These Are The Key Nutrients to Consider on a Vegan Diet


Vegan diets are becoming more and more popular owing to their highly touted health benefits. There are so many unique reasons someone might choose to adopt a vegan lifestyle – from preventing cruelty to animals, environmental consideration, or simply looking to improve health by losing weight and reducing the risk of chronic disease. (1)

Vegan diets can be healthy for anyone of any age, including children, pregnant and lactating women, and the elderly. (2) Poorly constructed vegan diets, however, might predispose individuals to certain nutrient deficiencies. If you are following a vegan diet or thinking of doing so, there are some must-have vitamins for vegans that you should factor in.

8 essential nutrients for vegans

Here are 8 nutrients that you should consider supplementing with while on a vegan diet.

Vitamin B12

Due to an absence of animal and dairy products, vegans are at an increased risk of developing vitamin B12 deficiency. (3) Vitamin B12 is important for the health of your nervous system and the formation of oxygen-transporting red blood cells. Low levels of B12 can cause neurological issues and pernicious anemia, a reversible blood disorder that causes fatigue and difficulty thinking. (4) The daily recommended intake is 2.4 mcg per day for adults, 2.6 mcg per day during pregnancy and 2.8 mcg per day while breastfeeding. (4)

Did you know?
Vitamin B12 is a unique vitamin. Natural sources of this vitamin are only found in animal foods such as meat, poultry, fish, dairy products and eggs. (5)

Consuming foods fortified with B12 or taking a vitamin B12 supplement are the only proven reliable sources for vegans. (6) Some non-dairy milk and nutritional yeast products are fortified with it. But these fortified foods often contain low doses of this vitamin. (5) And if you’re not consuming them daily, you may not be getting enough!

All in all, it might be best to take a vitamin B12 supplement. Look for a daily supplement providing at least 10 mcg, or take a weekly supplement providing at least 2000 mcg. (6) This might seem like a lot of vitamin B12 in comparison to the daily recommended intake, however, only about 10 mcg of a 500mcg supplement is absorbed in healthy people, (7) so these recommendations are safe and will help to ensure that you are getting enough.

You might notice that supplements contain different types of vitamin B12. The best vitamin B12 supplement for vegans contains cyanocobalamin, mainly because it’s the most stable type. (6) If you’re wary about taking a supplement, it can be a good idea to talk to a healthcare professional and get your blood vitamin B12 levels checked before considering supplementing.

Iron

Iron has many important functions in your body. It helps to carry oxygen, helps cells work properly and is important for babies’ brains and nerve development. (9) With a diet rich in whole grains and legumes, vegans can consume similar amounts of iron as their meat-eating counterparts, however, issues with the bioavailability of plant-based iron might mean that vegans need to pay attention to ensuring that they are getting enough. (10)

Did you know?
Iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency in the world. (8)

The main source of iron in the vegan diet is found in the non-heme form, which the body cannot absorb as well as the heme iron found in animal products. (10) Additionally, some foods can reduce iron absorption. For example, commercial black teas contain substances that bind to dietary iron so it cannot be absorbed by the body. (11) For this reason, the iron need for vegetarians, including those following a vegan diet is 1.8 times non-vegetarians. (12)

kale in a pan with oil being poured on it

Kale, dried apricots and figs, raisins, quinoa, and fortified breakfast cereals are some foods that are a rich source of iron.

The recommended daily iron intake for adult males and post-menopausal women is 8mg per day. It increases to 18mg per day or adult women, and women who are pregnant should aim for 27mg per day. (11) Vegans with a low intake of iron should aim to eat more iron-rich foods such as beans, lentils, chickpeas, tofu, cashews, chia seeds, ground flax seeds, hemp seeds, kale, dried apricots and figs, raisins, quinoa, and fortified breakfast cereals. (13)

Did you know?
Cooking with cast-iron pots and pans, avoiding tea or coffee with meals and combining iron-rich foods with a source of vitamin C can help enhance iron absorption. (9)

Good sources of vitamin C include bell peppers, broccoli, cabbage, grapefruit, kiwi, pineapple and strawberry. (8)

It is not recommended to take iron supplements without first speaking with your health care practitioner. An unnecessary intake of iron supplements can do more harm than good. Excess iron intake can increase the risk for liver disease, heart attack, diabetes, and in some cases, can lead to premature death. (14)

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin. It is stored in the body’s fatty tissues. (15) Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium and phosphorus. Together, they work to maintain healthy bones and teeth. Vitamin D also helps your muscles, nerves and immune system work properly. (16) The daily recommended intake of vitamin D for adults is 600IU (15mcg). Adults over the age of 70 years should aim for 800IU (20mcg) per day. (15)

Whether following a vegan diet or not, it can be hard for anyone to get a daily vitamin D intake of 600IU. This is because vitamin D is naturally present in very few foods. (17) Vegan-friendly foods containing vitamin D include tofu and fortified plant-based beverages. Mushrooms can contain vitamin D as they are sometimes exposed to ultraviolet light. But it’s difficult to know if the mushrooms you’re eating have enough, and you’re probably not eating them every day. (18)

Besides the small amount of vitamin D you get from dietary sources, you can also get it from exposure to the sun.

Did you know?
A few minutes of sunlight directly on the skin of your face, arms, backs or legs (without sunscreen) can produce the body’s requirement for vitamin D, especially between the hours of 11 am and 3 pm.

However, that amount of vitamin D from sunlight exposure can vary from person to person. Because exposure to sunlight is a risk for skin cancer, prolonged exposure without sunscreen is not recommended. (15)

woman relaxing on couch

Vitamin D is made in the skin when it’s exposed to the sun’s UVB rays. Sun exposure is one way to boost vitamin D levels, particularly since it is not naturally found in many foods.

The best measure of your vitamin D status is to look at blood levels. Vegans unable to get enough vitamin D from sunshine or fortified foods should consider taking a supplement. When choosing a supplement, it’s important to know that not all types of vitamin D are vegan-friendly.

Vitamin D2 is always suitable for vegans, but vitamin D3 can be derived from animal sources (such as sheep’s wool). (17) Most studies seem to indicate that vitamin D3 may be more effective and more beneficial to your body than vitamin D2. (19) In recent years, many vegan-friendly vitamin D3 supplements have become available. They are made from lichen. (17)

More vitamin D is not always better. Vitamin D toxicity can result from excess consumption in the form of supplements – not from the sun or the diet. This is because the body can regulate the amount of vitamin D produced by the sun, and foods don’t contain enough vitamin D to cause toxicity. Vitamin D toxicity can cause a buildup of calcium in your blood, leading to nausea, vomiting, weakness and frequent urination. With prolonged over-consumption, symptoms can progress to bone pain and kidney problems, including the formation of calcium stones. (20) The safe upper limit for vitamin D is 4000IU per day for adults. (15)

Omega-3

Omega-3 fats are a type of polyunsaturated fat. These fats can help to lower your risk of heart disease. In infants, omega-3 fats are important for brain, nerve and eye development. Research is currently being done to see if omega-3 fats can help to lower the risk of cancer, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and depression. (21)

Your body does not make omega-3 fats on its own, therefore, you need to get them from your diet. Plant-based sources of omega-3 fats include ground flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, walnuts, chia seeds, canola oil, soybeans, and tofu. (22)

It is recommended that adults aim to consume 250mg of omega-3 fat, composed of EPA and DHA, each day. EPA and DHA are abundant if marine food sources, thus vegans consume almost none of these fats from natural sources. It is possible to supplement with vegan sources of EPA and DHA derived from microalgae (23).

Protein

Protein is an essential nutrient to keep you at your best! It helps give our body structure as it is a component of our muscles and bones. It’s also used for growth and repair, carrying oxygen and fighting infection. (24)

The Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) for protein intake is 0.8g per kilogram of body weight per day (or, around 0.36g per pound). (25) So, for someone who weighs 175lbs (~80kg), they would need to consume 63g of protein per day. However, the DRI for protein is only meant to prevent a protein deficiency, it’s not necessarily optimal.

Check out how to calculate your daily protein needs here.

The digestibility of plant-based protein, however, appears to be markedly less than that of animal products. For this reason, it has been suggested that vegan might need to consume more protein than their meat-eating counterparts to compensate for the poorer digestibility of plant-based sources. (26) Values of up to 1.0g/kg per day have been suggested; as an example, someone who weighs 175lbs (~80kg) would need to consume 80g of protein per day.

bowl of vegan friendly foods

The digestibility of plant-based protein sources might be lower than that of animal products. For this reason, vegans might need to consume slightly more protein than their meat-eating counterparts.

Did you know?
People often think that following a vegan diet means that it can be hard to get enough protein. Not true! There are many vegan sources of protein, including beans, peas, lentils, chickpeas, quinoa, tofu, nuts, and seeds. (27)

Meeting your protein needs on a vegan diet isn’t rocket science, but it takes a little effort, or at least a little forethought.

Calcium

Calcium is an important mineral for people of all ages. Your body uses calcium to build healthy bones and teeth. But did you also know that calcium is involved in your nervous system, blood clotting and controlling your muscle?

The daily recommended intake of calcium for adults is 1000mg. Women over the age of 50 years and adults over the age of 70 years should get 1200mg per day. (28) Plant-based sources of calcium include almonds, Brazil nuts, sunflower seeds, tahini, beans and green leafy vegetables such as broccoli, collards, kale, mustard greens, and bok choy. (28)

Data indicates that vegans tend to consume less calcium than omnivores and other vegetarians. (29) Vegans have been shown to have a higher risk of fracture due to lower calcium intakes. (30) If you’re following a vegan diet, you should ensure that you are eating enough calcium to reach the daily recommended intake of 1000mg.

A doctor or dietitian can help determine if calcium supplements are right. Calcium absorption from supplements is best when taken in amounts of no more than 500mg at a time. There are two commonly available forms of calcium dietary supplements: (28)

  • Calcium citrate is the more expensive form of the supplement. It is well absorbed by the body on a full or empty stomach.
  • Calcium carbonate is the less expensive form. It is better absorbed by the body when taken with food.

Calcium intake in excess of 2000mg per day for adults is not recommended. (31) Increased calcium intake over a prolonged period increases with the risk of kidney stones in some people. (28)

Zinc

Zinc is an important trace mineral that people need to stay healthy. Zinc helps to strengthen your immune system and plays a role in cell growth, wound healing and the breakdown of carbohydrates. (32)

The daily recommended intake of zinc is 8mg for adult females, and 11mg for adult males. Pregnant and lactating females require 11mg and 12mg per day respectively. (32)

Did you know?
Insufficient zinc intake can lead to developmental problems, hair loss, diarrhea and delayed wound healing.

Sources of zinc include beans, lentils, chickpeas, walnuts, cashews, chia seeds, ground flaxseeds, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, tofu, and quinoa. (33)

Zinc absorption from some of these foods may be limited due to their phytate content. For this reason, vegans are encouraged to aim for 1.5times the daily recommended intake. (34) Soaking nuts, seeds, and legumes overnight and consuming fermented foods like tempeh and miso can help to boost zinc absorption. (35)

bowl with soaked almonds in water

Soaking nuts, seeds, and legumes before consumption can help to break down phytic acid, which will help the body to better absorb nutrients such as zinc and iron.

Vegans concerned about their zinc intake may consider a supplement. Before taking zinc supplements, it is best to speak with your healthcare provider. Zinc can be harmful if too much is consumed. Zinc intake should not exceed 40mg per day from food and supplements.

Iodine

Iodine is an essential trace element that is needed for physical and mental growth and development. It also plays an important role in thyroid function. (36) The daily recommended intake of iodine for adults is 150mcg. Women who are pregnant should aim for 220mcg per day and women who are lactating should further increase their iodine intake to 290mcg per day. (37)

Vegan-friendly foods that are a reliable source of iodine include iodized salt and seaweed such as kelp. Iodized table salt provides 45 mcg in a ⅛-1/4 ounce portion. However, iodized salt may not be the best way to meet iodine intake as public health authorities recommend that we cut down on salt. (38)

Vegans may be at risk of iodine deficiency. Some studies report that vegans may have up to 50% lower blood iodine levels than vegetarians. (39) There is no easy way of knowing how much iodine is in plant foods. The amount of iodine in plant foods will vary depending on how much is in the soil that the plant is grown in. (40) Where iodine needs cannot be met through food alone, a supplement that meets the recommended daily intake of 150mcg might be advisable. (41)

The bottom line

A well-planned diet can meet all the nutrient needs of vegans. Some nutrients, however, might be harder to get enough of than others. Such is the case with vitamin B12, vitamin D, and omega-3.

If nutrient needs cannot be met through diet alone, dietary supplements are an option to explore. It’s best to speak with your healthcare provider before adding any supplements to your diet.

If you are a practitioner, consider signing up to Fullscript. If you are a patient, talk to your healthcare practitioner about Fullscript!

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