Where do vegans get their protein? How can you get all your nutrients as a vegan? Can you get everything you need from food or do vegans need to take vitamins or supplements? What about Vitamin B-12? Omega-3s? Are you getting enough iodine? This vegan nutrition guide was written by vegan Registered Dietitian Taylor Wolfram to cover the plant-based nutrition basics.
The human body requires lots of nutrients to function properly, including carbohydrates, protein, fat, 13 vitamins and many minerals. Some of them we can make ourselves and some of them we must obtain from the external environment (AKA food, the sun, supplements, etc.).
The good thing is it is totally possible to get all the nutrients you need as a vegan. And yes, you can do it without breaking the bank! It just takes a little nutrition knowledge, planning, and basic food prep skills. The following is by no means comprehensive but addresses several key nutrients, what they do, and where to find them.
For individualized nutrition guidance, reach out to a vegan registered dietitian nutritionist!
Many of you likely know that it’s pretty easy to get enough protein from plants without needing protein powders or bars, but in case you don’t, here’s a quick explanation. Protein can be found all over the plant kingdom, most notably in legumes which includes beans, peas, lentils, peanuts and soy foods such as tofu, tempeh and soy-based vegan meats. Whole grains, nuts, seeds and vegetables also contribute protein while fruit contains very little protein.
By eating a variety of these foods every day, you’re ensuring you’re getting enough protein and essential amino acids.
Aim for at least three servings per day of legumes (this includes beans, lentils, peanuts and soy-based foods such as tofu and tempeh), emphasize whole grains over refined grains, and get a couple servings of nuts and seeds a day and you should be good-to-go on the protein front.
Eating enough is also crucial. That way your body can use the protein you eat for important building functions and not for energy. Learn more about plant-based protein here.
The long-chain omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA are linked with lower rates of heart disease and some cancers.
Fish are touted as a great source of omega-3s. But did you know that fish get their omegas from eating algae? And so can vegans!
Algae-based supplements are a direct way for vegans to get DHA and EPA. Our bodies also can make DHA and EPA from ALA, another kind of omega-3 fatty acid found in chia, flax and walnuts. However, many people have low conversion rates and without a way of knowing how good your body is at converting ALA to DHA and EPA, it might be a good idea to take a supplement.
Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin meaning you need to eat some fat with it so your body can absorb it. It plays important roles in vision, immune function and reproduction.
Vitamin A isn’t one single nutrient—rather, it’s a group of nutrients known as retinoids and there are two kinds found in food: preformed vitamin A and provitamin A.
Preformed vitamin A comes from animal foods and provitamin A are the carotenoids found in orange veggies and fruits such as cantaloupe, carrots and sweet potatoes and green veggies including kale, spinach and swiss chard.
The body can convert carotenoids into vitamin A. Therefore we don’t need to eat vitamin A from animals in order to get enough vitamin A!
Eat a few servings of green leafy and orange vegetables daily to ensure you’re getting enough vitamin A. Remember to use a little fat when cooking these foods to help your body absorb the carotenoids.
Vitamin B12 is essential for many cell activities, DNA synthesis and neurological function. Deficiency can cause anemia as well as neurological and nerve damage.
Vitamin B12 is the only nutrient that does not naturally occur in plant foods. It is made by bacteria living in the digestive tract of animals. (If you’re wondering why the vitamin B12 produced in our own bodies is not adequate, that’s because it is produced lower down in the digestive tract than where we absorb it).
You may have heard that some vegan foods such as sea vegetables and fermented foods provide vitamin B12, but this is a myth. These foods may contain inactive analogues of vitamin B12 but not the kind we need.
It is imperative to eat foods fortified with vitamin B12 and/or take a vitamin B12 supplement. Read more about vitamin B12 for vegans here.
Vitamin C is essential for collagen production and immune function. It is plentiful in fruits and vegetables. Vegans should have no issue getting enough vitamin C if they’re eating several servings of fruits and veggies daily. Even white potatoes are an excellent source of vitamin C!
Vitamin C also is crucial for helping our bodies absorb the iron from plant foods. Make sure you’re eating vitamin C-rich foods, such as oranges, bell peppers, strawberries, kiwifruit, cauliflower and tomatoes, when eating iron-rich foods. Even a squirt of lemon juice can help the body absorb iron from plants.
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin necessary to help our bodies absorb calcium. Many people need a vitamin D supplement, whether they are vegan or not.
Your body can make vitamin D when skin is exposed to direct sunlight, but there are so many factors that affect this that it is safer to rely on fortified foods and supplements.
Beware that most vitamin D used in fortified foods and supplements is from animal sources. Check the label to ensure the vitamin D is coming from a plant source such as lichen.
Calcium is key for bone health and many people wrongly assume you have to consume dairy foods to get enough calcium. Luckily calcium is available in many plant foods! However, not in amounts as high as dairy foods.
It’s important to consume enough calcium-rich plant foods daily (6 to 8 servings) and make up any gaps with a supplement. You can find calcium in calcium-fortified plant-based milks and juices, calcium-set tofu, collard greens, kale and figs. Smaller amounts of calcium are available in black beans, chickpeas, tempeh, almond butter, sesame seeds, broccoli and oranges.
Note: be sure to shake your calcium-fortified plant milk before pouring it so that you pick up the calcium that likely settled at the bottom of the carton!
Iodine is often left out of the vegan nutrition discussion but it’s an important mineral that’s crucial for thyroid health.
Most people get iodine from eating sea creatures so if you’re vegan, you need to get your iodine elsewhere. Sea vegetables including kelp and dulse contain iodine but unless you’re eating these several times a week, you’ll need to get iodine from iodized salt or a supplement.
Don’t think you need to go crazy with salt to get enough iodine. Just ½ teaspoon of iodized salt contains all the iodine you need for a day, along with 1,000 milligrams of sodium. Note that salt used in processed foods is rarely, if ever, iodized. Therefore it’s important to get most of your salt from home-cooked foods seasoned with iodized salt.
We need iron to help our red blood cells carry oxygen around to all our body parts.
While red meat is a great source of iron, iron also can be found in plant foods. The type of iron in plant foods is called nonheme iron and is more difficult for the body to absorb than heme iron found in animal foods.
Good vegan sources of iron include black-eyed peas, chickpeas, kidney beans, white beans, soy beans, lentils, spinach, tofu, fortified cereal, swiss chard, sea vegetables and cashews.
Vitamin C helps the body absorb iron from these foods so be sure to eat a food containing vitamin C with these foods. Calcium inhibits iron absorption so if you’re taking a calcium supplement, do so at a time when you’re not eating iron-rich foods.
Essential for growth, development and cellular metabolism, zinc is a mineral found in protein-rich foods.
Plant-based sources include pumpkin seeds, baked beans, fortified cereal, wheat germ, tahini, peanuts and cashews. It is found in smaller amounts in quinoa, oatmeal, lentils, chickpeas, tofu and tempeh.
Our bodies don’t absorb zinc as well from plant foods as they do from animal foods and vegans need to eat more zinc than meat-eaters. Make sure you’re eating a variety of these foods every day to meet zinc requirements. If you fall short, you can always take a supplement!
While not considered “essential” like the nutrients discussed above, phytonutrients are powerful substances found in plants that confer some sort of benefit to humans. There is evidence that these plant compounds can help prevent cancer, heart disease and other diseases.
Plant-based diets including lots of colorful vegetables and fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds are loaded with health-boosting phytonutrients!
Antioxidants help neutralize harmful free radicals in the body, thus preventing DNA damage and reducing risk for cancer. Many of the nutrients found in plant foods, such as vitamins C and E and carotenoids, act as antioxidants.
Between whole plant foods, fortified foods and supplements, you can get all the nutrients you need to live a happy, healthy vegan lifestyle!
The key to getting the most benefit from eating plant-based is to consume a variety of whole plant foods every day. When you base your meals and snacks on whole grains, legumes, vegetables, nuts, seeds and fruit, you’re loading up on nutrients.
That doesn’t mean there’s not room for processed foods, fun foods and celebratory foods. Fortified foods and plant meats can be key sources of important nutrients and it’s important for food to be pleasurable, too.
If you’re struggling to find balance with nourishing plant foods and an eating pattern that allows you to go out to eat and enjoy celebrations, work with a vegan registered dietitian nutritionist for personalized guidance.
This vegan nutrition article about how to get your vitamins and nutrients as a vegan was written by Taylor Wolfram RD for World of Vegan and edited by Rachel Lessenden. The information presented here is not to be construed as medical advice or used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any condition or disease. Please note that this article contains affiliate links which help us keep regular content coming to life here at World of Vegan.