With the growth in the vegan lifestyle, understanding nutrition is imperative for optimal health. The vegan lifestyle shuns all animal-derived products, pivoting towards plant-sourced foods, which, though abundant in many vitamins, can sometimes fall short on certain micro-nutrients. So here we will look at micro-nutrients needed in living a healthy Vegan Life
Micro-nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, and trace elements, contribute considerably to organism growth, disease prevention, and overall longevity. Designations such as Vitamins A, C, D, E, K, and B-vitamins, alongside calcium, potassium, and iron, facilitate various bodily functions. For example, Vitamin-A is instrumental for maintaining good vision, whereas B-vitamins bolster energy production (National Institute of Health)^[2^].
For vegans, specific micro-nutrients are often a bigger concern. A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition outlined that most vegans need to ensure adequate intake of Vitamin B12, Vitamin D, Omega-3 fatty acids, Iodine, Iron, Calcium, and Zinc^[3^]. Without careful diet planning, vegan individuals are often found to be deficient in these micro-nutrients, posing risks like anaemia and osteoporosis (National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements)^[2^]. See later in this blog for vegan sources of all of these micro-nutrients.
Luckily for vegans like us, a variety of micro-nutrient-packed foods are available, including lentils, beans, quinoa, and spinach, which are rich in iron. Foods like sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and mushrooms are great sources of zinc, whereas greens and soy products provide necessary calcium intake. Other dietary supplements are often necessary as well, particularly Vitamin B12, as it's usually obtained from animal-derived foods (The Vegan Society)^[4^].
Balancing a vegan diet with optimal micro-nutrient intake could be as simple as adding flaxseeds to your smoothie or eating a spinach salad for lunch. However, there are inhibitors to look out for when consuming these foods. For instance, coffee can inhibit iron absorption when consumed in an iron-rich meal (National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements)^[2^].
Adopting certain cooking techniques can help nutrient absorption - for example, soaking and sprouting grains before eating. Combining Vitamin-C rich foods with your iron-based meals will also aid in iron absorption (National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements)^[2^].
Micro-nutrients don't just aid in maintaining good health, they also help in warding off diseases. Antioxidants like vitamin C and selenium may prevent heart disease and cancer. Moreover, micro-nutrients even play a role in mental health with Omega-3 fatty acids potentially reducing symptoms in psychiatric disorders like depression (MedlinePlus, National Centre for Biotechnology Information)^[5^][6^].
Numerous case studies underscore the importance of a balanced, micro-nutrient rich, vegan diet. The Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, for instance, revealed prevalent deficiencies among vegans, including Vitamin B12, Vitamin D, Iodine, Calcium, and Iron^[7^]. However, with a little thought it is easy for vegans to get these nutrients in sufficient quantities.
In addition to focusing on plant-based foods, a well-rounded vegan diet should also prioritize the balance of both macro and micro-nutrients. While foods like rice and lentils provide necessary carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, leafy greens, fruits, nuts, and seeds serve as powerhouses for essential vitamins and minerals (Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health)^[1^].
Vegan Sources of the Vitamin B12, Vitamin D, Omega-3 fatty acids, Iodine, Iron, Calcium, and Zinc
Here are some vegan sources for each of these nutrients:
Since B12 predominantly comes from animal sources, it is rare in fruits, vegetables, nuts or seeds. However, you can get B12 from plant-based foods that are fortified with the vitamin.
- Fortified non-dairy milk (1 cup): 1.2 mcg
- Nutritional yeast (1 tablespoon): 1 mcg
- Fortified cereal (1/2 cup): 0.6 mcg
- Fortified meat substitutes (1 serving): 1.4 mcg
- Fortified vegan spreads (1 serving): 0.9 mcg
- Fortified soy products (1 serving): 1.0 mcg
- Fortified vegan cheese (1 serving): 0.9 mcg
- Vegan B12 fortified yeast extract spread, such as Marmite (1 serving): 0.5 mcg
- Plant-based energy bars (check label for exact amount): varies by brand
- B12 supplements (check label for exact amount): varies by brand
Vitamin D naturally occurs in very few plant foods, but some mushrooms grown under UV light can provide this nutrient.
- Sunlight is the prime source of Vitamin D. Foods and supplements provide marginal amounts.
- Fortified non-dairy milk (1 cup): 100 IU
- Fortified orange juice (1 cup): 137 IU
- Fortified cereals (1 serving): 40 IU
- Fortified tofu (1/2 cup): 80 IU
- Fortified vegan yogurt (1 cup): 100 IU
- Fortified vegan margarine (1 tablespoon): varies by brand
- Fortified vegan breakfast bars (1 serving): varies by brand
- Vitamin D supplements (check label for exact amount): varies by brand
- Certain mushroom varieties, grown under UV light conditions (like maitake mushrooms: 1 cup): 786 IU
- Chia seeds (1 tablespoon): 2.5 g
- Hemp seeds (1 tablespoon): 1 g
- Walnuts (1/4 cup): 2.7 g
- Flax seeds (1 tablespoon): 1.6 g
- Algal oil supplements: vary by brand
Daily iodine requirement is 150 micrograms; nutritional content varies widely based on soil where plants were grown
- Sea vegetables - kelp, nori, wakame, etc. Content is highly variable.
- Iodized salt (1/4 teaspoon): 71 mcg
- Baked potato (medium sized): 60 mcg
- Dried prunes (5 prunes): 13 mcg
- Cranberries (1/2 cup): up to 400 mcg
- Lentils (1 cup cooked): 6.6 mg
- Soybeans (1 cup cooked): 8.8 mg
- Quinoa (1 cup cooked): 2.8 mg
- Spinach (1 cup cooked): 6.4 mg
- Fortified cereals (1 cup): vary by brand
- Kale (1 cup raw): 100 mg
- Collard greens (1 cup cooked): 266 mg
- Fortified orange juice (1 cup): 300 mg
- Fortified non-dairy milk (1 cup): 300-500 mg
- Tofu (processed with calcium; 1/2 cup): 434 mg
- Lentils (1 cup cooked): 2.5 mg
- Quinoa (1 cup cooked): 2.0 mg
- Chia seeds (1 tablespoon): 0.5 mg
- Pumpkin seeds (1/4 cup): 2.5 mg
- Tofu (1/2 cup): 2 mg
Embarking on a vegan lifestyle promises profound benefits for health, the planet, and ethical living. However, securing optimal nutritional fulfilment entails understanding and addressing the critical role micro-nutrients play in overall wellness.
Naturally, plant-based foods can deliver an abundant array of vitamins, minerals, and other health-promoting compounds. Yet, certain micro-nutrients, such as Vitamin B12, Vitamin D, Omega-3 fatty acids, Iodine, Iron, Calcium, and Zinc, often prove more challenging to derive solely from a vegan diet. Hence, tailored attention is required to ensure these vital components are adequately incorporated.
Relying on a rich variety of plant foods, fortifying where needed, often ensures a broad spectrum of nutrients necessary for maintaining health. Yet, it's important to remember that individual needs can vary significantly depending on age, activity level, location, and health status.
Vegans should also consider nutritional strategies, like pairing iron-rich foods with vitamin C for enhanced absorption or soaking and sprouting nuts and seeds to reduce natural inhibitors. Adopting such techniques helps maximize the nutritional benefits derived from each meal.
Moreover, leveraging the power of fortified foods and supplements can be a practical strategy to bridge nutritional gaps without compromising vegan principles. For instance, fortified plant milks, cereals, vegan spreads, and other products can provide significant amounts of otherwise hard-to-obtain nutrients like vitamin B12 and D.
In summary, adopting a vegan lifestyle doesn't mean compromising on nutritional adequacy. In fact, with the right balance of macro and micro-nutrients, a vegan diet is not only easy but also includes numerous health benefits. With careful planning and a variety of nutrient-rich foods, a vegan diet can absolutely support a long, vibrant, and wholesome life.
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