Why go vegan? Common motives include an aversion to animal cruelty, a desire to protect the planet, and personal nutrition.
Regardless of the incentive, eating plant-based can be a healthy choice. With no meat or dairy on their plate, vegans often fill up with more fruits and vegetables making their diets high in fiber and key vitamins. According to an article published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCN), avoiding meat correlates with lower risks of cardiovascular disease, obesity, and some cancers.
However, eliminating animal products from your diet can put you at risk for certain nutritional deficiencies. Luckily, in our modern world, it’s easy to find sources of these crucial nutrients without turning to meat or dairy. Here are some areas to pay attention to while following a vegan diet.
1. Omega-3 Fatty Acid
There are two polyunsaturated fats that scientists deem essential. The first, omega-6 fat, is abundant in plant-based foods, but the second, omega-3 ALA, is more difficult to fit in a vegan diet. ALA is found in ground flaxseed and chia seed (grinding is key for absorption!), canola oil, and walnut oil in such high concentrations that 1 tablespoon of any of these foods can meet your daily need. The human body can convert ALA into the two other omega-3 fatty acids relevant to human health, DHA and EPA. However, because people’s bodies vary in their ability to complete this conversion and scientists are unclear on how important these fats are, some nutritionists recommend that vegans take DHA and EPA supplements.
2. Vitamin D
When our days are spent in lecture halls or under a cloud-covered sky, we can all struggle to meet our Vitamin D needs, but vegans are more likely to come up short because D2 (the form of Vitamin D derived from plants) is less common in nature than D3 (the form derived from animals). One option is to soak up some extra sunlight一just 5-30 minutes twice a week can meet your needs. Additionally, mushrooms (especially Maitake and Portobello), Vitamin D fortified foods like fortified tofu or nondairy milk, and Vitamin D supplements can carry you through the cloudy winter months.
On average, vegans consume more iron than omnivores. However, the nonheme iron they obtain from plants is more difficult for the body to absorb than the heme iron in animal products. Fortunately, vegans generally take in high quantities of Vitamin C which eases the absorption of nonheme iron. As a result, vegans and meat eaters experience similar rates of iron deficiency anemia. To cover your iron needs, make sure you’re eating iron-rich foods like legumes, quinoa, nuts, and seeds as well as fruits and veggies packed with Vitamin C. Better yet, toss in foods that rank high in both such as broccoli, swiss chard, and potatoes.
4. Vitamin B-12
Vitamin B-12, found in fish, meat, poultry, eggs, and milk, may be the most difficult nutrient for vegans to include in their diet. According to an AJCN article “No unfortified plant food contains any significant amount of active vitamin B-12”. To avoid a deficiency (which can feed psychological symptoms like mood disturbances and difficulty with concentration), vegans can take a B-12 supplement or consume fortified foods such as certain cereal, non-dairy milk, and nutritional yeast. Just make sure to check the package for B-12 fortification!
Whether you’re an animal rights activist, an environmentalist, or a nutritionist, a vegan diet can be a great step. On average, vegans are thinner and have lower cholesterol and blood pressure as well as a lower risk of cardiovascular disease than those who eat meat. Cutting animal products from your diet can create some gaps in your nutritional needs, but with a little thought and preparation these holes aren’t hard to fill. Hopefully, these guide will send you on your way to being a happy, healthy vegan!