If you’ve ever thought about going vegan, you might have wondered whether you need to start taking dietary supplements.
Going vegan can come with a world of health benefits, not to mention significant reductions in your impact on the environment. The elimination of meat and other animal products can be daunting: can vegans get all the nutrition they need from plant foods alone?
The short answer is yes; you can eat a healthy and balanced diet while being vegan. You just need some background knowledge on where to find those nutrients.
Let’s talk about vegan diets, what they look like, and which nutrients vegans need to look for the most.
What Is A Vegan Diet?
First thing’s first: what does “veganism” even mean?
Simply put, a vegan diet does not include any animal products. Like vegetarians, veganism doesn't include any meat like beef, pork, chicken, or seafood. But unlike vegetarianism, vegans also don't eat any other foods with animal products, including animal byproducts. This means aside from meat, you also won't find any dairy, gelatin, eggs, or even honey on the menu.
Types Of Vegan Diets
There are quite a few reasons to go vegan in the first place. For example, some people choose to become vegan in the interest of animal rights and can be categorized as ethical vegans. On the other hand, others may become vegan to minimize their carbon footprint, and these vegans can be thought of as environmental vegans. Religion and health are also big drivers for the vegan diet. Many people choose to make the switch for a combination of reasons.
In addition, there are also various approaches to the vegan diet. These different vegan diets include:
- Raw Vegan: There is some evidence that cooking and processing certain vegetables and plant-based foods can degrade the nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and enzymes. As a result, people who adhere to a raw vegan diet keep their food's cooking, processing, and heating to a minimum.
- Whole Food Vegan: Even though veganism is generally a healthy dietary approach, several highly processed vegan foods aren't necessarily good for you when eaten in large amounts (think: chips and fries). So as the name suggests, people who follow a whole food vegan diet try to minimize their consumption of processed foods in favor of fresh, whole ingredients.
- High Carb Low Fat Vegan: Veganism generally limits the amount of saturated fat people eat since it eliminates fatty animal products. However, people who follow a high-carb, low-fat (HCLF) vegan diet take it one step further and minimize their intake of plant-based fats like vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds.
- Plant-based: Plant-based dieting is a broader category of eating that includes veganism. People who identify as plant-based eaters minimize their consumption of animal products and stick with fruits, vegetables, and other plant foods the majority of the time.
Benefits Of The Vegan Diet
As it turns out, there are quite a few benefits of vegan diets, including:
- Better heart health: Excessive saturated fat and trans fat intakes have been linked to cardiovascular issues like high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Because vegan diets eliminate animal products that tend to be heavy in these unhealthy fats, following a plant-based diet could be beneficial for keeping your heart healthy.
- Healthier weights: The elimination of fat-heavy animal products may also have another benefit: weight loss. Studies have found that overweight people who switch to plant-based diets like veganism tend to see improvements in their weight and other obesity-related diseases like type 2 diabetes.
- More antioxidants: It’s no secret that fruits, vegetables, and other plant-based foods are full of healthy nutrients like fiber, vitamins, and minerals. The increasing consumption of these healthy foods can also mean an increased intake of antioxidants, which are nutrients that can protect your body from the damaging effects of free radicals. This can ultimately mean better protection from chronic and debilitating conditions, including cancer.
- Better for the planet: It takes a massive amount of natural resources to raise animals for meat and food. As a result, animal agriculture takes a significant toll on our planet and contributes to greenhouse gases. Going vegan is one of the most impactful ways to reduce your carbon footprint and help preserve the earth’s resources for future generations.
What Are The Nutrients Vegans Need?
For all the wonderful benefits that come from eating a well-balanced vegan diet, there are also certain nutrients vegans need to pay close attention to. The elimination of meat, dairy, and other animal products can minimize your potential sources for some of these essential nutrients, which means that vegan eaters need to find them elsewhere.
Luckily, you can still get these essential nutrients in plant-based foods if you know where to look for them. In addition, you can also take vegan supplements to ensure you're meeting your dietary needs. If you do think that you need to add supplements into your diet to meet your recommended daily intake of these nutrients, be sure to check in with your doctor first.
So which nutrients do vegans need? The major ones to pay attention to include protein, vitamin B-12, iron, omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, and calcium.
Protein is a macronutrient with a big job: it makes up the structure of your cells and tissues. So besides helping you build and maintain muscle, this means that an adequate protein intake is also essential for making hormones, maintaining bone health, and so much more.
How to get protein from your diet and/or supplements: Many plant-based foods have protein to some degree. However, vegan protein sources are usually "incomplete," meaning that you need to eat multiple protein sources to make complete proteins. Protein-rich plant foods include whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and tofu. The best way to get enough protein from your vegan diet is always to have a diverse range of these protein-rich sources.
There are also a ton of protein supplements on the market you can use to bridge the gap. These are especially important if you're physically active and looking to build lean muscle mass. Look for vegan-friendly protein shakes and bars made from ingredients like peas, seeds, and beans.
2. Vitamin B-12
Another major nutrient concern for vegans is Vitamin B-12 since it is not naturally found in many plant-based foods. Vitamin B-12 is a crucial component of DNA, the genetic material that is the starting point for all of your cells. It also helps keep your red blood cells healthy.
How to get Vitamin B-12 from your diet and/or supplements: While B-12 can be hard to come by naturally in a vegan diet, you aren't without options. Nutritional yeast, which can be sprinkled onto many of your favorite savory meals, is an excellent source of vitamin B-12. You can also find it in nori, a type of seaweed.
However, it's still a good idea to supplement this vitamin since it's so hard to come by in a vegan diet. You can find it in a multivitamin, a vitamin B complex supplement that includes all B vitamins, or a specific B-12 supplement.
Iron is another nutrient that’s crucial for healthy blood cell development. It helps your blood cells transport oxygen throughout your body, and an iron deficiency can lead to anemia.
How to get iron from your diet and/or supplements: Iron can be found in either heme or non-heme form in your diet. While heme iron is only found in animal products like meat, you can get non-heme iron from sources like seeds, nuts, lentils, spinach, and legumes. You can also add to your iron intake with iron-fortified foods and iron supplements.
4. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are a kind of healthy fat necessary for various your body's essential functions. They're important for healthy brains, cardiovascular health, and eyes.* Pregnant women who follow a vegan diet will need to find a good source of vegan omega-3 fatty acids to support their baby's brain development.
How to get omega-3s from your diet and/or supplements: Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is a type of omega-3 fatty acid that you can get from dietary staples like chia seeds, walnuts, and flax seeds. However, it’s more efficient to get your omega-3s from a vegan microalgae supplement that includes EPA and DHA, the two active forms of omega-3s.
If you've ever wanted to fight off the common cold, you might've taken a zinc supplement. The mineral zinc is used all over your body. It is vital for maintaining a healthy immune system that can effectively fight off potential pathogens and diseases.
How to get zinc from your diet and/or supplements: Zinc is found in many vegan diet staples like sprouted seeds, legumes, nuts, whole grains, and veggies. But because vegans are particularly at risk for a zinc deficiency, you might also consider taking a zinc supplement or a multivitamin/mineral supplement that includes zinc.
Strong teeth and healthy bones both depend on an adequate supply of calcium. This mineral is essential for vegans and vegetarians who don't eat dairy products. As you grow older, it's also an important nutrient to pay attention to since a calcium deficiency can lead to weak and brittle bones down the line.
How to get calcium from your diet and/or supplements: Calcium is most notably found in dairy products like milk and cheese. However, people on a vegan diet might find calcium-fortified plant milks that can bridge that gap. Natural plant-based sources of calcium include leafy greens, tofu, and sesame seeds. Of course, you can also take a daily calcium supplement if your food sources are not enough to meet your needs.
With the right combination of a healthy, diverse diet and dietary supplements, vegan nutrition does not have to be complicated. As long as you keep track of your intake of these essential vegan nutrients, you'll be on the right path to healthier, more sustainable eating.