Yan Yin is an Accredited Practising Dietitian and founder of The Thoughtful Dietitian, where she provides online dietetic consultation to clients and blogs about food, nutrition, and health. Otherwise, you’d find her in the kitchen trying out recipes that satisfy her cravings.
Yan Yin Phoi
Accredited Practising Dietitian
The Thoughtful Dietitian
Key essential nutrients for vegans with sources
The vegan diet involves eliminating all animal products in a person’s diet. This limits food intake to only plant-based products. There are many reasons why people choose to go vegan. They may include reducing animal cruelty, sustaining the environment, optimising health, or fulfilling religious requirements. Observational studies have found an association between vegan diets and reduced body mass index, total cholesterol, LDL-cholesterol, glucose levels, and cancer incidence, in comparison with omnivores .
However, as the food industry taps into the increasingly expanding vegan market with products such as vegan chips, burgers, and desserts, care must be taken to ensure vegan food choices are still healthy ones. Furthermore, a vegan diet that is not well thought out may lead to restricted consumption of food types and nutritional inadequacy. In addition, many nutrients are more common, or available in more absorbable forms in animal products. Therefore, vegans have to make a conscious effort to consume a range of foods in sufficient quantities in order to obtain all essential nutrients.
If you’re considering a vegan diet, even if it’s merely including one or two vegan meals a week for health reasons, there are some nutritional aspects you should be mindful of. In this post, we will discuss 8 key essential nutrients for vegans and vegan food sources that can help you obtain these nutrients.
Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. In total, there are 20 of them, of which 9 are essential as they cannot be produced by our bodies. Complete protein sources contain all 9 essential amino acids. All animal protein sources such as meat, seafood, chicken, dairy products, and eggs are complete protein sources. Amongst vegetarian protein sources, only soy beans are a complete source. Other vegetarian protein sources such as vegetables, beans, nuts, and grains, are incomplete.
This means that vegans have to consume a mix of the different plant protein sources. This ensures that all 9 essential amino acids are circulating within the body, available for use at any time. For more on getting the right mix of vegetarian protein sources, check out this article about complementary proteins for vegans and vegetarians (link at bottom of page).
Iron is a component of haemoglobin, which transports oxygen around our body. It is essential for growth, metabolism, and cellular functioning. As such, it is one of the essential nutrients for vegans, as insufficient amounts can lead to iron deficiency anaemia. Iron comes from legumes, beans, nuts, and dark green leafy vegetables. Non-haem iron from plant sources are less easily absorbed than haem iron from animal sources. Vitamin C helps to increase absorption of non-haem iron. Therefore, it is important to consume high-iron foods with vitamin C-rich foods such as citrus fruits, kiwi, capsicum, broccoli, and brussels sprouts.
The common understanding is that calcium is important for bone health, and insufficient calcium can increase risk of osteoporosis and bone fractures in old age. But did you know it is also heavily involved in heart contractile activity, muscle function, nervous signal transmission and hormonal secretion? As such, calcium is a very important mineral! It can be found in hard tofu, almonds, dark green leafy vegetables, and fortified almond, soy, or rice milks.
4. Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are an essential part of cell membranes, while playing a role in optimising brain and heart health. Plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids contain only alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), which are essential as they cannot be produced by our body. After consumption, they will be converted to eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in the body. They can be found in flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and canola oil.
5. Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is important for red blood cell development, brain function, and DNA synthesis. It is found only in animal products. Lacto-ovo-vegetarians may get them from eggs and milk. However, vegans have to rely on vitamin B12-fortified products such as commercially produced cereals, nutritional yeasts, or supplements to obtain sufficient amounts. Vitamin B12 is one of the essential nutrients for vegans as it is not often found naturally in vegan foods, while being crucial for growth and development. If you’re having insufficient vitamin B12, please consult a doctor for supplements or injections.
6. Vitamin D
Vitamin D aids calcium absorption in the gut and is essential in bone mineralization and growth. As such, it works hand in hand with calcium to prevent osteoporosis in old age. It is also involved in cell growth, immune health, and neuromuscular function. Vitamin D is found in few vegan foods, including some mushrooms and fortified breakfast cereals, orange juice, or margarine. Otherwise, you can simply get it from sun exposure!
Iodine forms a part of thyroid hormones, thyroxine and triiodothyronine. Thus, it is involved in metabolic activity as well as many biochemical reactions. As iodine occurs in higher amounts in seafood and dairy products, vegans are at risk of iodine deficiency. In plant products, it has the greatest content in seaweed, and is also found in fruits and vegetables such as corn, prunes, and beans. However, its content in these foods are variable depending on the iodine content of the soil it’s grown in, or irrigation method employed during growth. A good source of iodine is iodised salt and iodine-fortified breads.
Zinc is an important nutrient crucial for growth and development. It plays a role in many pathways in our body such as protein synthesis, wound healing, DNA development, and immune health. As our body is unable to store zinc, daily intake of foods high in zinc is essential. Amongst plants, zinc is found in beans, nuts, wholegrains, and fortified breakfast cereals.
These are the essential nutrients for vegans, or if you happen to avoid animal products some days of the week. Just like any other diet, you may realise that the key lies in consuming a variety of foods from different food groups. Similar to the general population, vegans must include wholegrains, fruits, and vegetables in their diet. However, other foods that should feature on a daily basis would be legumes, nuts, seeds, as well as commercially produced food products fortified with calcium, vitamin B12, vitamin D, iron, iodine, and zinc.
Remember, a healthy diet comes in many forms. A vegan diet may be one of them, but only if done right! If you know of a friend or family member who could improve their diet with the help of this post, do share the love, and forward this article to them.
- Complementary proteins for vegans and vegetarians
- 5 Easy vegan breakfast recipes in 15 mins
- 5 Tried and Tested Kid Friendly Vegan recipes: Chickpea edition
- Dinu M, Abbate R, Gensini GF, Casini A, Sofi F. Vegetarian, vegan diets and multiple health outcomes: A systematic review with meta-analysis of observational studies. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2017; 57 (17): 3640-3649. DOI: 10.1080/10408398.2016.1138447.
- Iron Factsheet for Health Professionals [document on the internet]. Office of Dietary Supplements; 2019 [cited 2019 August 1]. Available from: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Iron-HealthProfessional/
- Calcium Factsheet for Health Professionals [document on the internet]. Office of Dietary Supplements; 2019 [cited 2019 August 1]. Available from: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Calcium-HealthProfessional/
- Omega-3 fatty acids. Factsheet for Health Professionals [document on the internet]. Office of Dietary Supplements; 2019 [cited 2019 August 1]. Available from: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-HealthProfessional/
- Vitamin B12 Factsheet for Health Professionals [document on the internet]. Office of Dietary Supplements; 2019 [cited 2019 August 1]. Available from: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminB12-HealthProfessional/
- Vitamin D Factsheet for Health Professionals [document on the internet]. Office of Dietary Supplements; 2019 [cited 2019 August 1]. Available from: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-HealthProfessional/
- Iodine Factsheet for Health Professionals [document on the internet]. Office of Dietary Supplements; 2019 [cited 2019 August 1]. Available from: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Iodine-HealthProfessional/
- Zinc Factsheet for Health Professionals [document on the internet]. Office of Dietary Supplements; 2019 [cited 2019 August 1]. Available from: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Zinc-HealthProfessional/#en11