By Jack Norris, Registered Dietitian
Generally, research on human populations has shown that the higher a percentage of plant foods an individual eats, the lower their risk is for obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
While vegetarians and vegans have lower rates of many of the major chronic diseases, there are some nutrients they should make sure they’re obtaining. Below are some general guidelines and you can find more specific amounts for different age groups at VeganHealth.org. The precise amounts aren’t important to reach each day—rather making sure you come close on most days is what’s important.
It’s easy to get enough protein on a plant-based diet when you include a few servings of legumes each day. Legumes include beans (garbanzo, kidney, pinto, hummus, refried, etc.), peas (green, split, black-eyed), lentils, peanuts, and soybeans (tempeh, tofu, soy milk, soy meats, edamame, etc.). Other plant foods high in protein are quinoa, seitan, nuts, and pumpkin seeds.
Vitamin B12 is the one nutrient not found in plant foods in any reliable amount. Make sure you get a reliable supply of B12 as described above.
Adults need 1,000 mg of calcium per day. Eat at least three servings per day of the high-calcium foods in the meme above or take a supplement of 250-300 mg/day. A serving of greens is 1/2 cup cooked or 1 cup raw.
Some women of child-bearing age, especially endurance runners, can become deficient in iron. Plant foods contain ample iron, but it’s harder to absorb without a source of vitamin C at the same time. If you’re prone to iron deficiency, mixing high-iron foods (in meme above) and vitamin C (in meme below), and avoiding coffee and tea at meals, will maximize absorption.
Zinc is found in tofu, beans, nuts, and oatmeal. Most vegans get about the RDA for zinc but some fall short. Zinc plays a role in the building and repair of muscle tissue and preventing colds. A modest supplement of about 10 mg per day might benefit some vegans, especially strength athletes.
Vitamin A is made from beta-carotene. Eat some of the above foods or drink carrot juice every day.
Sunlight provides vitamin D if the upper body (or the equivalent amount of skin) is exposed a few times a week during mid-day; otherwise a supplement of 600-1,000 IU (15-25 µg) per day is recommended. Deficiency results in fatigue and bone pain.
To ensure adequate iodine intake, vegans should eat seaweed, iodized salt, or take an iodine supplement of 75-150 μg, two to three times per week.
Eat a serving of walnuts, canola oil, flaxseeds, hemp seeds, or chia seeds (or their oils) daily or take a vegan omega-3 supplement.
VeganHealth.org is a website dedicated to giving vegans the most accurate nutrition information possible. It is run by Jack Norris, Registered Dietitian who is also the Executive Director of Vegan Outreach and has been vegan since 1988.
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