A well-formulated vegan diet is successful in meeting all the nutrient requirements of almost anyone, at nearly any age group. With a bit of knowledge and effort, getting all the nutrients you need through a well-planned vegan diet is not only possible but also delicious, simple and healthy.
Some of the most common challenges that you might experience on a vegan diet include getting sufficient protein, B12 and calcium. A healthy diet focused on vegetables, legumes, nuts & seeds, fruits, complex carbohydrates, combined with some fortified foods or targeted supplementation will easily satisfy all your nutrient needs.
Vegans need the same macronutrients anyone else would. An appropriate balance of carbohydrates, fats and protein is important for overall health. Typically, around 40-60% carbohydrates, 20-30% protein and 15-35% fat is recommended, depending on your activity level and nutritional needs.
Most foods contain at least some amount of protein. Whole grains, beans, legumes, soy, nuts, and seeds all provide protein in varying amounts. By eating a variety of plant-based foods, a vegan diet can meet and exceed the recommended protein intakes of 0.9 grams per kilogram of body weight. For those who are highly active, more protein is necessary to support activity levels.
Plant-Based Protein Options:
- ½ cup chickpeas: 7 g
- ½ cup lentils: 9 g
- ½ cup black beans: 8 g
- ½ cup firm tofu: 10 g
- 1 cup wild rice, cooked: 7 g
- 1 cup quinoa, cooked: 8 g
- ¼ cup almonds: 7.4 g
- 1 medium orange: 1.2 g
- 1 cup broccoli: 2.6 g
Most plant foods contain all 9 of the essential amino acids but the proportions of them vary resulting in them being considered incomplete. Your body is capable of combining complementary incomplete proteins when eaten within 24 hours of each other, however purposely combining them is unnecessary.
B12 is the only vitamin that is not recognized as being readily available from whole, plant-based foods and sun exposure. It is very important that all vegans make sure they have an adequate intake of B12 which can be achieved through a combination of B12 supplementation and B12 fortified foods.
Vitamin B12 is a key nutrient needed for red blood formation, neurological function and DNA synthesis. Most people require approximately 2.4 mcg of vitamin B12 per day.
Vitamin B12 Fortified Foods:
- 2 tablespoon fortified large flake nutritional yeast: 8 mcg
- 1 cup fortified soy milk: 3 mcg
- 1 cup fortified almond milk: 1.1 mcg
- 1 cup Fortified rice beverage: 1.0 mcg
EPA & DHA
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for brain health, nutrient absorption and overall optimal health. They also have a healing effect in the body and have powerful anti-inflammatory properties. A lack of omega-3 in the diet can cause brain damage, depression, auto-immune disease, poor digestive health, mood imbalances and more.
The RDA is for overall omega-3 fatty acids and there is no recommended daily amount for eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Studies have recommended 1000 mg per day of DHA and 220 mg per day of EPA whilst the American Heart Foundation recommends adults consume 500 mg of DHA and EPA combined per day
On a vegan diet an important concern is getting DHA and EPA fatty acids rather than omega-3 in general which is easily obtained through getting sufficient ALA (alpha-linoleic acid) from plants. The body does convert some ALA into EPA and DHA however it’s not an efficient process and it is still necessary to obtain DHA and EPA through your diet. Studies have also shown that too much omega-6 blocks the conversion of omega-3.
Vegans can supplement with algae-based products that contain DHA and EPA, in combination eating omega-3 rich foods
Omega 3 Rich Foods
- Nuts & Seeds including Flaxseed, Walnuts, Hemp Seeds and Chia Seeds
- Seaweed Such As Spirulina And Wakame
- Winter Squash
- Cauliflower, Broccoli and Brussel Sprouts
- Leafy Greens
- Berries and Mangos
- Wild Rice
Many plant foods are naturally high in iron. The recommended daily intake of iron is 14.4-32.4 mg but there are many factors that can affect your body's ability to absorb the iron, so it can be difficult to know how much of your daily intake is actually utilized by your body.
You can improve iron absorption by:
- Eating vitamin C-rich foods such as bell peppers, broccoli, cabbage, oranges, strawberries, kiwi, camu camu, pineapple, Brussel’s sprouts and grapefruit with meals
- Avoiding tea and coffee at meals as they can reduce absorption
- Eating more legumes such as peanuts, beans, lentils and peas
- Cooking in a cast iron skillet
- Eat sprouted grains and seeds
- Soak beans before use
- Eating fermented foods
- 1 medium baked potato: 1.7 mg
- ½ cup chickpeas: 2.4 mg
- ½ cup cooked lentils: 3.3 mg
- ¼ cup almonds: 1.4 mg
- 2 tablespoon flax seed: 1.9 mg
- ¼ cup pumpkin seeds: 5.2 mg
Calcium is not too difficult to get in a vegan diet but it’s important to be aware of it and make sure you’re consuming plenty of calcium-rich foods Calcium, along with vitamin D, is an important nutrient for bone health.
Calcium is also essential for muscle and heart function, blood flow, nerve impulses, enzyme reactions and more.
The recommended daily intake of calcium is 1000mg for men and women aged 19-50. It's important to note that an adequate intake of vitamin D is essential for proper calcium absorption.
Foods Containing Calcium:
- ½ cup kale: 90 mg
- ½ cup chickpeas: 40 mg
- ¼ cup almonds: 79-115 mg
- 5 figs: 88-137 mg
- 1 medium orange: 52 mg
- 1 tablespoon blackstrap molasses: 176 mg
Few plant foods naturally contain vitamin D. Getting adequate vitamin D can be challenging during the winter months, especially if you are in the Northern hemisphere. For sufficient vitamin D absorption, just 10-45 minutes of unprotected sun exposure to the face and arms can provide enough of the precursors to vitamin D to be converted into vitamin D. It may also be necessary to eat vitamin D2 fortified foods or to take a vitamin D supplement. Choose plant-sourced vitamin D2 in fortified foods and supplements (vitamin D3 is animal derived). The recommended daily intake for vitamin D is 800 IU.
Vitamin K plays a role in blood clotting, bone and brain health and kidney function. It is easily found in a vegan diet, provided you are eating plenty of fruits and vegetables. Vitamin K comes in two different varieties. Vitamin K1 is the primary, natural form of vitamin K obtained through plants and vitamin K2 is produced by intestinal bacteria. K2 is particularly important for its role in bone health as it helps to shuttle calcium around the body to be utilized as needed.
Since bacteria produce vitamin K2 in your gut, it is important to include fermented foods in your diet to promote healthy gut flora. Vitamin K is also fat-soluble and adding a source of healthy fat when you eat vitamin K rich foods is necessary for optimal absorption. A small amount of nuts, seeds or avocado with meals should do the trick.
Vitamin K Rich Foods
- Naturally Fermented Foods (Sauerkraut, Kimchi, fermented Vegetables, Natto)
- Cruciferous Vegetables (Broccoli, Cabbage, Brussel’s Sprouts)
- Leafy Greens (Spinach, Chard, Kale)
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What About Supplements?
Eating a healthy, balanced vegan diet including a wide range of foods with enough calories to support your activity level should ensure you’re getting enough protein, iron and calcium.
Eating a nutrient-rich diet is important, but it is very important to include reliable sources of vitamin B12, vitamin D, and iodine in your diet. This can easily be achieved with a mix of fortified foods, vitamin B12, vitamin D2, and kelp supplements. A good vegan multivitamin will help fill cover any deficiencies, especially on those days when you may not eat as well as you should be.
You shouldn’t have to take much in the way of supplements but it is always best to work with your medical professional to determine what you may need.