A Dietitian Shares How to Get All the Nutrients Your Body Needs During Veganuary

Instead of setting lofty resolutions for the entire year, we're on board with the new-ish trend of committing to a "healthy challenge" for the first month. The hope, of course, is that some of the healthy habits and behaviors continue on into the months thereafter.

Here's what you need to know about vegan nutrition and which vegan foods to eat to avoid missing out on key nutrients.
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One specific challenge that's gaining in popularity is Veganuary, which involves going fully vegan for, you guessed it, the month of January. Eliminating all animal products — meat, fish, eggs, dairy and even honey — can certainly prove to be a challenge for most. But eating a balanced vegan diet that gives you all of the nutrients you need might be an even bigger feat that requires some upfront knowledge and planning along the way.

Here are eight nutrients you'll want to pay special attention to when mapping out your plan for Veganuary this year.

Logging your meals on the MyPlate app can help you keep track of what nutrients you're getting enough of and which you're falling short on. Download now to fine-tune your diet today!

1. Vitamin B12

This one is a biggie for vegans because vitamin B12 is really only predominately found in animal products. So while health care professionals like dietitians typically recommend getting your nutrients from food first, when it comes to getting your B12 on a strictly vegan diet, the current recommendation is to take a supplement to ensure an adequate and consistent source of vitamin B12, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Two plant-based food sources of vitamin B12 include:

  • Fortified breakfast cereals
  • Nutritional yeast

If you're sticking with a vegan diet beyond January, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics also recommends periodic screening for a B12 deficiency. Vitamin B12 is important for normal red blood cell formation and nervous system function, and assists with overall cellular energy in the body.

Read more: Everything You Need to Know About Going Vegan for Weight Loss

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2. Iron

While many plant foods contain iron, plant-based iron is not as easily absorbed as iron from animal products. So if you find yourself with low energy levels throughout the day, you could be deficient in iron. This is because the mineral helps oxygen flow through your body and helps keep certain hormones in check.

Valuable plant sources of iron include:

  • Beans
  • Lentils
  • Cooked spinach
  • Tofu
  • Fortified cereals

Some fortified cereals fulfill 100 percent of the Daily Value (DV) of iron, according to the National Institutes of Health. To better absorb the mineral, pair vegan iron sources with vitamin C-rich foods like tomatoes, citrus fruits and strawberries.

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3. Omega-3 Fats

Omega-3 fatty acids play an important role in brain function and heart health. There are three types: EPA, DHA and ALA. Plant sources provide ALA, which the body then converts into DHA and EPA — however, the conversion rate is poor and only about 15 percent or less of ALA actually ends up as DHA and EPA , according to the National Institutes of Health.

While non-vegetarians can fulfill their needs through two to three servings of fish per week, vegans require more routine intake. You can find ALA in the following foods:

  • Walnuts
  • Flaxseeds
  • Chia seeds
  • Hemp seeds
  • Soybeans

But to ensure you're consistently getting adequate amounts, you may want to consider supplementation as a precautionary measure. There are algae-based supplements available that provide both EPA and DHA.

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4. Vitamin D

We meet most of our nutrient needs through our diet but when it comes to vitamin D, we rely heavily on the sun. The few foods that naturally contain vitamin D are mainly derived from animals. While omnivores can meet their needs through fortified dairy products and seafood, vegans rely heavily on fortified plant alternatives.

You can find vitamin D in the following:

  • Fortified soy milk or soy yogurt
  • Fortified orange juice
  • Fortified cereals
  • Mushrooms (exposed to UV light)

Still, regardless of diet type, about 40 percent of Americans are deficient in vitamin D, according to a June 2018 Cureus paper, so supplementation may be beneficial if you're not eating enough of the fortified food sources or getting adequate sun exposure. The Cleveland Clinic recommends 15 to 20 minutes of direct sunlight three times a week.

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5. Calcium

Calcium does your body good, and you don't need animal products to reap it. Moderate amounts of calcium are found in:

  • Green vegetables including kale, turnip greens and broccoli
  • Fortified plant milks
  • Fortified orange juice
  • Fortified tofu
  • Fortified cereals

Meeting the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of 1,000 milligrams of calcium for adults per day also helps ensure normal muscle and hormone function. One cup of fortified soy milk supplies about 30 percent of the DV of calcium, which is the same amount you'll get from cow's milk.

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Read more: What's the Difference Between Plant-Based, Vegetarian and Vegan Diets?

6. Zinc

Zinc is similar to iron in that it's not as easily absorbed by the body when it's sourced from plants instead of animal products, per the National Institutes of Health.

On top of that, whole grains and legumes are typically a staple in vegan diets and these foods contain phytates, which are plant compounds that actually reduce the absorption of zinc. For this reason, vegans can require 50 percent more than the established RDA (8 milligrams for women and 11 milligrams for men and pregnant women) than people who aren't on a vegan diet.

The good news is, there are plenty of plant-based food sources of zinc, including:

  • Fortified cereals
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Baked beans
  • Cashews
  • Chickpeas
  • Oatmeal
  • Almonds
  • Peas

To help cut down on the amount of phytates in your food, you can soak your grains, beans and seeds in a tub of water for a few hours before cooking them.

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7. Iodine

This is a mineral we hear less about but it plays a crucial role in making sure our thyroid gland functions properly. According to the Vegetarian Resource Group (VRG), most of the iodine in the U.S. comes from iodized salt, as well as seafood and dairy.

Plant foods contain iodine as well but it varies greatly depending on how much iodine is in the soil. Some plant-based sources of iodine include:

  • Sea vegetables like nori and wakame
  • Prunes
  • Raisin bran cereal
  • Lima beans
  • Green peas
  • Bananas

The VRG also reports that vegans typically get less iodine than their omnivore counterparts. Using iodized salt instead of Himalayan or sea salt (unless iodized) when you're cooking or at the dinner table can help increase your intake. However, make sure not to take in more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium (about a teaspoon's worth) each day to keep your heart health in check, per the FDA.

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8. Protein

Lastly, one of the most common concerns we hear about with following a plant-based diet is figuring out how to get enough protein. A range of 10 to 35 percent of your total calories is recommended, and where you fall on that spectrum depends on your goals, gender, physical activity and other factors.

Eating on the higher of the range may help support weight loss while preserving muscle mass, according to a June 2015 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Plant-based proteins are widely available and they're super nutritious, providing fiber, phytonutrients, vitamins, minerals and healthy fats. Some examples of plant proteins include:

  • Chickpeas
  • Tofu
  • Farro
  • Lentils
  • Almonds
  • Quinoa
  • Soy products
  • Seitan (wheat gluten)

The goal with plant-based proteins is to eat a variety of foods so that you get an adequate balance of all of the amino acids, which are the building blocks protein is made up of. Since plant-based foods are not always complete proteins (which means they're missing some essential amino acids), you'll want to combine a few different plant foods to get the full amino acid profile. Both quinoa and soy are complete proteins.

Read more: Tempeh vs. Tofu vs. Seitan: Your Guide to Meat Alternatives

Lysine is the most crucial amino acid to focus on as it's more difficult to get in a plant-based diet, according to a September 2017 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. You can find lysine in both soybeans and lentils.

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Click below to pin this guide to these eight key nutrients and save it for later!

If you're trying veganuary, make sure to include these eight key nutrients in your meal plan.
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