Vegan Nutrition – Addressing Your Concerns…

25 October 2015

In the last few years, vegetarian diets have rapidly increased in popularity. A sufficient vegetarian diet is directly related with many health benefits because of its higher content of fiber, folic acid, vitamins C and E, potassium, magnesium, and numerous phyto-chemicals, phyto-nutrients and a fat content that is considerably less saturated. Going one step further, vegans commonly choose a plant-based diet for health, environmental, and/or ethical reasons. Many vegans choose this lifestyle to promote a more humane and caring world.

When compared with most vegetarian diets, vegan diets tend to contain even less saturated fat and cholesterol and more dietary fiber. This results in vegans generally becoming thinner, having lower serum cholesterol, and lower blood pressure, further reducing their risk of heart disease. That’s good news! However, eliminating all animal products from the diet may increase the risk of certain nutritional deficiencies unless vegans take certain precautions. After all, there are plenty of crappy foods that would fall under the vegan category, (Fritos, Pop-tarts, Oreos, Potatoe Chips and a seemingly unending list of "junk" foods), and these have become the mainstay for the typical American diet. So, nutritional deficiencies can exist in both camps and it is safe to say that vegans consume foods with a higher nutritional value as long as they don't fall prey to certain indulgences and follow a few obvious guidelines. 

The micronutrients that are of special concern for vegans often include vitamins B-12, D, and long-chain (omega-3) fatty acids. Unless vegans regularly consume foods that contain or are fortified with these nutrients, supplements should be considered. In some cases, iron and zinc status of vegans may also be of concern because of the limited bioavailability of these minerals.

Let’s address each of these vitamins and minerals that could be deficient in a vegan diet, detailing non-animal sources:

  • Vitamin B12 – This is especially important for pregnant and lactating women, infants, and children, they need to have reliable sources of vitamin B12 in their diets. Numerous vegan foods are fortified with B12, but sometimes companies change their methods, so always read labels carefully (or write to the companies). Many nutritional yeast products (not to be mistaken with brewer’s yeast) are fortified with vitamin B12. Tempeh, miso, and seaweed are known to have large amounts of vitamin B12; however, these foods are not always reliable sources of the vitamin because the bioavailability of vitamin B12 is questionable depending on the type of processing the food undergoes. Other sources of vitamin B12 are fortified non-dairy milks (check the label), vitamin B12-fortified meat substitutes and alternatives.
  • Vitamin D – This vitamin is not found in the vegan diet, but it can be made by humans with exposure to sunlight. At least ten to fifteen minutes of sun on hands and face two to three times a week is recommended for adults so that natural vitamin D production can occur. Food sources include vitamin D-fortified non-dairy milk. Vitamin D is also added to foods such as fortified juices and fortified breakfast cereals.
  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids – In order to maximize production of DHA and EPA (omega-3 fatty acids), vegans should include good sources of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) in their diets; sources include flaxseed, flaxseed oil, canola oil, tofu, soybeans, and walnuts. For some vegans ALA does not efficiently convert into the other two more beneficial types of omega-3s (DHA & EPA). Since fish oil (a no-no for vegans) is a rich source of these types of omega 3s, to insure adequate amounts of DHE and EPA are included in the vegan diet there are omega-3 supplements made from algae, one of nature's original sources of EPA and DHA. These are readily available online if they can’t be found at your local health food store.
  • Iron – Dried beans and dark green leafy vegetables are especially good sources of iron, better on a per calorie basis than meat. Iron absorption is increased markedly by eating foods containing vitamin C along with foods containing iron.
  • Zinc – Vegan diets can provide zinc at levels close to or even higher than the RDA. Zinc is found in amost all grains, legumes, and nuts.

*One last subject of concern: “The protein myth…” Should you believe the hype about vegetarians and vegans being deficient in protein intake? This is almost a joke! Why, because it’s ridiculously easy for a vegan diet to meet all the recommendations for protein by simply maintaining adequate calorie intake. Strict planning or food combining is not necessary to insure ample protein intake. The key for vegans is to eat a varied diet.

Almost all plant-based foods except for alcohol, sugar, and fats provide some protein. Vegan sources include: Legumes (beans, lentils, chickpeas, peas), tofu, tempeh, seitan, peanut butter, non-dairy milks, almonds, mushrooms, rice, quinoa, whole wheat bread, potatoes, broccoli, dark leafy greens (spinach, kale, Swiss chard, collard greens, etc.) and the list goes on. Additionally, store-bought meat substitute products and veggie burgers are also quite high in protein!

Stay tuned…Coming soon “Eliminating Dairy from Your Diet”

Rae Indigo is ERYT 500

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