Demystifying Vegan Nutrition



What is a vegan diet?

A vegan diet is one that consists only of plant-derived foods. Like non-vegans, vegans eat soups, stews, stir-fries, salads, and casseroles. They consume a wide variety of foods from around the globe, as well as plant-only versions of traditional favorites such as pizza, tacos, burritos, lasagna, burgers, barbecues, loaves, chilis, pancakes, sandwiches, and desserts.

What is a healthful vegan diet?

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that an appropriately planned vegan diet is healthful for all stages of life. They further advise that plant-based diets may provide a variety of preventative health benefits. Of course, as with any diet, a poorly planned vegan diet could be dangerous or unhealthful.

“An appropriately planned vegan diet is healthful for all stages of life.”

A balanced vegan diet is made up of these four food groups: 1) legumes, nuts, and seeds; 2) grains; 3) vegetables; and 4) fruits.

The 4 Food Groups

Because individual nutrient needs and energy requirements vary due to age, activity level, and one’s state of health, this guide should only be considered a broad blueprint for a balanced vegan diet. You should consult a dietitian familiar with vegan nutrition for a personalized set of recommendations

LEGUMES, NUTS, AND SEEDS (4+ servings per day)

The legume-nut-seed group includes beans, split peas, lentils, nuts, seeds, and soy products. These nutrient-dense foods are packed with protein, fiber, minerals, B vitamins, protective antioxidants, and essential fatty acids(1). Sample serving sizes from this group include: 1/2 cup of cooked beans, 4 ounces of tofu or tempeh, 1 cup of soy milk, 1 ounce of nuts or seeds, or 2 tablespoons of nut or seed butter.

GRAINS (4-6+ servings per day)

Whole grains provide B vitamins, fiber, minerals, protein, and antioxidants. They are preferable to refined grains because the refining process removes the health-iest nutrients. Also, intact whole grains—such as brown rice, oats, wheat berries, millet, and quinoa—are nutritionally superior to whole grain flours and puffed or flaked whole grains(2). A serving is 1 slice of bread, 1/2 cup of cooked grain, or 1 ounce of ready-to-eat cereal. This group is fairly flexible with regard to servings per day. Vary your intake based on your individual energy needs.

VEGETABLES (4+ servings per day)

Eating a wide variety of colorful vegetables every day will ensure that you’re getting an assortment of protective nutrients in your diet(3). A vegetable serving is 1/2 cup cooked, 1 cup raw, or 1/2 cup of juice. For most vegetables, particularly calcium-rich leafy greens, it’s nearly impossible to eat “too much.”

FRUITS (2+ servings per day)

Most fruits, especially citrus fruits and berries, are a great source of vitamin C. All fruits provide antioxidants. Choose whole fruits over fruit juices to get the most benefit, particularly from dietary fiber. A serving size is 1 medium piece, 1 cup sliced, 1/4 cup dried, or 1/2 cup of juice.

REGARDING OILS AND SPREADS

Concentrated fats, such as oils and oil-based spreads, do not fall under a food group. They are not required for optimal health, as essential fats are found naturally in whole foods like avocados, olives, nuts, and seeds, and for that reason there is no serving recommendation. However, a small amount of concentrated fats may be included in a healthful vegan diet. Choose oils and spreads that are minimally processed and limit your intake.

“Choose oils and spreads that are minimal processed and limit your intake.”

Important nutrients

Like non-vegans, vegans need to be mindful of consuming all the nutrients they need in order to be healthy. Four key nutrients that everyone needs to pay attention to are vitamin B12, vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids, and iodine. After discussing these four nutrients, we will also look at calcium, iron, and protein.

VITAMIN B12 is necessary for proper red blood cell formation, neurological function, and DNA synthesis(5). It is manufactured by certain types of bacteria found in nature. Because plants vary widely in their levels of this bacteria (and most of us favor our food scrubbed squeaky clean), we cannot rely on plant foods to meet our B12 needs. We can ensure our dietary needs are met by consuming supplements or fortified foods.

Be advised that some B12 vitamins labeled as “vegetarian” are not suitable for vegans. In general, it is worth keeping in mind that many vitamins and supplements contain animal products.

VITAMIN D, the “sunshine vitamin,” is also a hormone; our skin manufactures it from the ultraviolet rays of the sun. It plays an important role in bone health and supports normal neuromuscular and immune function(7). Good vitamin D status is linked to a lowered risk of osteoporosis, certain cancers, and other chronic diseases(8). Getting enough of it is not as easy as we may think. Vitamin D blood levels are an international public health concern.

The body’s ability to produce vitamin D from sun exposure varies based on skin pigmentation, sunscreen, clothing, time of year(9)(10), latitude, air pollution, and other factors, and the vitamin is found naturally in only a handful of foods. This is why all people—not just vegans—need to be mindful about vitamin D.

The latest research suggests that even getting 100% of the current Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for vitamin D may be insufficient for many people. To ensure adequate vitamin D intake, take 1000-4000 International Units (IU) per day, depending upon your age and other individual needs(11).

“All people–not just vegans–need to be mindful about vitamin D.”

 Supplemental vitamin D can be found as either D2 or D3. D2 is derived from non-animal sources, while D3 is commonly derived from lanolin, a protective waxy substance secreted by sheep(12). More recently, plant-based D3 products have come to market.

OMEGA-3 FATTY ACIDS. A proper balance of essential fats is important for optimal brain function, heart health, and infant/child development(13). Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is an omega-3 fatty acid that partly converts to DHA and EPA in the body. It is present in several plant foods, including flax products, hemp products, walnuts, and leafy green vegetables. Aim to consume 2 to 4 grams of ALA per day(14).

Flax Seeds

Food, serving size ALA (grams)
Flaxseed, whole, 2 Tbsp. 5.2
Flaxseed, ground, 2 Tbsp. 3.8
Flaxseed oil, 1 tsp. 2.7
Walnuts, 1 oz (1/4 cup) 2.6
Hempseed oil, 1 tsp. 0.9
Tofu, firm, ½ cup 0.7
Canola oil, 1 tsp. 0.5
Greens (mixed), 2 cups 0.2

If you aren’t sure whether your intake is adequate, you may wish to take up to 300 milligrams of a vegan DHA or DHA-EPA blend per day.

IODINE is a trace element needed by the body to produce thyroid hormones. This makes iodine important to the metabolism and other vital bodily functions, including bone and brain development during pregnancy and infancy. Inadequate iodine intake causes insufficient thyroid hormone production, which can in turn cause a number of health problems, including an enlargement of the thyroid gland, called goiter, as well as issues with fetal and infant development and an autoimmune disease of the thyroid, among other potential serious health concerns.

The few small studies that have examined the iodine status of vegans have found that they may be at greater risk for low iodine intake than the general population. That being said, iodine deficiency is a global public health concern, affecting an estimated 2 billion people, a third of whom are children. So, while it is important for vegans to be mindful of their iodine intake, the advice here applies to everyone.

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