What happens when you take meat, eggs, and dairy out of a person’s diet? Getting the nutrition you need from a vegan diet is possible, but certainly takes a clear understanding of the hurdles involved when eliminating food groups.
Traditional Vegan Diet
The traditional vegan diet is plant-based and excludes all animal products, including meat, dairy, and eggs. Food items derived from animal sources are usually also removed from the diet, such as gelatin and honey.
It's well researched that a well-balanced vegan diet tends to be lower in saturated fat and cholesterol and higher in fiber, magnesium, potassium, vitamin C, vitamin E, folate, and a wide range of phytochemicals than diets that include animal products.
On the other hand, vegans may have lower intakes of protein, vitamin B12, calcium, iron, vitamin D, and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. Let’s take a closer look at the nutrients vegans will want to pay closer attention to.
Needed for maintaining and building muscle and other tissues. Vegans typically need 10% more protein than non-vegans because plant-based protein sources such as soy, legumes, nuts, seeds, grains, and vegetables, are more difficult to absorb than animal sources. It is possible for a poorly designed vegan diet to fall short in protein, so be sure not to neglect this important part of the diet.
This critical vitamin is only found in animal products. Vitamin B12 is essential for the maintenance of optimal nerve function, healthy cells, and prevention of megaloblastic anemia, which results in tired and weak bodies. Adding a B12 multivitamin or consuming ample vitamin B12-fortified foods such as soy milk, meat alternatives, or bars, is essential to getting the recommended 2.4 mcg a day.
Calcium plays a key role in optimizing bone strength and is essential for muscle contraction. Plant-based diets typically don’t include dairy products, a main calcium source, so vegans tend to fall below the daily recommendations of 1,000-1,300 mg per day.
Structured vegan diets should contain ample sources of highly bioavailable calcium from items such as broccoli, collards, calcium-set tofu, fortified fruit juices, and some fortified almond/soy milks.
Still, a calcium supplement is often recommended to meet the body’s needs.
This mineral is a vital component of proteins and enzymes that maintain health. Iron also carries oxygen in the blood and helps facilitate the delivery of oxygen to cells. When iron is low, fatigue, decreased performance (for exercisers), and lowered immunity can result. One pitfall about iron…iron from plant-based foods is not absorbed as well as iron from animal foods, so the recommended intake for vegans is 1.8 times greater. For example, an adult female should consume 32 mg of iron daily versus 18 mg for a non-vegetarian, and an adult male vegan requires 14 mg per day rather than 8 mg.
A multivitamin containing iron is generally added to a vegan diet.
Iron Tip: The iron in sprouted grains, legumes, and fermented foods, such as miso and tempeh is absorbed more readily.
Vegan or not, this is one vitamin so many people are low in. It plays a key role in bone health and immune system function. Having inadequate levels of Vitamin D can increase your risk of developing stress fractures and other bone-related problems, plus a suppressed immune system makes you vulnerable to getting sick more often. Consider a combination of vitamin D fortified foods, such as orange juice, exposure to sunlight, and vitamin D supplementation to meet your needs.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Following a vegan diet makes it difficult to obtain the recommended 1.1 to 1.6 grams per day of omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in fatty fish and fish oils. Omega-3s are critical for overall cardiovascular health, brain health, disease prevention, and they have the potential to decrease inflammation. However, omega-3 fatty acid deficiency may become less of a concern by combining nuts, seeds (especially flax), vegetable oils, algae, and some leafy greens with fortified foods such as soy milk, rice milk, and vegan bars.
Making the Switch
If you’re considering a vegan diet, one suggestion is to make “food switches” rather than simply removing foods from your diet. Find comparable substitutes for foods to replace potentially missing nutrients. For example, if you want to eliminate all meat products, find foods to swap that are nutritionally similar in terms of total calories and key nutrients provided. Sometimes a combo of foods can do the trick. Common switches include beans and brown rice for meat or poultry, nuts and seeds for fish, soy milk for cow’s milk, and “veggie” jerky for meat jerky.
With some education and planning, implementing a vegan diet can support a person’s nutritional needs.
In Health and Happiness,
Kelly Harrington, MS, RDN
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for Live Superfoods
1. Institute of Medicine, Food and Nutrition Board. Dietary Reference Intakes for Vitamin A, Vitamin K, Arsenic, Boron, Chromium, Copper, Iodine, Iron, Manganese, Molybdenum, Nickel, Silicon, Vanadium, and Zinc. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2001.
2. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Position Paper: Vegetarianism.
3. Davis, Brenda, RD & Melina, Vesanto, MS, RD. Becoming Vegan: The Complete Guide to Adopting a Healthy Plant-based Diet. Summertown, TN: Book Publishing Company. 2000.
4. Kundrat, Susan, MS, RD, CSSD. Veggies Galore. Training-Conditioning: Oct. 2013.