A vegan diet is one that excludes all animal products including eggs and dairy. Despite this restriction, you can meet your nutritional requirements and consume an adequate amount of calories by eating a variety of plant-based foods. However, when planning a healthy vegan diet, it is important to make a concerted effort to consume a sufficient quantity of the nutrients typically found in animal products, such as protein, iron, vitamin B-12, calcium and omega-3 fatty acids.
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Eat a Variety of Plant Proteins
The Institute of Medicine recommends that women should consume 46 grams of protein daily, while men need to get 56 grams each day. You can easily meet this goal by eating a variety of plant-based proteins. One cup of soybeans has 20 grams of protein, while the same portion of other legumes provides about 15 grams of protein. Whole grains, nuts and vegetables contain about 2 grams of protein per serving. Soy protein and quinoa contain all of the essential amino acids, which makes them a complete protein just like you would get from animal products. Beans are good sources of lysine, which is the essential amino acid you're most likely to lack from following a vegan diet, according to VeganHealth.org.
Boost Your Iron Intake
Animal products are known as rich sources of iron, but beans, lentils, enriched grains, whole grains and vegetables also provide iron. The potential problem is that your body does not absorb the type of iron in plant-based foods efficiently. For this reason, anyone following a vegan diet should consume nearly double the typical recommended dietary intake, which means 14 grams daily for vegan men and postmenopausal women and 33 milligrams daily for premenopausal women. You can also boost the absorption of iron by eating foods high in vitamin C at the same time as iron-containing foods.
Vital Calcium and Vitamin D
Calcium plays a vital role in bone health and metabolism, and your body needs vitamin D to absorb calcium. Beans, tofu and dark green vegetables contain calcium, but if you don't eat three servings of leafy greens daily, then you should consider taking supplements, according to VeganHealth.org. Some types of mushrooms contain vitamin D if they're exposed to ultraviolet light, but it's not naturally found in many foods. Most Americans, even those who eat animal products, get their vitamin D from fortified dairy products. Look for brands of orange juice, cereals and grains that are fortified. If you don't get the recommended 15 micrograms, or 600 international units, of vitamin D daily, you may need supplements.
Supplement With Vitamin B-12
Vitamin B-12 is produced by bacteria in animal products, so chances are you won't get enough through a vegan diet. Without sufficient vitamin B-12, your nerves may become permanently damaged and your body won't produce normal red blood cells. Even though some brands of seaweed and organic produce claim to contain vitamin B-12, you won't find any reliable plant sources unless the product is fortified, warns VeganHealth.org. If you don't get the recommended dietary allowance of 2.4 micrograms daily through enriched cereal, meat substitutes or non-dairy milk, you should take supplements, according to the Linus Pauling Institute.
Track Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for the health of your cardiovascular and nervous systems. The best sources of two omega-3 fatty acids -- eicosapentaenoic acid, or EPA, and docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA -- are cold-water, or fatty, fish. Walnuts, flaxseeds, soy products and canola oil contain another type of omega-3, called alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA. Your body uses ALA to synthesize EPA and DHA, but this process is inefficient and may not produce enough to ensure optimal health. In addition to eating ALA-rich foods, try to buy foods enriched with omega-3 or take algae-based supplements.
- VeganHealth.org: Daily Plan
- VeganHealth.org: Protein
- Linus Pauling Institute: Iron
- VeganHealth.org: Calcium and Vitamin D
- Institute of Medicine: Dietary Reference Intakes: Macronutrients
- National Academies Press: Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids (Macronutrients)
- VeganHealth.org: Vitamin B-12
- Linus Pauling Institute: Vitamin B-12
- Colorado State University Extension: Vegetarian Diets