by Jack Norris, registered dietitian and executive director of Vegan Outreach
- Nutrients in a Wide Range of Plant Foods
- Nutrients in a Select Group of Plant Foods
- Nutrients Most Easily Obtained through Supplements
Many vegans and aspiring vegans care about eating a healthy, balanced diet and want to be well-informed about nutrition. Vegans have a significantly reduced risk for type 2 diabetes (1, 2) and high blood pressure (3, 4), and on average have lower cholesterol levels (5).
Although there are health benefits to being vegan, there are also nutrients to be aware of. We aim to give you all the essential information you need to know about vegan nutrition in this article. For those who want it, we provide links to additional information for each nutrient.
Nutrients in a Wide Range of Plant Foods
Protein and iron are commonly thought to be difficult to obtain on a vegan diet but they’re actually easily obtained for most people.
“Where do you get your protein” is typically the first question vegans are asked. And it’s a bit hard to answer because all plant foods contain protein. In other words, vegans get our protein in everything we eat!
However, some plant foods are higher in protein than others and if you avoid most high-protein foods you might start craving animal products or feeling fatigued.
If you want a thorough discussion about plant vs. animal protein, check out the article Protein Needs of Vegans.
Speaking of protein, soyfoods have traditionally been a staple of many vegan diets due to their high protein content. Myths abound that soy is harmful and that has made some people shy away, but there’s plenty of scientific evidence that two servings of soyfoods per day is perfectly safe. Higher amounts are probably also safe but they haven’t been studied as thoroughly. As a vegan dietitian, athlete, and someone familiar with the scientific research on soy, I happily eat as much soy as I desire!
The most robust area of research on soy has been with respect to breast cancer and the overwhelming evidence is that soy can reduce the risk of breast cancer. There’s also evidence to suggest that soy can reduce the risk of prostate cancer and heart disease (by lowering LDL cholesterol). You can read more in our article Soy: Main Controversies.
Tofu is an extremely versatile soyfood that has been eaten in some Asian cultures for hundreds of years. You can fry or bake it and add it to just about any savory dish. You can also freeze and then thaw it to give it a chewy texture. Tofu doesn’t have much taste on its own, but it takes on the flavors of the foods it’s mixed with.
Tofu is normally made with calcium salts and is therefore a rich source of calcium for vegans (check the packaging for “calcium” in the ingredients).
Another type of tofu, silken tofu, has a smooth texture and is used for making pudding, mousse, and cream-based pies. Silken tofu is often found in the baking or Asian sections of the grocery store.
While most vegans eat soyfoods, you don’t need to in order to be a vegan as there are plenty of other high-protein foods. But unless you have a specific allergy to soy, there’s no reason why you can’t enjoy it just like millions of other people throughout the world, vegans and meat-eaters alike.
People often associate iron with red meat, so you might be surprised to know that iron is plentiful in plant foods and vegans often have higher iron intakes than meat-eaters.
Iron from plants is absorbed at a lower rate than iron from meat, but vitamin C can greatly increase the absorption of iron from plant foods when both are eaten at the same meal, such as with a glass of orange juice with oatmeal.
Most vegans don’t need to be too concerned about iron unless they have a history of iron deficiency. One exception is long-distance runners who menstruate, as they have a high amount of red blood cell loss. If you’re prone to iron deficiency, eat plenty of meals containing foods high in iron and vitamin C and avoid coffee and tea (which decrease iron absorption) within an hour of such meals.
Nutrients in a Select Group of Plant Foods
Vegans should pay attention to how they’re obtaining calcium, vitamin A, and omega-3s. Below, we’ll help you find good sources of these nutrients!
Vegan adults should eat 3 servings of good sources of calcium per day while teenagers should eat 4 servings. The image below shows good sources of calcium that are readily available in the United States. The image lists the amount of each food that qualifies as one serving.
Luckily, most plant-based milks are fortified with calcium. And one of my favorite foods for obtaining calcium is calcium-set tofu, which is high in calcium and protein, both of which are good for bones. If you find it inconvenient to eat foods high in calcium each day, a calcium supplement of 300 to 500 mg per day is another option, where adults should aim for the lower end of the range and teenagers should aim for the higher end.
Resistance exercise twice a week, involving lifting moderate weights, is possibly the most reliable way for people to increase the strength of their bones. We encourage everyone to follow such a program. Talk to your health professional about what program is right for you.
Vitamin A is important for eyesight, especially at night. It’s also important for bones. There are many sources of vitamin A for vegans, especially orange vegetables due to their high beta-carotene levels, but you shouldn’t leave getting enough to chance. See the best options in the picture below and eat some sources every day.
A great way to help satisfy your vitamin A needs is with pumpkin mac and cheese!
Pumpkin Mac and Cheese Recipe
- 12 to 16 oz pasta
- 15 oz can of pureed pumpkin
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 cup of unsweetened soymilk
- 1 cup of nutritional yeast or vegan cheese
Cook the pasta, cool, and set aside. Mix the rest of the ingredients in a pot on medium heat, stirring constantly, until blended (about 5 minutes). Add sauce to the pasta. Sprinkle with ground pepper before eating.
Omega-3 fats are important for the long-term health of the heart and brain but are found in a limited number of plant foods. Walnuts, canola oil, flaxseeds and flaxseed oil, chia seeds, hemp seeds, and perilla oil are high in omega-3s.
A delicious way to get your daily omega-3s is from chia seed pudding, which you can eat for breakfast or as a dessert.
Chia Seed Pudding Recipe
In a bowl, whisk together:
- 1 3/4 cups of unsweetened non-dairy milk (or sweetened non-dairy milk and avoid the sweetener ingredient below)
- 1 to 2 tablespoons of sweetener (for example, sugar or maple syrup)
- 1/2 cup of chia seeds
- 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract (optional)
Chill for a few hours and stir before eating. The pudding is even better served with toppings, such as fruit, peanut butter, or chocolate chips. Keep refrigerated.
Another option is to keep a jar of hemp or ground flaxseeds in the refrigerator to sprinkle them on meals throughout the day—they’re easy to incorporate into anything you’re eating.
Nutrients Most Easily Obtained through Supplements
Nutrient deficiencies won’t occur in only a few weeks or even months of being vegan. That’s good news because it means you can go vegan at your own pace and worry about perfecting the nutrition later. In the long term, to be a thriving vegan, you’ll want to make sure you obtain a reliable source of vitamin B12, iodine, selenium, vitamin D, and in some cases zinc.
- Vitamin B12 in vegan diets has been a source of controversy and myths. Plant foods don’t contain vitamin B12 unless fortified. If you don’t get a reliable source, the chances are high that you’ll eventually develop fatigue or tingling in your fingers or toes. On the other hand, vegans who obtain a reliable source of vitamin B12 can have healthier levels than nonvegans. Additional info on vitamin B12.
- Iodine is important for a healthy thyroid. Iodine is found inconsistently in plant foods depending on the iodine content of the soil. The soil in many countries is low in iodine and so iodine has been added to some brands of table salt. You should make sure you have a source of iodine either from iodized salt or a supplement containing potassium iodide. For supplements, if convenient choose potassium iodide over kelp. Additional info on iodine.
- Selenium is lacking in the soil in many countries and so a multivitamin with selenium is the most reliable source. Soil in the United States and Canada has enough selenium for vegans there not to be concerned. Additional info on selenium.
- Vitamin D deficiency can result in fatigue and muscle and bone pain. Vitamin D can be created by skin exposure to sunshine (10-15 minutes for people with light skin, 20 minutes for people with dark skin, 30 minutes for seniors) when the sun is direct enough to cause sunburn. But to avoid skin cancer, dermatologists recommend obtaining vitamin D from supplements rather than sunshine. The dietary reference intake (DRI) for most age groups is 600 IU per day. Additional info on vitamin D.
- Zinc intakes from food are usually adequate for most vegans, but some vegans might fall a bit short. Symptoms of zinc deficiency include catching frequent colds or developing cracks at the corners of your mouth. Additional info on zinc.
We recommend that vegans take a daily multivitamin that contains the amounts of nutrients listed in the table below. These amounts are not the recommended daily allowances (RDAs), but rather the amounts that will meet the needs of vegans after taking into account what vegans typically obtain through foods.
|If cyanocobalamin form:||≥ 5 µg|
|If methylcobalamin form:||≥ 25 µg|
|Iodine||75 to 150 µg|
|Vitamin D||600 to 1,000 IU|
|Zinc||5 to 10 mg|
Good options for meeting these requirements are:
- Australia: One capsule of the Vegetology Multi Vit contains 50 µg of B12, 150 µg of iodine, 200 IU of vitamin D, 10 mg of zinc, and 55 µg of selenium.
- Canada: One tablet of the DEVA Vegan Multivitamin and Mineral Support contains 6 µg of B12, 75 µg of iodine, 400 IU of vitamin D, 5 mg of zinc, and 36 µg of selenium.
- South Africa: One tablet of the Viridian Essential Vegan Multi contains 500 µg of B12, 150 µg of iodine, 400 IU of vitamin D, 10 mg of zinc, and 50 µg of selenium.
- United States: One tablet of the DEVA Tiny Tablets contains 6 µg of B12, 75 µg of iodine, 800 IU of vitamin D, 5 mg of zinc, and 36 µg of selenium.
2. Papier K, Appleby PN, Fensom GK, et al. Vegetarian diets and risk of hospitalisation or death with diabetes in British adults: results from the EPIC-Oxford study. Nutr Diabetes. 2019 Feb 25;9(1):7.
3. Fraser GE. Vegetarian diets: what do we know of their effects on common chronic diseases? Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 May;89(5):1607S-1612S. Epub 2009 Mar 25. Review. Erratum in: Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 Jul;90(1):248.
5. Bradbury KE, Crowe FL, Appleby PN, Schmidt JA, Travis RC, Key TJ. Serum concentrations of cholesterol, apolipoprotein A-I and apolipoprotein B in a total of 1694 meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2014 Feb;68(2):178-83.