeds, canola oil, and walnuts. Eat three cups of calcium-rich foods daily, like fortified plant milk, fortified juices, calcium-set tofu, and cooked greens like kale and collards.
  • Stay Hydrated and Monitor Nutrients- Drink plenty of water throughout the day. Regularly check your nutrient levels with blood tests and adjust your diet as needed to stay healthy.

Vegan Nutrition Benefits

Adopting a vegan diet could prove to be extremely beneficial for individuals who may choose to follow it. The following are some benefits of a vegan diet:

Health Benefits of a Vegan Diet

  • Improved Kidney Function- Plant-based diets can decrease the risk of kidney disease by reducing the strain on kidneys, which is often a result of high animal protein consumption.
  • Better Digestion- High fiber intake helps in maintaining healthy gut microbiota and preventing digestive issues such as diverticulitis.
  • Rich in Nutrients- A balanced vegan diet is high in vitamins C and E, magnesium, potassium, folate, and fibers.
  • Weight Management- Many vegan foods are lower in calories and fat, which makes it easier to maintain a healthy weight. It also prevents overeating.
  • Heart Health- Plant-based diets are naturally cholesterol-free, which helps in reducing LDL cholesterol levels and lower the risk of heart disease.

Environmental Benefits of a Vegan Lifestyle

  • Energy Efficiency- By choosing plant-based options, vegans help conserve energy resources and reduce reliance on fossil fuels.
  • Conservation of Water Resources- By choosing plant-based foods instead of animal products, vegans contribute to the conservation of water resources. This is important as global water scarcity has become a pressing issue.
  • Reduction of Land Use- By consuming plant-based foods directly, vegans decrease the overall demand for land. This can reduce pressure on ecosystems and allow for reforestation efforts or the restoration of natural habitats.
  • Support for Sustainable Agriculture- Veganism advocates for sustainable agricultural practices such as organic farming, permaculture, and agroecology. These methods focus on soil health, biodiversity, and resource efficiency, which contributes to long-term environmental sustainability.
  • Reduced Greenhouse Gas Emissions- By abstaining from animal products, vegans significantly reduce their carbon footprint. This helps mitigate climate change and its impact.

Vegan Diet and Nutritional Deficiency

While there are many benefits to a vegan diet, there are some nutritional deficiencies that could affect a vegan’s lifestyle. Following are some nutritional deficiencies:

  • Vitamin B12- Vegans are at risk of deficiency if they don’t consume fortified foods (like fortified plant milk, cereals, and nutritional yeast) or take a B12 supplement. Deficiency can lead to fatigue, nerve damage, and anemia.
  • Calcium- Good vegan sources include fortified plant milks, fortified orange juice, tofu made with calcium sulfate, and leafy greens (like kale, and collard greens). Supplements may be necessary for those at risk of deficiency.
  • Iron- Consumption of iron-rich foods with vitamin C-rich foods (like citrus fruits, and bell peppers) could be beneficial for individuals with iron deficiency. Iron supplements may be needed for some individuals, especially menstruating women.
  • Vitamin D- Vitamin D is found in some fortified foods (like plant milks, and cereals). Vegans living in regions with limited sunlight may need a vitamin D supplement, as deficiency could lead to poor bone health and immune function.
  • Protein- While it’s possible to get enough protein on a vegan diet through sources like legumes, tofu, tempeh, nuts, and seeds, some individuals may need to pay attention to ensure adequate intake.
  • Zinc- Consumption of zinc-rich foods with whole grains and avoiding excessive intake of phytates (found in whole grains and legumes), which can inhibit zinc absorption. Zinc supplements may be necessary for some individuals.
  • Iodine- Vegans should ensure they consume iodized salt or sea vegetables (like seaweed) to maintain adequate iodine levels. Iodine supplements may be considered if intake is inadequate.

Going vegan is now a trend, but meeting the nutrient needs of the body should also be a trend! Going vegan is a fantastic choice, but it’s important to understand nutrition, and the key factor is to do it in the right way. Yes, plant-based diets are considered healthier and are good for the body, but they need to be balanced and diverse to provide the right amount of nutrients daily required for a healthy life. 

So, by keeping an eye on these key nutrients and planning the meals accordingly, all vegans or vegetarians can easily enjoy the benefits of a vegan diet without any of the downsides.

There’s a real need for a practical, evidence-based vegan nutrition guide for health pros. It was confirmed that individuals should regularly monitor their nutrient and protein intake and consult healthcare providers for personalized advice. Until then, we’re here to help with all the important knowledge you need!

For more information visit: https://gabapsychiatrist.com/

References

Virtual Psychiatrist
Fact Checked by
- Dr. Gundu Reddy
Scroll to Top