Two percent of Americans consider themselves vegan, according to a 2012 Gallup poll. If you follow a strict vegetarian diet, you are at risk for nutritional deficiencies that affect your health. A well-planned vegan diet is nutritionally adequate and may even prevent and treat disease.
A vegetarian is someone who does not eat meat. The eating habits of vegetarians vary widely. Lacto-ovo vegetarians consume dairy products and eggs. Lacto vegetarians forego eggs but eat dairy. Strict vegetarians, or vegans, exclude all animal products. A plant-based diet lowers your risk for heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and cancer, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. However, vegans are at risk for deficiency of certain nutrients that are found in animal products, including protein, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins B-12 and D, calcium, iron and zinc.
Calcium-fortified foods can provide the calcium and protein that vegans don’t get from dairy. One cup of calcium-fortified soy milk provides 340 milligrams of calcium and 7 grams of protein. Some soy milk is also fortified with vitamin D, which helps prevent reduced bone mass often seen in vegans who do not consume fortified foods. Most ready-to-eat breakfast cereals are fortified with vitamins and minerals that vegan diets commonly lack, such as iron and vitamin B-12. Sprinkle chopped walnuts or flaxseed meal on your cereal to obtain alpha-linolenic acid, a plant-based omega-3 fatty acid. Your body converts some ALA to EPA and DHA, or eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid, which are important for cardiovascular health, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Vegetarians require more iron because the human body can’t get as much of the mineral from plant sources as it can from animal sources, notes the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Good vegan sources of iron include lentils, tofu and potatoes. Boost your iron absorption by including vitamin C-rich fruits and vegetables in your meal, such as sweet red pepper, strawberries and orange juice. Strict vegetarians also have increased requirements for zinc due to compounds in plant foods that make it harder for the body to absorb it. The process of leavening bread improves the bioavailability of both iron and zinc. Spread almond butter or chickpea hummus on whole-wheat bread for a good source of iron, zinc and protein.
Greens are a good plant source of calcium for vegans. Some greens, however, are also high in oxalate, which inhibits calcium absorption, warns the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Enjoy greens that are lower in oxalate. Eat a half-cup of bok choy or collard greens with dinner to get between 79 and 133 milligrams of bone-building calcium. Stir-fry calcium-fortified tofu with your greens to add a good source of protein. Eat a variety of beans, whole grains, vegetables and soy products throughout the day to get the protein your body needs. You can get all of the amino acids essential to protein-building without having to eat complementary protein sources together, according to the AND.
If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, you have increased requirements for omega-3 fatty acids. You may need a microalgae-derived DHA supplement to provide the amount of DHA needed for optimal infant eye and brain development. Vitamin D fortification of foods, such as soy milk, orange juice and margarine, is often achieved using animal-derived vitamin D-3. Look for supplements or foods fortified with vitamin D-2, which is synthesized from yeast, and obtain daily sun exposure to help prevent deficiency. Plant foods are low in vitamin B-12. Most vegans will need to take daily B-12 supplements or consume nutritional yeast to meet their needs, advises the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
- Gallup Wellbeing: In U.S., 5% Consider Themselves Vegetarians
- Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets
- USDA Nutrient Database: Soymilk, Enhanced
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Nutrition Care Manual: Vegetarian Nutrition
- Linus Pauling Institute Micronutrient Information Center
Amy Long Carrera is a registered dietitian in Los Angeles who has been writing since 2007 for such publications as The Insider, On the Other Side and Arthritis Today. She is a certified nutrition support clinician and her writing employs current research to provide evidence-based nutrition information. Carrera holds a master of science degree in nutrition from California State University, Northridge.