Going Vegan? Make Sure to Get the Nutrition You Need
- Vegan diets can be healthy when well planned — a registered dietitian nutritionist can help.
- There are six main nutrients that require extra effort for vegans: protein, calcium, B12 vitamin, iron, zinc and omega-3 fatty acids.
- People who follow a vegan diet must find alternate food sources for these nutrients.
- Supplements can help, but they can’t make up for deficiencies in an overall diet.
[5 MIN READ]
If you tell a friend you’re becoming a vegan, the first question you’ll probably hear is “how are you going to get enough protein?” It’s a good question. But why doesn’t anybody ask about getting your recommended daily allowance of calcium, iron, zinc or vitamin B12? They should. Because without focused attention, these and other lesser-known nutrients can be hard to come by for vegans. We asked Terese Scollard, MBA, RDN, LD, FAND, a registered dietitian nutritionist at Providence Health & Services in Portland, for her expert opinion on this important topic.
Q. From a nutritional standpoint, what is the difference between a vegetarian and a vegan?
A. Vegan diets don’t include any animal-based foods—no meat, dairy products, or eggs; some vegans do not consume honey. Animal-based foods can be a good source of high-quality protein and certain vitamins and minerals. Vegans have to find other ways to get those nutrients, because their bodies still need them.
Vegetarians, on the other hand do not consume meat, but they do eat other animal-based foods such as dairy, eggs and sometimes fish. They need to be thinking about good nutrition, too. But following a well-balanced diet is a little easier for them, since they have more food choices. For example, they can easily get the calcium they need from dairy products, and the omega-3 fatty acids they need from fish.
Q. Is a vegan diet healthier than a vegetarian diet?
A. Not necessarily. A vegan diet is not a magic bullet – it can be just as unhealthy or healthy as any other eating pattern.
I see a lot of people who follow vegan diets in unhealthy ways, though they may not be aware of it. As a result, they can develop malnutrition. An example is the adolescent athlete who decides to be vegan but mostly eats French fries and junk food. Another is a person in treatment for cancer who is trying to follow a vegan diet but falling way short on their protein and other nutrients because they just don’t have the appetite to eat as much produce, lentils, beans and whole grains as their body needs during treatment.
Q. What advice do you give people who want to follow a healthy vegan diet?
First and foremost, you have to learn about nutrition and plan ahead. Going vegan may offer health benefits, as long as it’s well planned. You can’t just cut animal-based foods out of your diet and expect to be healthy. You have to obtain the same nutrients in adequate amounts from other sources.
Going vegan may offer health benefits, as long as it’s well planned.You have to obtain the same nutrients in adequate amounts from other sources.
A qualified registered dietitian nutritionist can help you understand the challenges and pitfalls and help develop a diet that’s healthy for you.
Q. Which foods can help vegans get the nutrients they need?
A. There are six main nutrients that require extra effort for vegans: protein, calcium, B12, iron, zinc and omega-3 fatty acids.
- Protein is an important part of every cell in the body. It’s essential for healthy bones, muscles, cartilage, skin and blood. Protein is abundant in animal-based foods. But it’s also found in whole grains, legumes, lentils, nuts and nut butters, seeds, seitan, tofu, tempeh, edamame, quinoa, soy milk and some vegetables.
- Calcium is important for bone health. Vegans can get what they need from dark, leafy green vegetables (except spinach, which is low in calcium), almonds, sesame seeds, tahini. Tofu and calcium-fortified orange juice and other drinks can be helpful, too.
- B12 vitamin is not found in fruits or vegetables—only in meat, fish, eggs and dairy products. Vegans must regularly consume reliable sources of this vitamin, through B12-fortified foods or supplements that contain B12. Otherwise they could become deficient, which can cause anemia and irreversible mental and physical damage.
- Iron is essential for the body to make red blood cells. It’s found in many non-meat sources, including seeds, nuts, legumes, lentils, tofu, dried fruits and spinach. However, depending on your life stage, you may also need a vitamin or mineral supplement.
- Zinc is something people don’t think about much, but it’s important for a healthy immune system. This mineral is found in seeds, lentils, soy products, walnuts, quinoa, pumpkin seeds, sprouted seeds and tofu.
- Most people don’t realize how important omega-3 fatty acids are for overall well-being, and especially brain health. Omega-3 is especially important in pregnancy. Vegetable sources of omega-3 are flax, chia, canola, and hemp, walnuts and low-dose microalgae-based supplements.
Your doctor can find a way to help you monitor your levels, identify any deficiencies and make recommendations for keeping your nutrients in balance.
Note: For many, the only way to know if you have a deficiency in one or more of these key vitamins or nutrients is a blood test. Your doctor can find a way to help you monitor your levels, identify any deficiencies and make recommendations for keeping your nutrients in balance.
Q. Do you recommend supplements for people who are concerned about getting all their nutrients?
A. Supplements like a B12 vitamin or cod liver oil for omega-3 fatty acids help some people feel more confident that they are getting the nutrition they need for good health. As long as you take them as part of an overall healthy nutrition plan, I think they can be helpful. But supplements are not a substitute for food. In other words, they are only considered supplemental to an overall nutritious diet, not a replacement. So, if you’re taking supplements while also getting poor nutritional value, they’re not going to help your overall health status. Be sure to discuss this with your doctor.
Q. Is it safe to be a vegan, no matter who you are?
A. Generally speaking a vegan diet is safe for people of all ages and life situations. But it’s important to remember that your nutrition needs change over the course of your life. For example, pregnant women, breastfeeding women, infants and small children need to have a diet that is rich in high-quality foods. Children can follow a vegan diet, but proper nutrition is especially important for them since they are still growing and developing. It’s important to discuss your child’s diet with their pediatrician.
Senior citizens need more protein throughout the day than people in middle age and may have mineral and vitamin B12 concerns related to aging. And people with chronic illnesses need to follow diets as directed by their doctor or a registered dietitian nutritionist in order to be as healthy as possible and manage their conditions.
There’s a whole world of delicious, nutritious foods out there. A registered dietitian nutritionist can help you create a healthy diet, no matter what your preferences—vegan, vegetarian or otherwise.
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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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