One of the most challenging aspects of eating a vegan diet is ensuring that all your nutrition needs are met despite eliminating major food groups from your diet. Following a vegan diet means cutting out all animal-based foods like meat, poultry, eggs and dairy. It can feel restrictive and also be unhealthy without the proper knowledge and resources at hand. Studies have shown that vegans tend to have lower intakes of vitamin B12, iron, calcium, vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids and zinc compared to nonvegetarians; therefore, it's important for vegans to identify vegan-friendly sources of these nutrients.
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Vitamin B12, found primarily in animal-derived foods, such as meat, fish and poultry, is essential for red blood cell production and neurological function. Low B12 levels often go undetected in vegans because high folate levels can mask deficiencies, so be sure to talk to your doctor about getting tested and possibly taking a supplement. A 2010 study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that 52 percent of vegans were vitamin B12 deficient.
Vegan foods to include for B12:
• Fortified breads, cereals and energy bars
• Fortified soy products (soy milk and faux meats)
• Fortified plant-based milks (soy, rice, almond, hemp and coconut)
• Nutritional yeast (a vegan-friendly seasoning with a cheesy flavor)
Iron is necessary for blood production, growth and development, metabolism and cellular functioning. Unfortunately for vegans and vegetarians, the type of iron found in plant-based foods (nonheme iron) isn't as easily absorbed as the iron found in meat (heme iron). Since the body can't use it as effeciently, vegans need more iron: the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for vegans is 1.8 times higher than for meat eaters. However, there are lots of yummy plant-based sources of iron that vegans can eat. So be sure to include enough plant-based sources of iron, and eat these foods together with vitamin C-rich foods to help with iron absorption.
Vegan foods to include for more iron:
• Dark leafy green vegetables (spinach, Swiss chard, collard greens and kale)
• Whole grains (quinoa, barley, bulgur and brown rice)
• Legumes, pulses, nuts and seeds (beans, peas and lentils)
• Dried fruit (peaches, prunes, apricots and raisins)
• Fortified cereals and rice
• Spirulina (powder made from microalgae)
Vegan foods high in vitamin C to increase iron absorption:
• Citrus fruits (oranges, grapefruit and lemons)
• Bell peppers
Bone health is a concern for vegans, since plant-based diets typically fall short of the recommended intakes for calcium and vitamin D. In fact, a 2010 study in the journal Public Health Nutrition showed that vegans had the lowest vitamin D levels, compared to vegetarians and nonvegetarians.
Vegan foods rich in calcium to include:
• Dark leafy greens (spinach, collard greens, bok choy, turnip and mustard greens)
• Fortified nondairy alternatives (soy, almond and coconut-based milk and yogurt)
• Fortified soy products (tofu, milk and yogurt)
• Fortified juices
• Beans (navy and white)
Vegan foods high in vitamin D to include:
• Fortified cereals and juices
• Fortified soy (milk and yogurt)
• Mushrooms (maitake and shiitake or UV-exposed white, cremini and portobello)
Without seafood in the diet, vegans struggle to get enough of the heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA. Plus, vegans' requirements for essential fatty acids may be higher than those for nonvegetarians because of the inefficient conversion of plant-based ALA into EPA and DHA.
Vegan foods to Include:
• Seeds (chia, ground flaxseed and hemp)
• Sea vegetables and microalgae
Zinc plays an important role in many cellular functions, including the immune system, wound healing, and growth and development. The high phytate content (found in grains, legumes and seeds) of vegan diets decreases zinc absorption, making it that much more important for vegans to include food sources of zinc in their diets. Try soaking and sprouting beans and grains to reduce their phytate content and maximize zinc absorption.
Vegan foods to Include:
• Whole grains and fortified cereals
• Soy (tofu, tempeh)