A meatless diet can be healthy, however, if you’re following a vegan diet for an extended period of time, you’re at risk for certain nutritional deficiencies including vitamin B12, calcium, iron, and zinc. In fact, practicing vegans are especially at risk for developing a B12 deficiency (a nutrient naturally found in animal food products) according to The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The following content lists each essential nutrient’s function in the body, the recommended daily allowances (RDA) as well as associated plant-based food sources*.
Vitamin B-12 plays an essential role in red blood cell formation, cell metabolism, nerve function and the production of DNA, the molecules inside cells that carry genetic information.
Plant-based sources for vitamin B12:
-fortified cereals, fortified plant-based milk (soy, coconut, almond, rice) nutritional yeast, tempeh, algae/seaweed, mushrooms.
Calcium (+ Vitamin D)
Calcium and Vitamin D work together to protect your bones. Since Vitamin D plays an important role in Calcium absorption, I added it to the list of essential nutrients for reference. Calcium is used to maintain bone strength and carry out important bodily functions including helping the nerves send messages to the brain and throughout the body, as well as muscle movement. Vitamin D helps your body to absorb calcium effectively.
Plant-based sources for Calcium:
-chickpeas, tofu, poppy seeds, soy milk, fortified plant milks, tempeh, almonds, fortified orange juice, dried figs and fortified cereals. Broccoli, brussels sprouts, collards, kale, mustard greens, Swiss chard, and other leafy greens are also loaded with highly absorbable calcium, states the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, however, spinach is the exception. Spinach contains a large amount of calcium, but holds onto it tenaciously, so your body absorbs less.
“A report published by Harvard Medical School states that the Recommended Daily Allowances for calcium may be too high and can lead to an increased the risk for stroke and kidney stones”.
A report published by Harvard Medical School states that the Recommended Daily Allowances for calcium may be too high and can lead to an increased the risk for stroke and kidney stones. In the report, Dr. Walter Willett, chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health recommends cutting the recommended dose by half, ‘essentially, I think that adults do not need 1,200 mg of calcium a day. The World Health Organization’s recommendation of 500 mg is probably about right he states, which you can probably get directly from food’. If you can’t get enough calcium from your diet, Dr. Willet recommends a low dose supplement (500 mg or less), to avoid the risk of developing heart disease or kidney stones.
Although vitamin D is added to plant-based milk and some other foods, you’ll probably need a supplement to be sure you’re getting enough.
Plant-based sources for Vitamin D:
-fortified soy milk, fortified cereal, fortified orange juice, fortified almond milk, fortified rice milk, mushrooms, exposure sunshine without sunscreen (10-30 minutes 3 x week is good for most) to build up vitamin D stores in the body.
“People who follow a vegan diet need 1.8 times the Recommended Daily Allowance for iron, compared with those who eat meat. This is due to the fact that nonheme iron (iron present in plant-based foods) is not as readily available to your body as heme iron (iron present in animal foods)”.
Iron is essential in maintaining the health of cells, skin, nails and hair. “The major reason we need iron is that it helps to transport oxygen throughout the body,” states Paul Thomas, EdD, RD, a scientific consultant to the National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements in an article for webmd.com. People who follow a vegan diet need 1.8 times the Recommended Daily Allowance for iron, compared with those who eat meat. This is due to the fact that nonheme iron (iron present in plant-based foods) is not as readily available to your body as heme iron (iron present in animal foods). For example, a healthy adult woman between the ages of 19 and 50, who eats animal protein regularly may need 18 mg of iron daily. If she follows a vegan diet instead, she’ll need about 32 mg.
“For example, a healthy adult woman between the ages of 19 and 50, who eats animal protein regularly may need 18 mg of iron daily. If she follows a vegan diet instead, she’ll need about 32 mg”.
Here are some quick tips to help maximize iron absorption. At mealtime, pair vitamin C and iron rich foods together. Vitamin C aides in the absorption of non-heme iron. Simply drizzling some lemon juice over leafy greens will increase the amount of iron you absorb. Avoid drinking coffee, tea and milk when consuming iron-rich foods; instead, drink these types of beverages in between meals. Polyphenols, compounds present in coffee and tea, and casein, the main protein found in cow’s milk, inhibit iron absorption.
– lentils, chickpeas, beans, tofu, cashew nuts, chia seeds, ground linseed, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, kale, dried apricots, dried figs, raisins, quinoa and fortified breakfast cereal.
Zinc is involved in cellular metabolism. It plays a role in immune function, protein synthesis, wound healing, DNA synthesis, and cell division. Zinc also supports normal growth and development during pregnancy, childhood, and adolescence and is necessary for proper taste and smell. Since zinc isn’t stored in the body, it needs to be replenished daily.
-beans, chickpeas, lentils, tofu, walnuts, cashews, chia seeds, ground linseed, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, wholemeal bread and quinoa.
National Institute of Health Recommended Daily Allowance for Zinc:
*Please note that the information provided is meant to serve as a guide, and is not a substitute for the advice of a qualified healthcare provider.
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