Vegan Diet For Beginners: 8 Critical Nutrients To Consider And How NOT To Become Deficient
Planning healthful vegan meals requires focusing on nutrients that are occasionally lower in vegan diets. Traditionally, these have been areas of consideration, but it is important not to lose sight of the fact that vegan diets are especially abundant in many nutrients. For example, compared with both other vegetarians and omnivores, vegans have higher intakes of folate, biotin, vitamin C, iron, and magnesium. Vegetarians as a group also consume more vitamin A (as beta carotene), vitamin E, copper, potassium, and manganese. However, there is no such thing as the ideal diet that will guarantee adequate nutrient intake for every individual. No matter how you choose to eat, you need to pay some attention to food choices. This is true of omnivore, lacto-ovo vegetarian, and vegan diets. You can easily meet your nutrient needs on a vegan diet provided you shift your focus in meal planning and emphasize certain foods and food groups. Giving up meat and dairy products and ﬁlling the empty spots on your plate with whatever you like will not automatically do the trick.
There is no reason to be concerned about protein, since even on vegan diets there is little risk of deﬁciency. Plant foods such as grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds are all high in protein. Soy products (such as tofu) are especially rich in high-quality protein; vegetables provide smaller amounts of protein.
The issue of protein quality has received a great deal of attention in the past. This concept has to do with the amino-acid makeup of proteins. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein; foods contain varying arrangements of twenty-two different amino acids. Humans use amino acids from food to create new proteins that the body requires such as enzymes, hormones, and muscle tissue. The human body can actually manufacture many of these amino acids provided it has the raw materials. Nine of the amino acids, how- ever, are dietary essentials since the body cannot make them.
Plant foods like grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and vegetables do contain all nine of the essential amino acids. Nevertheless, plant proteins are slightly lower in quality than animal proteins because they are not as well digested and their amino-acid patterns are a slightly poorer match to our bodies’ needs. All this means is that vegans need to eat more of them. Vegans have a somewhat higher protein requirement than omnivores and perhaps lacto-ovo vegetarians as well. This might seem worrisome since vegans also consume less protein than these other groups, but in fact it isn’t a problem at all. Even with higher needs and lower intake, vegans appear to have no difﬁculty meeting protein needs. The old rules about carefully combining proteins have fallen by the wayside. As long as you eat a variety of plant foods throughout the day and you eat enough whole plant foods to meet your calorie needs, you will achieve adequate protein intake.
The calcium requirement for vegans is still undetermined and remains a point of much discussion. Many dietary and lifestyle factors affect calcium requirements, so vegans, especially those who lead active, healthy lifestyles, may actually have lower needs. One dietary factor that appears to affect the way calcium is used is protein. Diets high in protein may increase calcium needs, because protein causes more calcium to be excreted from the body. This is particularly true of proteins high in certain amino acids, which includes most animal proteins and grains.
Knowing this, it is tempting to assume that vegans—who have lower protein intakes than both omnivores and lacto-ovo vegetarians—have lower cal- cium needs. While this may indeed be true, there is no real evidence to show that vegans have signiﬁcantly lower calcium requirements than other groups. Many factors affect calcium needs, and the extent to which protein impacts those needs is not clear.
Because there is no actual evidence that vegans do well with less calcium, we must assume—for now—that vegans should strive to meet the recommended dietary intakes. There is evidence, however, that the lower calcium intake of some vegan women may impair bone health. Studies show that low calcium intake is associated with poor bone health in vegans just as it is in omnivores.
Does this mean that calcium intake is a problem for vegans? Well, certainly some vegan diets are too low in calcium. Studies reveal that a number of vegan women have calcium intakes that are only 400 to 500 milligrams per day while the recommendations are for 1,000 or more milligrams. Any diet can be calcium poor if it isn’t well planned. Many omnivore women do not meet calcium needs either. Regardless of how you eat, you need to make sure that your diet includes plenty of calcium-rich foods.
For a long time, nutritionists believed that calcium from plant foods was not well absorbed. Studies from Purdue University reveal this isn’t true. Calcium from many plant foods is very well absorbed—in some cases better than the calcium from cow’s milk.
To meet calcium needs, it is a good idea to make frequent use of foods that are very rich in well-absorbed calcium. For example, make it a point to include leafy green vegetables—such as kale and collard, mustard, and turnip greens—in your meals every day. Be generous as well in your use of calcium- set tofu, calcium-fortiﬁed soymilk, calcium-fortiﬁed orange juice, blackstrap molasses, and vegetarian baked beans. However, don’t overlook the contributions of other foods. Many beans and vegetables provide relatively small amounts of calcium to the diet, but regular use of these foods can contribute several hundred milligrams to the daily intake. Every little bit counts.
However you choose to meet needs, do pay attention to calcium. If you think you aren’t coming close to meeting the recommendations on most days, consider a dietary supplement.
One other word of caution. Vegan women have lower levels of estrogen in their blood. While this is protective against breast cancer, it may raise the risk of osteoporosis, because estrogen protects the health of bones. So, it is possible that vegan women may need to take extra steps toward building bone strength.
For many vegans, vitamin B12 is the dietary issue. More controversy exists over this nutrient than any other. The short story is this: Vegans need to sup- plement their diet with vitamin B12 or risk deﬁciency. There is really very lit- tle disagreement about this among health professionals with expertise in vegan diets. Even so, questions and misinformation about vitamin B12 continue to make the rounds among vegans. Therefore, it is worth looking at this nutri- ent more closely.
All vitamin B12 comes from bacteria. These bacteria live in the soil and in the intestines of animals. The B12 they produce gets incorporated into ani- mal tissue and animal products such as milk and eggs. Thus, animal prod- ucts become a source of B12 for humans. Bacteria on the outside of plant foods also produce B12, and theoretically, when these foods are consumed, they can provide humans with B12. Realistically, normal cleaning of food eliminates most of the available B12; consequently, these foods are not a reli- able source.
It has been suggested that some plant foods are good sources of B12, most notably sea vegetables, tempeh, and miso. However, they actually contain what are called B12 analogs. These are B12-like compounds that have no vita- min activity. In fact, they compete with real vitamin B12 for absorption. Relying on these foods for B12 can actually raise a vegan’s risk of deﬁciency.
Vitamin B12 is also produced by bacteria living in the human intestines and mouth. Unfortunately, this seems to be of little signiﬁcance. Only very minute amounts appear to be produced in the mouth—probably not enough to make much of a contribution to intake. Of course, the goal of good den- tal hygiene is to keep the mouth as bacteria-free as possible. You’d have to go quite some time without brushing your teeth to get the dubious beneﬁts of signiﬁcant bacterial growth. Furthermore, B12 seems to be produced too far down in the intestines to do much good. Vitamin B12-producing bacteria live down in our large intestine (colon) while B12 is absorbed higher up in the small intestine. It’s a long climb for a bacterium.
Most vitamin B12 deﬁciency is actually due to absorption problems that are unrelated to diet. Among vegans, overt B12 deﬁciency is not very common. One reason might be that humans store large amounts of B12. People who have eaten B12-rich diets in the past are likely to have enough in storage to last them several years. Regardless, it is important to be careful about defining B12 deﬁciency, because symptoms can be subtle. They include a host of neurological problems that range from subtle tingling of extremities, to actual loss of sensation or paralysis, to changes in memory. In fact, some of the symptoms commonly attributed to senility in old age are actually believed to be the result of B12 deﬁciency. The early signs of neurological impairment can occur even when blood levels of B12 appear normal. Also, high intake of the B vita- min folate can mask the early signs of B12 anemia, because folate can compensate for some of the functions of B12. Finally, there are subtle problems associated with low B12 intake that don’t manifest as deﬁciency per se but can affect health. For example, when B12 intake is low, levels of the amino acid homocysteine can go up, and this is a signiﬁcant risk factor for heart disease. While it may be true that acute B12 deﬁciency is not a pervasive public health problem in the vegan population, vegans, as a rule, do have low vita- min B12 levels. It is reasonable to expect that these levels will decrease in many vegans over time as B12 stores are used up. In addition, as we age, B12 is absorbed less efﬁciently. This can increase the risk of deﬁciency when diets are low in B12 to begin with.
Fortunately, it is easy to meet vitamin B12 needs on a vegan diet. Supplements are the simplest way to do this, but vegans can use fortiﬁed foods as well. Check labels of breakfast cereals and meat analogs. Certain brands of nutritional yeast, such as Red Star Vegetarian Support Formula (formerly T6635+), are also good sources of vitamin B12.
Some vegans are loathe to believe that they need supplements or fortiﬁed foods to meet B12 needs. In some cases, this might reﬂect a desire to believe that vegan diets are natural and sufficient without supplementation. Historically, vegan diets probably were completely adequate, and there is rea- son to believe that humans were perfectly suited to do without nonvegan food sources of B12. The requirement for vitamin B12 is inﬁnitesimal—only 2 micrograms a day, or about 15 millionths of an ounce. In fact, one teaspoon of vitamin B12 would meet the needs of nearly one hundred people for the rest of their lives! In addition, our bodies hoard B12 by storing any excess and by recycling what is used. The fact that it is saved, combined with the minimal amount required, suggests that we evolved to live healthfully in a B12-poor environment. Without animal foods in the diet, we probably did just ﬁne on the little bits of B12 we picked up here and there through contamination of food and water. In many parts of the world, this is still probably sufﬁcient to meet B12 needs. Potential problems exist for Western vegans, however, because our food supplies are well sanitized, and contamination with B12-producing bacteria is less likely. Of course, there are many advantages to eating clean food, so any inconvenience over B12 is a small price to pay.
Vegan diets are actually higher in iron than either lacto-ovo vegetarian diets or omnivore diets. Because dairy foods are deﬁcient in iron and may inhibit iron absorption, vegans have an advantage over lacto-ovo vegetarians regard- ing this nutrient. In the case of plant diets, the issue is not how much iron is in food—there is plenty. Rather, it is a question of how much gets absorbed, since compounds in plant foods inhibit absorption of iron into the blood- stream. There is no doubt that iron from plant foods is less well absorbed than is iron from meat. Even so, vegans appear to be no more likely to be iron deﬁ- cient than meat eaters.
Vegans do, however, have lower stores of iron in their bodies. Is this a concern? While low iron stores may reduce the risk of heart disease, they may also raise the risk of deﬁciency in certain circumstances. For now, the conclusion can be made that vegans should have the same attitude toward iron as the gen- eral population. That means vegans must pay some attention to this nutrient and be careful to get enough because—for all types of diets, including those that contain meat—lack of iron is the number-one nutrient deﬁciency in the United States. It is an important public health problem, so make sure you eat plenty of iron-rich foods daily. Include a good source of vitamin C at each meal, too, since this boosts iron absorption.
Vitamin D has an identity crisis. It’s treated like a nutrient, but it really isn’t one. It is vital for good health, of course, but the human body can manufac- ture all that it needs when the skin is exposed to the sun. The problem is that not everyone gets enough sun exposure. Some people need more than others; for example, darker-skinned and older people make vitamin D less efﬁciently. It is also harder for people to make vitamin D the farther away they live from the equator, or if they reside in a smoggy or cloudy area. In earlier times, when the majority of people lived in warmer areas, wore less clothing, and spent more time outdoors, no doubt vitamin-D deficiency was not a problem. Today, some people need an alternate source of this compound. Very few foods contain natural vitamin D, so the best solution has been to fortify the food supply. Contrary to popular belief, cow’s milk is not a good natural source of vitamin D; it is only a good source when it is fortiﬁed, as is all cow’s milk in the United States.
For vegans, the best option for vitamin D is adequate sun exposure. For light-skinned people, exposing arms and face (without sunscreen) to summertime sun for ﬁfteen to twenty minutes three times a week should be sufficient. If you are dark skinned or live where summers are short or in a smoggy urban area, you may need much more exposure. This is also true for older people. If you suspect that you don’t get enough sunlight, a supplement or forti- ﬁed foods is a good idea. Many brands of soy and rice milk are fortiﬁed, as are some breakfast cereals. If you use a supplement, choose one that provides no more than 10 micrograms of vitamin D, since it is toxic in high doses.
Few plant foods are rich in riboﬂavin, although many plant foods contain moderate amounts. Including these foods in the diet on a regular basis should provide adequate supplies of riboﬂavin. Studies show that most vegans come close to meeting recommended intakes for riboﬂavin. Presently, there is considerable controversy over the actual requirement for this nutrient, and it is possible that the recommendations are too high. Nevertheless, without hard evidence to guide us, it’s a good idea to try to meet riboﬂavin requirements.
Zinc deserves some special attention in all diets. The richest sources in stan- dard North American diets are meat and dairy products. Even so, omnivores tend not to consume as much zinc as they should. Although plant foods are generally much lower in zinc, vegetarian intake appears to be comparable to omnivore intake or slightly lower. There isn’t much information available on zinc intakes of vegans. What little data exists indicates that, not surprisingly, vegans consume less zinc than other groups. Vegans may need less zinc, since their lower protein intake may reduce zinc requirements. Although com- pounds in plants can inhibit zinc absorption, overt zinc deﬁciency is not a common problem among vegans. Nevertheless, vegans must consider the potential effects of marginal deﬁciencies. These are harder to pinpoint, but they can become important over time. For this reason, consuming plenty of zinc-rich foods is a good idea.
Fat in Vegan Diets
A trend among some vegans has been to consume only foods that are very low in fat. Although such diets have been linked to signiﬁcant improvements in heart health, it is likely that the lower intake of saturated fat and the total elimination of cholesterol are responsible for this effect.
Keeping fat intake on the low side is a desirable goal. Excessive fat can cause weight gain and may increase cancer risk. But avoiding all high-fat foods and added fats is probably not necessary for good health and may not be wise. Some fats, like the monounsaturated fats found in nuts, olives, olive oil, canola oil, and avocados, appear to have some health beneﬁts. For one, they may lower the risk of heart disease. Very low-fat diets cause decreases in HDL cholesterol, which is the “good” cholesterol that protects against heart disease. Diets that include monounsaturated fats protect against these decreases in HDL. Monounsaturated fats may also be useful in the treatment of diabetes. Traditional plant-based Mediterranean diets, which protect against cancer and heart disease, make generous use of monounsaturated fats.
Very low-fat vegan diets may also be too low in the omega-3 fatty acids. Since the ratio of certain dietary fatty acids is important, it may be valuable to eat less of certain fats and more of others. A healthful goal is to limit added polyunsaturated fats by eating less safﬂower, sunﬂower, and corn oil and replace them with sources of the omega-3 fatty acids (ﬂaxseeds, full-fat soy products, walnuts, and canola oil), along with sources of monounsaturated fats.
Aim for a total fat intake that is on the low side—perhaps about 20 percent of calories—since both excess fat and too little fat seem to have disadvantages.
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