Does thinking about the topic of vegan nutrition fill you with uncertainty?
If so, you are not alone.
Nutrition for vegans seems to be one of the biggest assumed obstacles, whether you are 100% vegetarian or considering checking it out. But you may be surprised to learn it is easier than you think. Let's chat about this topic for a bit...
When hubby Jeff and I went vegan back in 1994, the LAST thing I thought about was whether I was meeting my nutritional needs.
Because I never gave my nutrition a second thought before I went vegetarian, so why now would I go on "high alert" just because I went 100% plant-based?
It was only when people starting peppering me with questions like "Where do you get your protein?" and "If you don't drink milk, where will you get your calcium?" that I began to wonder about it all.
And if you have landed on this page, you are likely 100% vegetarian (or non-vegetarian thinking about it) and wonder if you can meet your nutritional needs if you go down this path.
I can say with certainty that you can meet your nutrition needs with a plant-based whole foods diet -- and it's WAY easier than you might think.
The Dietary Guidelines
The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services join forces to put together yearly dietary guidelines.
One glaring recommendation in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for America has to do with the elimination of cholesterol from your diet as found in Chapter 1: Key Elements of Healthy Eating Patterns...
Research on Dietary Cholesterol
"The body uses cholesterol for physiological and structural functions but makes more than enough for these purposes. Therefore, people do not need to obtain cholesterol through foods.
"As recommended by the IOM [Institute of Medicine] individuals should eat as little dietary cholesterol as possible while consuming a healthy eating pattern."
"Strong evidence from mostly prospective cohort studies but also randomized controlled trials has shown that eating patterns that include lower intake of dietary cholesterol are associated with reduced risk of CVD [Cardiovascular Disease], and moderate evidence indicates that these eating patterns are associated with reduced risk of obesity."15
Furthermore, the USDA and the US Department of Health and Human Services came out with a Healthy Vegetarian Eating Pattern of their normal food recommendations in the USDA 2015 Dietary Guidelines to give an example of healthy eating patterns that can be adapted based on cultural or personal preferences. "This Pattern can be vegan if all dairy choices are comprised of fortified soy beverages (soymilk) or other plant-based dairy substitutes."16
*Note: The 2015 Guidelines are the current Federal policy until the 2020 Dietary Guidelines are published.
So Can Our Diet Provide The Vegan Nutrition We Need?
Well, yes and no.
Overall, YES. As long as you are eating a well-balanced diet which includes whole foods like vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and healthy fats, then you will be on your way to meeting your nutritional needs. But...
There are 5 topics about nutrition that I believe all Vegans should pay special attention to and we'll cover these below...
At least 2,500 mcg (Âµg) cyanocobalamin once each week, ideally as a chewable, sublingual, or liquid supplement;
-OR- at least 250 mcg daily of supplemental cyanocobalamin (you needn't worry about taking too much);
-OR- servings of B12-fortified foods three times a day, each containing at least 25% U.S. "Daily Value" on its label.(Those over 65 years of age should take at least 1,000 mcg (Âµg) cyanocobalamin every day.)Courtesy of NutritionFacts.org Optimum Nutrition Recommendations.
But with more and more people moving away from eating fish due to mercury contamination, and since vegans and vegetarians do not eat fish, it is important to understand where you will get your EPA/DHA. In fact, this is a topic that many vegans simply don't know about, so you will be ahead of the curve if you learn all you can about it now.
When we eat foods rich in Alpha-Linolenic Acid (LNA), an essential fatty acid found in foods such as flax and hemp seeds, walnuts, and soy (organic!), our bodies then can convert this LNA to EPA and DHA.
BUT, some of us can perform this internal conversion easily; others have some challenges making this conversion. So if someone is deficient in DHA/EPA, this could mean their body is not converting properly, or they are simply not ingesting enough of the raw materials to make this conversion. If you are eating enough flax and hemp seeds, walnuts, and soy, then consuming excess hoping it will cause more conversion than normal may or may not work - either your body converts efficiently or it doesn't.
Fortunately, we have a safety net: Plant-based vegan EPA/DHA supplements which contain these readily-available long-chain fatty acids. They are a little spendy, but some of us out here feel it is worth the cost.
The one that I feel will give you the most bang for your buck is called Opti3, which is what Jeff and I use; it is made by the same people who created VPure and they usually have a fabulous 3-for-2 deal.
If you are concerned about your own conversion from LNA to EPA/DHA, I recommend you supplement your diet. And please continue to research this vast and complex topic as you see fit.
Do your research to find the best sources of calcium for vegans. These include foods like some dark green leafies (especially kale and collard greens), many beans and grains, mosts nuts and seeds, and more.
Why is it such a challenge for most Americans to get the Vitamin D we need? Because we spend SOOOOO much time indoors so we are not getting the sunlight we need in order for our bodies to make Vitamin D. Furthermore, when we DO go out in the sun, so many slather themselves with sunscreen, which causes further challenges. And of course, in the cloudy, colder, winter months we rarely get any sun at all. :-/
Now, in the summer months, it has always been thought that as long as we get 15 minutes of sun per day, our bodies can manufacture the Vitamin D we need. However, due to the hole in the ozone layer, we are not necessarily getting the ideal rays we need from the sun in order for our bodies to actually manufacture Vitamin D. So whether it is the warm summer months or the cloudy, cold, winter months we are smart to supplement our diet with Vitamin D.
Besides eating foods fortified with Vitamin D, you can also supplement your diet, which I highly recommend. Vitamin D supplements come in two forms, D3 and D2. The D3 form (also known as Cholecalciferol) is usually extracted from lanolin found in sheep's wool, or made from fish oil - most are animal-based, but you can find some that are plant-based. The D2 form (also known as Ergocalciferol) is manufactured from fungi, so it is always plant-based.
I love this article by Brenda Davis, RD, that explains the topic of Vitamin D so succinctly.
Again, do your research and come to your best conclusions as to whether you should supplement with Vitamin D, and which form you will use.
So choline really should not be a problem for most vegans as long as you are eating a well-balanced diet. Because if you are, then you will be eating nuts, all sorts of veggies and fruits, lentils and beans, whole grains, and seeds, which as you just learned are sources of choline.
And this just points out how VITAL it is to eat a well-balanced diet. Because you just never know when some new fangled nutrient will be discovered. As long as you are eating from the major vegan food groups on a daily and weekly basis, you should be getting the nutrients you need, paying special attention to the additional points I mentioned above (Vitamin B12, EPA/DHA, Vitamin D, and calcium).
More Vegan Nutrition Tips
It is so easy to eat a plant-strong diet that you may wonder what all the fuss and confusion is about. So here are just a few things to keep in mind as you go along on your vegan adventure:
The biggest thing I hope you'll walk away with is that vegan nutrition isn't this big and scary dark place where you have to watch your every move or you could slip up and find yourself withering away forever.
But you have to be proactive. And you have to be smart. Be sure to eat from your main food groups every day, just as you always have (perhaps unknowingly) when you were eating a non-vegetarian diet. Follow the advice I've laid out here for you.
I wish you all the best on your plant-strong adventure. It's one of the most important decisions I've ever made, and one of the few things in my life I've ever been ENTIRELY sure of. :)
How To Figure Out Nutrients From Any Given Food
Now, the following information might be "overkill", but if you want to learn the major nutrients you get from any specific basic and natural whole foods that should make up the majority of your diet, then you should like what comes next...
You can use this tool to help you along: World's Healthiest Foods
To use this tool, simply click on the food you'd like to investigate. It will take you to a screen like the one below with information about the greatest nutrients you'll gain from eating this food.
I clicked on broccoli as an example. As you'll see, broccoli is high in Vitamins C and K, among many other fabulous nutrients.
But if you want to delve even further and view the ENTIRE CONTENTS OF THE NUTRITIONAL DATA FOR THIS FOOD then you're just one click away.
Here's how: Scroll towards the bottom of this first page you've arrived at (in this example, the broccoli page). You'll see this...
Now, do you see the little link that says "In-Depth Nutritional Profile for Broccoli"? Click on it and...
Voila! There is the in-depth information you're looking for...
For example, in reviewing broccoli's nutritional profile we discover that broccoli is a wonderful source of folate and Beta carotene, but not such a good source of Vitamin D.
Play around with it -- there's a LOT of information contained within the pages of that site that you should find useful.
"Might this be a tad bit overkill, Sass?"
Naaaaah, not for us food nerds. :)