A balanced, well-planned vegan diet will successfully meet the nutrient requirements of almost anyone, at nearly any age group. There are many misconceptions about vegan diets but the truth is, a healthy vegan diet can provide all the energy you need.
Some of the most common questions regarding veganism are nutrition related: "Where do vegans get protein?" "How do vegans get B12?" "Where do vegans get calcium if they don't drink milk?" A healthy diet full of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts & seeds, complex carbohydrates, and some fortified foods or a multi-vitamin are all a vegan needs to satisfy their nutritional requirements.
Almost all foods contain at least a small amount of protein. Whole grains, beans, legumes, soy, nuts, and seeds are all great sources of protein. A simple peanut butter and banana sandwich on 2 slices of whole grain bread contains 18-22g of protein. By eating a variety of plant based foods, a vegan diet can meet and exceed recommended protein intakes. For someone following a predominantly plant based diet, it is recommended to have an intake of 0.9 grams per kilogram of body weight. It should be noted that very active people may require more protein to support their level of activity.
RDI: 0.9 grams of protein per kg of weight
Plant-based protein sources:
- ½ cup chickpeas: 7 g
- ½ cup lentils: 9 g
- ½ cup firm tofu: 10 g
- 1 cup quinoa, cooked: 8g
- ¼ cup almonds: 7.4 g
- 1 whole grain bagel: 12 g
- 2 slices sprouted grain bread: 14 g
- 1 whole wheat English muffin: 8 g
- 1 cup soy milk: 8-12g
- 1 medium orange: 1.2 g
- 1 cup broccoli: 2.6 g
- 1 scoop vegan protein powder: 10-25 g
Complete & Incomplete Proteins: Is combining incomplete proteins necessary?
Complete proteins contain the correct proportion of the 9 essential amino acids which are necessary for humans dietary needs. Nearly all plant foods contain all 9 of the essential amino acids but the proportions of them vary so most are considered incomplete. Our bodies can combine complementary incomplete proteins when eaten within 24 hours of each other, however purposefully combining them is unnecessary. Consuming virtually any single plant food (excluding fruit) will provide enough of each essential amino acid to fulfill human requirements if their caloric needs are met. Basically, as long as you're consuming enough energy a.k.a eating enough calories, it's virtually impossible to be deficient in any of the amino acids.
Many plant foods are naturally high in iron, and there are a lot packaged foods such as cereals, meat substitutes, and commercial breads that are fortified with additional iron. 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. Some ways that you can help to increase iron absorption are:
- Cook in stainless steel or cast-iron cookware
- Consume iron containing foods with vitamin C containing foods
- Eat sprouted grains and seeds
- Soak beans before use
- Choose roasted nuts over raw nuts
- Eating fermented foods
The recommended daily intake of iron is 14.4-32.4 mg.
RDI: 14.4-32.4 mg iron
Foods naturally containing iron:
- 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
Foods fortified with iron:
- veggie burger patty: 3.6 mg
- plain instant oatmeal: 4.5 mg
- fortified breakfast cereal: 4.5 mg
- fortified soy milk: 0.8 mg
Including enough calcium in a vegan diet can be achieved either by eating a balanced diet full of nutrient dense foods, by incorporating calcium fortified foods, or by taking a supplement. Many commercial foods such as soy milks, tofu, juices, cereals and bread products are enriched with calcium, just be sure to read the nutrition labels. 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.
RDI: 1000mg calcium (men & women aged 19-50)
Foods naturally 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
(for comparison - 1 cup 2% dairy milk: 135mg calcium)
Calcium fortified foods:
- ½ cup calcium set firm tofu: 860 mg
- 1 cup fortified orange juice: 230 mg
- 1 whole grain bagel: 200 mg
- 1 whole wheat English muffin: 200 mg
- 1 cup fortified soy milk: 300 mg
Vitamin B12 is created by bacteria and fungi. Many vegan sources of vitamin B12 are destroyed by sterilization practices and cleanliness standards in food production. Because of this, vegans must rely on fortified foods or supplements to get the required amounts of B12. Our bodies are very efficient at reusing B12; of the B12 used by our bodies, about 65-75% of B12 is reabsorbed into our bodies. People can live for years without any dietary source of B12, however all vitamins are vital to your health and it's extremely important to make sure to include a reliable source them in your diet. Most people require approximately 2.4 mcg of vitamin B12 per day.
RDI: 2.4 mcg Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 fortified foods:
- 2 tablespoon fortified large flake nutritional yeast: 8 mcg
- 1 cup fortified soy milk: 3 mcg
- 1 veggie burger: 1.4 mcg
- 1 veggie dog: 1.5 mcg
- ½ cup corn flakes: 1.5 mcg
Few foods naturally contain vitamin D. During the darker winter months, getting adequate vitamin D can be an issue for all vegans living 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 pre-vitamin D to be converted to vitamin D. It may also be necessary to eat vitamin D2 fortified foods or to take a vitamin D supplement. Look for the plant-derived vitamin D2 in fortified foods and supplements, avoid vitamin D3 as it is animal derived. The recommended daily intake for vitamin D is 800 IU.
RDI: 800 IU Vitamin D2
Vitamin D2 fortified foods:
- 1 cup fortified soy milk: 2oo IU
- 1 cup fortified cereal: 220 IU
- 2 teaspoon vegan margarine: 240 IU
- 1 serving instant oatmeal: 186 IU
Much of the salt used in USA and Canada is iodized to prevent deficiencies. In other countries such as the United Kingdom, the salt isn't iodized, cattle feed is iodized and iodine is absorbed through the consumption of meat and dairy. Vegans living in the United States or Canada a will likely meet the iodine requirement, however vegans living in other countries should consider supplementation. Iodine can be supplemented with kelp capsules, but be sure to read the ingredients thoroughly as most varieties only require you to take a few tablets per week.
RDI: 150-300mg iodine
Should you use supplements?
Eating a balanced and healthy diet including a wide variety of foods, and eating enough calories to support energy requirements should ensure sufficient intake of protein, calcium, and iron.
It's very important to include reliable sources of vitamin B12, vitamin D, and iodine in your diet, this can easily be attained by consuming an appropriate mix of fortified foods, vitamin B12, vitamin D2, and kelp supplements, or by taking a good vegan daily multivitamin.
Multivitamins can be seen as a sort of healthy eating insurance. Most of the time you'll want to do your best to eat a balanced, nutrient-rich diet, but taking a multivitamin will ensure that you aren't lacking any nutrients, even if if you aren't eating as well as you'd like to be.