Plant-based eating is becoming more and more popular, and for good reason. Following a plant-based diet can have significant benefits for your health and the health of the planet.
Even if you're just starting to incorporate more plant-based foods and haven't completely switched over to a fully vegan diet, there are some nutrients that plant-based foods lack and that are important to make sure you get as you drop the animal products.
The term "plant-based diet" is one that emphasizes vegetables, beans, peas, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and seeds and that does not include any animal products.
Many animal products contain concentrated, complete sources of protein as well as other nutrients not found in plant foods. If you are trying a plant-based diet, you may get too little of:
- A complete source of protein
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin D3
- Essential Amino Acids Lysine and Methionine
Supplements commonly recommended for vegans are B12, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D3, zinc, iodine, calcium, and iron. You can also get important nutrients from your diet. Here's how.
Many people who start a vegetarian or vegan diet think that they are not getting enough protein, but that is not necessarily true.
Protein is made from chains of amino acids. Some amino acids can be made by the body and some, known as "essential" amino acids, need to be eaten since the body cannot make them.
Essential amino acids help muscle production, tissue repair, immunity, and hormone production. Animal products are complete proteins containing all the essential amino acids, whereas plant foods contain only some so are incomplete proteins.
Vegans should eat a variety of sources throughout the day to get a complete range of essential amino acids.
Great plant sources of protein are soy products such as tofu, tempeh, soy milk, and soybeans. Soy is the only plant food considered to be a complete (containing all essential amino acids) protein.
Seitan, or wheat gluten, is also a good source of protein if you are able to eat gluten. Nuts, seeds, grains, and vegetables all contain protein, too.
Although each of us varies with the amount of protein we need to eat, dietary guidelines recommend that 10 to 30 percent of your daily calories come from protein, or about 0.3 to 0.5 grams per pound of ideal body weight. For vegans, since plant proteins are harder to digest, the recommendation is to eat the higher end of the range.
Make sure to get enough of the essential amino acids Methionine (from soy, sunflower seeds, peanuts, and whole wheat) and Lysine (from soy, pistachios, cashews, quinoa, lentils, and whole wheat) since these are only found in small quantities in other plant foods.
2. Vitamin B12
The recommended intake of vitamin B12 is 2.4 micrograms per day.
Vitamin B12 is needed for red blood cell formation and nerve and brain function. Because it comes mostly from animal products, vegans must get B12 by taking supplements, eating enriched food products (soy, cereals, or meat substitutes), or eating nori seaweed.
The recommended intake ranges from 1.6 grams for men to 1.1 grams per day for women.
DHA is an omega-3 fatty acid needed for brain and nerve health. The vegan source is microalgae and sea vegetable or algal oil supplements.
DHA can be made in the body from the omega-3 fatty acid ALA, found in flaxseed, flaxseed oil, chia seeds, and walnuts; however, the conversion in the body from ALA to DHA is not efficient, so many vegans are deficient in DHA.
Iron needs vary with age and sex, from 8 to 18 milligrams per day and premenopausal women need the most iron.
Plant-based foods high in iron include cruciferous vegetables, beans, peas, dried fruit, nuts, seeds, and iron-fortified foods such as cereals and enriched breads.
You can also boost absorption of iron by pairing it with foods that contain vitamin C (oranges, lemons, broccoli, red peppers, potatoes) and acidic foods such as vinegars, lemon, lime, or orange juice.
5. Vitamin D
The recommended intake is 600 IU for adults and 800 IU for seniors per day.
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin found mainly in fatty fish and dairy. It's important for bone strength and immune function. Vitamin D comes in two forms — D3 is only found in animal products and a less potent form, D2, comes from plants.
Plant-based sources of vitamin D include certain fortified cereals and wild mushrooms. But these contain small amounts so should be eaten regularly or supplemented with a vitamin.
D3 is also produced in the body from UV sunlight, but UV exposure also carries risks to our skin and health.
The recommended intake is 8 to 11 milligrams per day.
Zinc is important for cell metabolism, immunity, and wound healing. Plant-based sources include cashews, almonds, dark chocolate, chickpeas, kidney beans, wheat germ, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, oatmeal, tofu, tempeh, and fortified breakfast cereals.
The recommended intake is 150 micrograms per day.
Iodine is needed for thyroid function and regulating metabolism. Plant-based sources of iodine include iodized salt, seaweed, and kelp or a sea vegetable supplement.
The recommended intake is 1,000 to 1,200 milligrams per day.
Calcium is needed for vascular, muscle, and nerve function and healthy bones. Although there is less calcium in plant sources than dairy products, calcium from many plants is better absorbed.
Good absorbable plant calcium sources include tofu (made with calcium sulfate), Chinese cabbage, bok choy, collards, turnip and mustard greens, kale, white beans, figs, and molasses.
Many other factors affect how calcium is absorbed. Salt, caffeine, alcohol, soda, and tobacco impede calcium absorption. Vitamins D, K1, K2, and magnesium aid absorption.
A plant-based diet can be healthy and sustainable if you're conscious about getting the nutrients above. Eating plenty of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains is key to fulfilling your nutritional needs.
For example, a daily diet consisting of ¼ cup nuts or ½ cup seeds, 1 cup of beans or lentils, and a serving of soy or veggie burger several times during the day would provide the nutrients you need.
This might sound a bit monotonous, but you'd be amazed at how many combinations of beautiful and colorful plant-based foods you can create that will keep things lively and delicious. Do a little research, shop at your local farmers market, and get creative with your recipes!