“It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.”
The American Dietetic Association
Planning Healthy Vegan Diets
What does a plant-based diet consist of?
A whole-food plant-based diet is centered on whole, unrefined or minimally refined plants, consisting of fruits, vegetables, tubers, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes. It excludes all animal products such as flesh, dairy products, eggs and honey.
Here is a quick guide to meeting nutrient needs on vegan diets:
Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables (in abundance):
Fruits and veggies are the only good sources of certain nutrients and they are packed with antioxidants, which may reduce disease risk. Eat both cooked and raw vegetables since both have benefits.
A good choice of non-starchy vegetables are leafy greens, courgettes, aubergines, green beans, tomatoes, peppers, and cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, kale, broccoli, Brussel sprouts or red cabbage.
Your diet should include foods rich in beta carotene (precursor to vitamin A) such as butternut squash, carrots, leafy greens, sweet potatoes, pumpkins and red peppers.
Starchy vegetables consist of potatoes (high in lysine), sweet potatoes, legumes, beans, lentils, peas, corn, etc.
Eat whole fruits as found in nature (limit dried and juiced fruit as they are high in sugar content).
Go for whole grains:
Eating a minimum of 5 servings a day or so is helpful for meeting iron and zinc requirements (include a serving or two of whole grain bread leavened with yeast to improve zinc and iron absorption). They are also good sources of protein and fibre.
Soaking the grains in water overnight or for a few hours will improve digestibility.
Eat at least 3 to 4 servings of legumes every day
Legumes include beans, lentils, soyfoods and peanuts and are the richest sources of protein among plant foods.
A serving of legumes is just ½ cup of cooked beans, tofu or tempeh, 1 cup of soymilk, 1 oz of veggie meat, or 2 tbsp peanut butter.
Read more on protein requirements.
Aim for daily requirements of calcium
Vegans should aim for the RDA of 1,000mg of calcium.
To do so, try to eat 6 to 8 servings of foods that provide about 100 to 150 milligrams each of well-absorbed calcium.
Calcium is abundant in a wide range of vegetables, mainly the low-oxalate green vegetables such as broccoli, bok choi, kale, watercress, dandelion, mustard, etc. Other great sources are dried fruit, almonds and tahini (sesame paste). You can eat:
- ½ cup firm tofu fortified with calcium-sulfate,
- ½ cup fortified soymilk or other plant milks,
- 2 tbsp almond butter or tahini,
- ½ cup cooked kale, bok choy, turnip, collard or mustard greens,
- ½ cup fortified juice,
- 2 navel oranges,
- 1 tbsp blackstrap molasses.
You can take a low-dose calcium supplement along with calcium-rich foods, but try to get most of your calcium from food.
Supplement with B12 or eat B12-rich foods
Cobalamin or vitamin B12 is the only nutrient vegans cannot obtain directly from food or sunlight. It is made by microorganisms, bacteria and fungi. Plants and animals cannot synthetise B12, but because animals do not wash their food before eating it, they ingest these microorganisms.
Recommended intake via fortified foods is 2.4mcg per day for adult men and women (2.6 for pregnancy and 2.8 for lactation). You can easily meet these recommendations by eating nutritional yeast fortified in vitamin B12 and fortified plant-based milks, cereals and or other products.
You can also take a B12 supplement that meet your daily needs (available at most health food stores).
If you do not take fortified foods or supplement, you will get a deficiency, which can lead to irreversible neurological damage.
Note that sea vegetables, algae, spirulina and chlorella act as vitamin B12 analogues and can promote deficiency. Because they look like the vitamin, they can attach themselves to your B12 receptors and take up space where real B12 should be.
Supplement with Vitamin D if you do not live in a sunny climate
Normally, skin produces vitamin D when exposed to sunlight (mostly 10am to 2pm). If you live in a sunny and warm climate and you spend time outdoors, chances are you are not deficient in vitamin D but if you do not go out during these hours, or if you live farther away from the equator, you will need to take a supplement, whether you are vegan, vegetarian or omnivore.
Vitamin D is essential for maintaining blood levels of calcium and phosphorous, and supporting the cardiovascular system, among other things. A deficiency in vitamin D amplifies the risk for many chronic diseases. A simple blood test will determine whether you have a deficiency or not.
We recommend Vitashine, from Vegetology, 2500iu tablets. Vitashine is registered by the Vegan Society (UK) and produces vitamin D3 which is much more absorbable than vitamin D2. As it is a fat soluble vitamin, take it with foods containing oil.
Supplement with iodine
Like vitamin B12 and D, iodine is an extremely important mineral for the good functioning of our body, especially the endocrine system.
Iodine deficiency is a global public health concern. Characteristics include cretinism and goiter (malfunction of the thyroid). Brain damage occurs when iodine deficiency happens in fetal or early childhood years. Iodine is closely tied with thyroid function so when intake is low, production of thyroid hormones slows down.
The RDA for adults is 150mcg per day, although recent research suggests this is way too low. Iodine is hard to find in food because it varies widely in soil, so it is an unreliable source in plant foods. Sea vegetables can contain too little or too much. Iodine is present only in iodized salt (not in sea salt, table salt, himalayan salt unless stated on the packaging). Living near the sea shore does not provide the amount of iodine we need.
You can add sea vegetables to your meals several times a week (kelp or kombu is one of the best sources), take a kelp supplement (available at most health food stores), take a multivitamin that contains iodine. This supplement called Detoxadine is also highly recommended (a bit pricy but lasts a long time).
Getting enough omega 3 fatty acids
The long-chain omega 3 fats, DHA and EPA, are commonly associated with fish oils, but can be obtained on a vegan diet, even though it takes a bit of preparation to have them on our diet. We can manufacture DHA and EPA via the consumption of ALA sources (alpha-linolenic acid) but this process is sometimes not so straight forward. To be on the safe side, we do recommend that vegans take a vegan supplement such as Opti3, from Vegetology providing 200 to 300mg of DHA (or DHA/DPA combined) a few times a week.
To maximise your ability to convert ALA into EPA/DHA, avoid trans-fatty acids, minimise your intake of omega6 fatty acids and avoid excess consumption of alcohol or caffeine since they have a direct impact on the ability to convert ALA into EPA/DHA (more information on the video section below).
Include good sources of ALA in your diet. The richest are:
- chia seeds,
- ground flaxseed,
- flaxseed oil (use uncooked),
- hempseed oil (use uncooked),
- green leafy land and sea vegetables,
- rapeseed oil.
Increase your intake of omega 3 and limit your intake of omega6, that can be found in:
- corn oil (and corn kernel),
- grapeseed oil,
- sunflower oil and seeds,
- pumpkin oil and seeds,
- soybeans and soybean oil,
- sesame oil and seeds.
That is vegan nutrition in a nutshell. We have covered the basics, and you can learn more about it with the books and the videos listed below.
Update on vegan nutrition, by Vesanto Melina.
This 40min video covers plant-based diets and protein, iron, vitamin B12, carbohydrates, soy, and health.
Becoming Vegan, Express Edition: The Everyday Guide to Plant-based Nutrition
The completely revised edition of a seminal classic offers fresh insights on the treatment of animals in food production and other industries, the latest findings on the health benefits of a vegan diet, expanded information on phytochemicals, and a thoroughly updated food guide.
This streamlined “express” version is extensive in scope, yet manageable for anyone who wants to easily understand how to construct a nutritionally balanced plant-based diet.
Here are the latest findings on: using plant foods to protect against cancer, heart disease, and other chronic illnesses; obtaining essential protein without meat, eggs, or dairy products; discovering “good” fats and where to find them; meeting dietary needs for calcium without dairy products; understanding the importance of vitamin B12; designing balanced vegan diets for infants, children, and seniors; and making the most of vegan pregnancy and breast-feeding.
Readers will find a sound blueprint to follow for better health for themselves and the planet.