From animal rights to health concerns, there are many reasons why people choose to become vegans. Vegans avoid all animal foods, including eggs, dairy and in some cases honey.
While becoming a vegan can lend itself to positive dietary changes, such as increased vegetable, fruit and whole-grain consumption, it does not necessarily make someone a “healthy” eater – sugar, fried foods, alcohol and refined starches can all be vegan! Additionally, veganism involves significant dietary restrictions, so in order to prevent deficiencies vegans must be diligent to consume plant-based sources of nutrients commonly found in animal products. In some cases, supplementation may be advised, but speak with your physician before consuming supplements. The most-common nutrients of concern are: protein, vitamin B12, iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin D and vitamin B2 (riboflavin).
Why It’s Important: Protein not only provides the building blocks of muscle and lean body mass, but is also involved in the production of hair, nails, enzymes, hormones and neurotransmitters.
How Much an Adult Needs: The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of protein for an average adult is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. However, it can be 20 percent higher for people whose primary sources of protein are from plants – which is equal to about 1 gram per kilogram of body weight. For an average 150-pound person, that is 68 grams of protein per day. More is needed if you’re an athlete or recovering from injury.
Vegan Foods Rich in Protein (values are approximate)
• 1/2 cup tofu = 20 grams
• 3 ounces tempeh = 15 grams
• 3 ounces seitan = 18 grams
• 1 cup cooked quinoa = 8 grams
• 1/2 cup beans = 8 to 10 grams
• 1 ounce or 1/4 cup almonds = 6 grams
• 1 ounce or 1/4 cup pumpkin seeds = 9 grams
Vegan Recipe That Features Protein-Rich Foods:
Vegan Tofu Scramble
Why It’s Important: Vitamin B12 plays an essential role in red blood cell formation, proper functioning of the brain and nervous system, and metabolism. Deficiency can result in anemia, muscle weakness, numbness and loss of balance.
How Much an Adult Needs: The RDA for adults is 2.4 micrograms (mcg) per day. While the body can store vitamin B12 in the liver for years, deficiency can occur in vegetarians and vegans, as most sources of vitamin B12 are animal foods.
Vegan Foods Rich in Vitamin B12 (values are approximate):
• 1 tablespoon nutritional yeast = 2 micrograms
• Fortified almond, soy or coconut milk = 1 to 3 micrograms
• Fortified cereals = 0.6 to 6 micrograms
• 100 grams tempeh = 0.12 micrograms
• Fortified “meat” alternatives = varies
Vegan Recipes That Feature Vitamin B12-Rich Foods:
Vegan Cream of Broccoli Soup
Why It’s Important: Iron is an essential component of the cells that accept and transfer oxygen through our body – hemoglobin in our red blood cells and myoglobin in our muscle cells. Iron is also involved in breathing, metabolism, collagen synthesis and brain function. Deficiency can result in feelings of fatigue and weakness, decreased mental performance, decreased immune function, swollen tongue and difficulty maintaining body temperature.
How Much an Adult Needs: Women need more iron (18 milligrams per day) than men (8 milligrams per day) during their menstrual years. Women have increased needs with pregnancy (27 milligrams per day) and lower needs while lactating (9 milligrams per day) and after menopause (8 milligrams per day). While plant-based sources of iron are less absorbed by the body, you can increase how much your body takes in by consuming them with a source of vitamin C. Cooking in a cast-iron skillet can actually help as well!
Vegan Foods Rich in Iron (values are approximate):
• 1 cup cooked spinach, Swiss chard and other dark leafy greens = about 6 milligrams
• 1 cup of most beans = 4 milligrams
• 1 cup lentils = 6 milligrams
• 1/2 cup tofu = 3 milligrams
• 1 cup quinoa (cooked) = 2.7 milligrams
• 2 tablespoons sesame seeds = 2.6 milligrams
• 1 ounce cashews = 2 milligrams
• 1 medium potato with skin = 2 milligrams
• 1/2 cup stewed tomatoes = 2 milligrams
• 1 cup cooked broccoli = 2 milligrams
• 1 cup green peas = 2 milligrams
• 1 cup cooked Brussels sprouts = 2 milligrams
• 2 tablespoons blackstrap molasses = 2 milligrams
Vegan Recipe That Features Iron-Rich Foods:
Vegan Lentil Burgers
Why It’s Important: Zinc is involved in a wide range of bodily functions, primarily supporting the immune system, wound healing, cell division, cell growth and carbohydrate metabolism. Deficiency can result in delayed healing, increased infection, loss of taste or smell, decreased appetite, hair or skin problems and loss of libido in men.
How Much an Adult Needs: Adequate daily intake of zinc is important, as the body cannot store it. While adult women generally need at least 8 milligrams per day (more during pregnancy) and adult men need 11 milligrams per day, vegans may need to consume as much as 50 percent more than those amounts, since zinc from plant-based sources is not absorbed as well. While vegans are more at risk for deficiency, it is possible to consume too much zinc (more than 40 milligrams), usually due to excessive supplementation. Excess zinc intake can negatively impact copper and iron levels, impair the immune system and reduce “good” HDL cholesterol.
Vegan Foods Rich in Zinc (values are approximate):
• 1 ounce pumpkin seeds = 2.92 milligrams
• 1 cup quinoa (cooked) = 2 milligrams
• 1 ounce cashews = 1.6 milligrams
• 1/4 cup dry oatmeal = 1.5 milligrams
• 2 tablespoons sesame seeds = 1.4 milligrams
• 1/2 cup chickpeas = 1.3 milligrams
• 1 cup lentils = 1.3 milligrams
• 1 cup asparagus = 1 milligram
• 1/2 cup tofu = 1 milligram
Vegan Recipe That Features Zinc-Rich Foods:
Why it’s Important: While traditionally associated with strong bones and teeth (99 percent of calcium is stored there), calcium also plays major roles in blood clotting, maintaining your heartbeat, creating muscle contractions, conducting nerve signals and releasing hormones. Some examples of acute calcium deficiency are numbness/tingling in the fingers, muscle cramping, fatigue, reduced appetite, convulsions and arrhythmias. Long-term deficiency can negatively affect bone health, including osteopenia, osteoporosis and increased fracture risk.
How Much an Adult Needs: The RDA for calcium for most adults ranges from 1,000 to 1,200 milligrams per day, depending on age. Adolescents need a bit more, about 1,300 milligrams per day. Vegans who do not consume fortified products may need a calcium supplement to meet their daily needs.
Vegan Foods Rich in Calcium (values are approximate):
• 1 cup fortified non-dairy milk = 300 milligrams
• 1 cup fortified orange juice = 300 milligrams
• 1/2 cup tofu = 250 milligrams
• 10 figs = 270 milligrams
• 1 cup cooked broccoli = 180 milligrams
• 1/4 cup almonds = 95 milligrams
• 1 cup of most beans = 80 milligrams
• 1 cup sweet potato or butternut squash = 70 to 85 milligrams
• 1 cup cooked dark leafy greens (kale, bok choy, etc.) = 75 to 100 milligrams
Why It’s Important: Vitamin D is involved in many systems throughout the body, including bone health, cell growth, immune function, neuromuscular function, inflammation management and cell regulation. Deficiency can result in loss of bone health, such as rickets in children and osteomalacia or osteoporosis in adults. Bone pain and muscle weakness may occur as well.
How Much an Adult Needs: The RDA for vitamin D has risen in recent years, up to 600 IU (15 micrograms) for most adults, increasing to 800 IU (20 micrograms) for adults over 70 years of age. Needs may be even higher for other populations. There are very few foods that are naturally rich in vitamin D, and even fewer for vegetarians and vegans. Adequate sunlight during the summer months is the best way to ensure ample vitamin D stores, but this can be challenging for many.
Vegan Foods Rich in Vitamin D (values are approximate):
• 1 cup fortified orange juice = about 140 IU
• Vitamin D-enriched mushrooms = varies based on what light the mushroom is exposed to
• Fortified cereal = varies
Vegan Recipe That Features Vitamin D Foods:
Spicy Vegan Sloppy Joes (Crimini mushrooms may contain small amounts of vitamin D)
Why It’s Important: Riboflavin is involved in healthy growth of your skin, hair, eyes and liver. It is also involved in red blood cell production, nervous system function and carbohydrate metabolism. It’s also involved in the activation of other B vitamins, such as folate and vitamin B6.
How Much an Adult Needs: Adult women need about 1.1 milligrams per day, and adult men need about 1.3 milligrams per day. Many good sources of riboflavin are animal products like dairy, eggs, fish and meat. Therefore, vegans should make sure they are consuming at least a couple of good plant-based sources of riboflavin each day.
Vegan Food Sources of Riboflavin (values are approximate):
• 1 cup tofu or soybeans = 0.49 milligrams
• 1 cup cooked spinach, beet greens = 0.42 milligrams
• 4 ounces tempeh = 0.40 milligrams
• 1 ounces almonds = 0.29 milligrams
• 1 cup cooked asparagus = 0.25 milligrams
• 1 cup green peas = 0.21 milligrams
• 1 medium sweet potato = 0.21 milligrams
• 1 cup cooked broccoli = 0.20 milligrams
• 1 cup cooked quinoa = 0.20 milligrams
• 1 cup winter squash = 0.14 milligrams
• 1 cup Brussels sprouts = 0.12 milligrams
Through his book and blog, Death of the Diet , Jason Machowsky, MS, RD, CSCS, strongpowers people to live the life they want by integrating healthy eating and physical activity habits into their daily routines. You can follow him on Twitter @JMachowskyRDFit .