7 Essential Nutrients in the Vegan Diet

Plant-Based Vegan Food, vegetables, fruit, tofu, cereal, legumes, and dips.
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Meeting nutrient needs through a balanced vegan diet is attainable and full of creative choices, including a variety of whole plant foods, fortified foods, and purposeful dietary supplementation.

Through some meal planning and consideration of how these selected essential nutrients play a role in our bodies, we can make informed and practical food choices that contribute to a health-promoting and sustainable vegan diet.

The seven essential nutrients we’ll discuss in this article are Vitamin B12, Iodine, Calcium, Vitamin D, Iron, Zinc, and Essential Fatty Acids.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is needed for red blood cell and DNA formation and central nervous system function. Vitamin B12, primarily found in meat, dairy, and eggs, is a crucial nutrient to pay attention to on a plant-based and vegan diet. Interestingly, vitamin B12 is not made by plants or animals; instead, it’s made by bacteria, which, in turn, animals get vitamin B12 from the bacteria in their diet.

The only reliable sources of vitamin B12 in the vegan diet are B12-fortified foods, such as plant milk, mock meats, and nutritional yeast, and B12 dietary supplements.

Vegan nutrition experts and authors of the book Vegan for Life, Virginia Messina, MPH, RD, and Jack Norris, RD, recommend one of the following ways to meet vitamin B12 needs on a vegan diet (based on the cyanocobalamin form of vitamin B12):

  • Two servings per day of fortified foods containing 2 to 3.5 micrograms of vitamin B12 per serving; or
  • Daily vitamin B12 supplement providing 25 to 100 micrograms; or
  • 1,000 micrograms of vitamin B12 supplement twice a week

Iodine

Iodine is an essential mineral for making thyroid hormones, which play an important role in metabolism, growth, and development across life stages.

Iodine deficiency can lead to goiters, an enlarged thyroid, and hypothyroidism, an underactive thyroid.

The body cannot make iodine and must be obtained through dietary sources. Iodine is primarily found in fish and dairy products due to fish’s iodine-rich diet of seaweeds and iodized sanitation practices used for cow’s teats and dairy equipment.

Vegan iodine dietary sources include sea vegetables, iodized salt, and iodine dietary supplements. The iodine content of seaweeds varies and can contain too high levels of iodine. Therefore, it’s generally recommended to limit high-iodine sea vegetables in the diet and opt for iodized salt or iodine dietary supplements.

It’s also important to know that excessive iodine intake can also lead to Goiters. The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for Iodine for adults is 150 micrograms per day.

For those wanting to reduce added salt intake, iodine dietary supplements, commonly found in the form of Potassium Iodide, can be a practical way to meet iodine needs on a vegan diet. Kelp-based iodine dietary supplements are also available.

Please note that iodine supplements may interact with certain medications. Always check with your healthcare provider before starting new dietary supplements.

Calcium

Calcium is an essential mineral for building and maintaining healthy bones and teeth. Nearly all of the body’s calcium is stored in the bones! If calcium is low in the diet, our body will take calcium from the bones, and over time, this can increase the risk of developing osteoporosis.

In our society, we often think of dairy products when it comes to rich sources of calcium and bone health. However, many plant foods contain calcium, and other bone-protective nutrients, such as potassium, magnesium, vitamin C, and vitamin K.

Well-absorbed calcium-rich plant food sources include low-oxalate leafy green vegetables, such as collard greens, kale, bok choy, turnip greens, mustard greens, okra, and broccoli.

High-oxalate leafy green vegetables, such as spinach, Swiss chard, rhubarb, and beet greens, bind to calcium and reduce absorption.

Therefore, it’s generally recommended to incorporate lower oxalate leafy green vegetables more often for calcium needs.

Other plant-based sources of calcium include calcium-set tofu (made with calcium sulfate), calcium-fortified plant milk, orange juice, almonds, tahini, and figs.

Keep in mind that not all plant milk is fortified with calcium, so checking the Nutrition Facts label and ingredient list for added calcium, commonly listed as calcium carbonate, is a good practice.

Often fortified plant milk contains up to 25% of daily calcium needs per day! Including fortified foods into your daily eating routine is an ideal way to help meet calcium needs.

The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) is 1,000 milligrams per day for adults and increases to 1,200 milligrams for those over 50 years of age.

Virginia Messina, MPH, RD, and Jack Norris, RD, recommend aiming for 3 cups of well-absorbed calcium-rich plant foods per day.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin necessary for building and maintaining healthy bones. While vitamin D is known as the “sunshine vitamin,” many factors affect the body’s ability to absorb vitamin D through the skin, such as sun protection, age, skin pigmentation, smog, time of day, and seasons.

Few foods naturally contain vitamin D, including fatty fish, eggs from chickens fed a vitamin D-enriched diet, and mushrooms treated with ultraviolet rays.

Therefore, vitamin D dietary supplementation is a reliable way to meet vitamin D needs through fortified foods and vitamin D dietary supplements on a vegan diet.

There are two types of Vitamin D:

Vitamin D3, or Cholecalciferol, is the animal-derived form of vitamin D, typically derived from sheep’s wool, called Lanolin, or the oil that comes from sheep’s wool.

Many fortified foods use animal-derived vitamin D3, such as breakfast cereals and orange juice.

Vitamin D2, Ergocalciferol, is sourced from yeast exposed to ultraviolet rays. Plant milk is usually fortified with plant-derived vitamin D2.

An exciting advancement in food and nutrition science is the development of vegan vitamin D3 dietary supplements that are commercially available and are sourced from lichen.

The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for vitamin D for adults is 600 International Units (IU) or 15 micrograms and increases to 800 IU or 20 micrograms over 70 years of age.

Iron

Iron is an essential mineral for hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells, transporting oxygen throughout the body. Iron deficiency anemia is the most common nutritional deficiency, although pregnant and premenopausal women and children are most prone to deficiency. There are two types of iron: heme, found in meat, and non-heme iron, found in plants.

While heme iron is more readily absorbed than non-heme iron, there are ways to increase plant iron absorption:

One of the most effective approaches to increase plant iron absorption is combining vitamin C-rich foods with iron-rich plant foods. Iron-rich plant foods include nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains, and green leafy vegetables.

 Iron-rich meal examples:

  • Tofu stir-fry with bell peppers
  • Oatmeal with strawberries
  • Whole-wheat pasta with broccoli

Tannins in coffee and tea reduce iron absorption, so when possible, aiming to drink coffee and tea in between meals is another way to promote plant iron absorption.

Zinc

Zinc is an essential mineral for cellular function, immune health, wound healing, and sense of taste and smell. Plant food sources of zinc include legumes, whole wheat bread, oats, nuts, and seeds.

The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for zinc in adults is 8 milligrams for women and 11 milligrams for men.

Keeping in mind if taking a modest zinc supplement as recommended by a healthcare provider, the Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL) is 40 milligrams per day for adults.

Phytates, found in certain plant foods, such as nuts, seeds, and whole grains, reduce the absorption of zinc. Zinc absorption can be increased by soaking legumes and grains before cooking, incorporating sprouted grains and legumes, and choosing leavened grain products, such as bread, more often than unleaved grain products, such as crackers.

Essential Fatty Acids

Two essential fatty acids, omega-3, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), and omega-6 fat, linoleic acid (LA), associated with supporting brain, vision, and heart health, cannot be made in the body and must be obtained through the diet.

Omega-6 fats, primarily found in vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds, are typically adequately met or even overconsumed in the diet, whereas omega-3 fats are found in fewer plant foods and may lead to not getting enough omega-3 fats in a plant-based diet.

Plant food sources of omega-3 fatty acids include walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseeds, hemp seeds, soybeans, and algae-based dietary supplements.

The recommended daily intake of essential omega-3 fat, ALA, for adults, is 1.1 grams for women and 1.6 grams for men.

Examples of omega-3 fat, ALA-rich plant foods:

  • *Ground Flaxseed – 1 tablespoon contains approximately 1.6 grams of ALA
  • Walnuts – 1 ounce (14 halves) contains approximately 2.5 grams of ALA
  • Chia Seeds – 1 tablespoon contains approximately 2.5 grams of ALA

*Choosing flaxseed that is ground is an optimal way to improve essential omega-3 fat, ALA, absorption.

ALA Nutrient Values are based from the source USDA FoodData Central.

There are two other types of omega-3 fatty acids, DHA (Docosahexanoic Acid) and EPA (Eicosapentaenoic Acid), which are long-chain omega-3 fats. These omega-3 fats are primarily found in fatty fish, algae, and certain fortified foods, such as omega-3-enriched eggs and certain algae-based DHA-fortified plant milks.

Essential omega-3 fatty acid, ALA, can convert to DHA and EPA in the body; however, this conversion is generally limited.

Therefore, incorporating a variety of plant foods rich in omega-3 fats, ALA, into our daily food choices can ensure we’re meeting healthy fat nutritional needs.

Since fish get their DHA from algae, we can go straight to the source and consume algae-derived DHA.

Virginia Messina, MPH, RD, and Jack Norris, RD, suggest for those wanting to take an extra step in ensuring meeting adequate amounts of DHA, one way would be to supplement with a small amount of algae-based DHA, around 200-300 milligrams 2 to 3 times a week.

Of course, always consult with your healthcare provider before starting a new dietary supplement routine.

Take-Home Message

Being mindful of incorporating these key essential nutrients into a plant-based diet through an array of whole plant foods, fortified foods, and purposeful dietary supplementation can go a long way toward a healthful, fun, and fulfilling vegan lifestyle!

If you’re looking for nutritional guidance and support on your plant-based journey, please feel free to reach out to schedule a free 20-minute discovery call here!

References

Norris, J., & Messina, V. (2020). Vegan for Life: Everything You Need to Know to Be Healthy on a Plant-based Diet. Hachette Go.

Daily needs. (n.d.). VeganHealth.org. https://veganhealth.org/daily-needs/

Office of Dietary Supplements – Vitamin B12. (2022, December 22). https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminB12-HealthProfessional/

Office of Dietary Supplements – Iodine. (2023, August 10). https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Iodine-HealthProfessional/

Office of Dietary Supplements – Calcium. (2022, October 6). https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Calcium-HealthProfessional/

Office of Dietary Supplements – Vitamin D. (2023, September 18). https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-HealthProfessional/

Office of Dietary Supplements – Iron. (2023, June 15). https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Iron-HealthProfessional/

Office of Dietary Supplements – Omega-3 fatty acids. (2023, February 15). https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-HealthProfessional/

Essential fatty acids. (n.d.). Linus Pauling Institute. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/other-nutrients/essential-fatty-acids#metabolism-bioavailability

FoodData Central. (n.d.). https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/index.html

Disclaimer: This blog post is provided for informational and educational purposes only and should never be relied upon in any way as medical or mental health advice. Always consult your physician or other qualified healthcare provider for any health-related questions and concerns or before implementing anything you may learn through this blog post.

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