Plant-based diets have become incredibly popular in recent years. It’s a way of eating that has drawn people’s attention thanks to its health, athletic, planetary and ethical advantages. It’s even touted as the best diet for longevity!
Despite the positive attention around going plant-based, many people are still feeling hesitant to fully commit. One of the main reasons for this appears to be the fear of nutrient deficiency and a feeling of overwhelm about learning how to prepare a balanced vegan meal.
The aim of this article is to give some simple and honest advice about meeting your nutrient needs on a plant-based diet. We discuss which nutrients you may need to keep an eye on, use science to dispel a few myths and give you plenty of ‘food for thought’ that will help you thrive.
Pregnant? Check out this awesome resource on the vegan diet and pregnancy.
What are ‘nutrients’?
Let’s start with the basics. The term ‘nutrient’ refers to a substance that provides nourishment for growth and maintenance. They are the compounds found in food that are essential to our very being. Without them, we would not exist.
Nutrients can be broken down into two separate categories: Macronutrients and micronutrients. Each of these has very different functions in the body, but are both equally vital in their support and maintenance of health.
Macronutrients can be further broken down into three categories: protein, carbohydrates and fat. The body needs these nutrients in relatively large amounts since they provide the fuel necessary for energy, growth and maintenance.
Protein: Essential for building muscle mass, helps with immune support, assists hormone production.
Carbohydrates: The body’s preferred source of energy, has a protein-sparing effect, feeds the gut microbiome – click here for a healthier gut!
Fat: Storage form of energy in the body, helps the body absorb nutrients, regulates hormones.
Getting healthy forms of each macronutrient is a crucial piece of any vegan diet. It’s worth noting that many vegan foods are higher in carbohydrates, and relatively low in fat and protein. However, there are plenty of exceptions to this rule, as you will see below.
Micronutrients are the vitamins and minerals that keep your body functioning. They do not directly provide energy or building blocks, but instead keep your metabolic and hormonal processes running optimally.
There are 13 essential vitamins and 21 essential minerals. Each of them is required in varying amounts to maintain optimal health and they must be obtained through your diet.
Deficiencies in any of these key micronutrients can lead to a host of symptoms and eventual hospitalization if not addressed soon enough.
Making sure you obtain an adequate intake of each one is crucial and should be an area of focus for anyone on a plant-based diet.
What macronutrients should a vegan eat?
The question of ‘where do you get your protein?’ is synonymous with those criticizing plant-based diets. The fear of protein deficiency stops many people from moving away from meat, but in reality, it’s relatively easy to meet your protein needs while only eating plants.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend a minimum protein intake of 0.8g/kg (or 0.8/2lbs) of bodyweight to maintain health. However, this number should ultimately be viewed as the bare minimum, with studies showing that 1-1.6g/kg provides improvements in muscle strength and wellbeing.
Since plant-based protein sources tend to be more difficult for the body to absorb, most vegans will benefit from aiming at the higher end of the protein threshold. In fact, a daily intake of up to 2g/kg of body weight may even be optimal for those who are physically active or trying to build muscle.
What are the best plant-based protein sources?
Proteins are made up of building blocks called amino acids, which are needed in various quantities in order to repair and rebuild muscle.
Plant-based proteins are not all created equally. Some are deficient in certain amino acids, while others have a balanced profile that can best stimulate muscle growth. Some come with plenty of carbohydrates, while others are packaged with fat.
If you’re looking for some of the most complete, absorbable forms of protein, here are some of the best options:
- Soy products (tofu, tempeh, edamame, soy milk)
- Beans, lentils and legumes
- Mycoprotein (Quorn)
- Pea protein powder
- Nuts and seeds
Should vegans worry about carbohydrates and fats?
Plant-based diets are typically low in fat and high in carbohydrates. It’s a factor that’s often credited with much of the health benefit that comes from going plant-based, but there is far more to this than meets the eye.
It’s recommended that most vegans follow a macronutrient breakdown of around 40-50% carbohydrate and 20-30% fat. This is a good balance for people from all backgrounds and should provide plenty of energy for activity while still getting enough healthy fats for optimal function.
The main focus should be to ensure that your carbohydrate and fat intake is coming from healthy sources. It’s paramount that you choose whole, unprocessed food sources that will support wellbeing, make you feel great and allow you to feel satisfied.
What are the best vegan carbohydrate sources?
- Potatoes (especially sweet potatoes)
- Whole grains (especially buckwheat and steel-cut oats)
- Pumpkin and squash
- Vegetables (high-carb options: carrots, corn, peas)
- Beans, lentils, legumes
What are the best vegan fat sources?
- Nuts and seeds
- Olives and olive oil
- Cacao (dark chocolate)
How do vegans get micronutrients?
The vast array of vitamins and minerals needed for optimal health can often leave people feeling overwhelmed. Trying to scrutinize every aspect of your diet in order to achieve optimal nutrient is far too time consuming for the average person.
Sticking to a few simple rules will allow you to hit most of your nutritional requirements without the need for tiresome food tracking or obscure behaviors. Just keeping it simple and sticking to the basic principles below will often be enough to secure your health.
Simple habits to ensure vegans get enough nutrients
- Eat mostly whole, unprocessed foods. Packaged foods are often high in calories but low in micronutrients. Many of the vitamins and minerals are stripped away during processing to improve shelf life. Stick to single ingredient foods to gain maximum nutrient intake.
- Eat a wide variety of foods. Every food has a different set of nutrients, in various amounts. Eating plenty of different foods from all of the vegan food groups will ensure you gain a diverse array of micronutrients.
Don’t be afraid of fat. Many vegans vilify fat as the cause of disease, but in reality, it’s essential for nutrient absorption. Adding some avocado to your salad or cooking your veggies in olive oil will go a long way to improving micronutrient status.
- Eat the rainbow. Aiming to eat as many different colored fruits and vegetables is a creative way to get adequate nutrient levels. In fact, a recent umbrella review showed that those with more colors on their plates have a lower risk of many chronic diseases.
- Supplement with B12. It’s possible to get every nutrient you need from plant sources, except for vitamin B12. It can be found in fortified vegan products, but taking a supplement is advisable to ensure adequate intake.
What micronutrients do vegans struggle to get?
Vitamin B12 is the only nutrient that’s impossible to obtain from natural sources on a vegan diet. It’s a nutrient that is synthesized by bacteria that live in the digestive tract of ruminant animals. Unfortunately, humans do not have the gut capacity to produce this crucial nutrient themselves.
Vitamin B12 is a nutrient that’s vital for brain health, blood flow, energy production and DNA repair. It’s essential that you have adequate B12 levels since deficiency can lead to a host of health conditions.
Supplementing with vitamin B12 is the best way to make sure you’re getting adequate intake. It’s true that many vegan foods have been fortified with B12 (such as soy milk and nutritional yeast), but supplements are still recommended to avoid the risk of malnutrition.
The main role of iron is to assist our red blood cells in carrying oxygen around the body. Not getting enough in your diet can lead to anemia, which has a long list of symptoms including fatigue, dizziness and shortness of breath.
It’s estimated that 10 million people in the United States suffer from anemia regardless of diet choice. In addition, the World Health Organization has also estimated that 80% of people worldwide have less than adequate iron in their body. These are shocking statistics.
Since iron is often associated with red meat, it’s easy to see why this could be a nutrient of concern for vegans. However, many plant-based foods do contain plenty of iron, some of which include:
- Nuts & Seeds
- Leafy Greens
Zinc is integral for the health of your immune system, helps to grow new cells and assists in the creation of DNA. People with low zinc levels tend to fall prey to common viruses, have slow wound healing and can suffer from brain fog. Definitely symptoms you want to avoid!
It’s a common misconception that all vegans have inherently low zinc levels. In fact, it’s a relatively easy nutrient to obtain, providing you are eating an unprocessed diet!
Zinc is found in many of the plant-based proteins that make up the staples of most healthy vegan diets. Some of the best sources include:
- Beans and legumes
- Nuts (cashews, almonds)
- Seeds (pumpkin seeds)
Calcium is consistently touted as the mineral that builds strong bones, but its effects on the body run much deeper than just bone health. This powerful nutrient also plays a vital role in muscle contraction, heart rhythm and nerve function.
Milk is often the first food that comes to mind when people think about calcium. However, there are plenty of plant-based sources that can assist those following a vegan diet in achieving optimal nutrition status. Some of which include:
- Tofu, tempeh, soybeans
- Nuts (almonds)
- Tahini (sesame seed butter)
- Fortified plant milks
The consumption of omega-3s has been associated with reduced heart disease, reduced cancer, reduced Alzheimer’s risk and improved joint health. It’s a compound that has a mountain of data supporting its efficacy and should be considered a nutrient of focus by any vegan looking to optimize their diet.
The most common form of omega-3 is found in oily fish, which is often converted into fish oil capsules containing EPA and DHA. Plant-based versions of omega-3 can be found in certain nuts and seeds in the form of ALA, which is later converted by the body into the more bioavailable EPA and DHA.
Unfortunately, the human body is not very efficient in converting ALA into EPA and DHA, with only around a 5% conversion rate. However, vegans looking to maximize their omega-3 may consider an algae oil supplement, which contains the omega-3s you need in their most bioavailable form.
Iodine is a nutrient that’s integral to proper thyroid function. Insufficiency can lead to hypothyroidism, which has symptoms that include weight gain, fatigue and a sensitivity to cold.
The rates of iodine deficiency got so high that many countries have laws stating that salt must be fortified with iodine. In recent years, the move away from regular table salt in search of more ‘healthy’ salts (such as pink Himalayan) has actually led to another uptick in hypothyroidism.
Keeping on top of your iodine intake as a vegan could be as simple as ensuring you’re using iodized salt in your cooking. Alternatively, certain types of seaweed can be a great natural source that also tastes great.
Learning how to get the right nutrients on a plant-based diet is essential to long-term health and happiness. It can often seem overwhelming trying to ensure you’re covering all your bases, but sticking to the basic principles of eating whole, unprocessed foods should stand you in good stead.
The aim of any pattern of eating should be to feel fulfilled, content, and energized. Getting the nutrients you need is vital to achieving these feelings of joy, and that can definitely be achieved through the power of plants.