Going vegan has its benefits. Aside from providing the clean conscience of making an intentional moral choice not to eat animals, research shows that plant-based diets contribute to lower emissions, and less environmental impact than meat based diets. Vegans have also been shown to have lower BMI, higher insulin sensitivity, lower blood pressure, and a lower risk of dying from heart disease.
But, going vegan also has its challenges. Most importantly, those who choose a vegan diet have a higher risk of developing certain nutrition deficiencies. But if you’re aware of them, you can eat accordingly, and decrease your risk of developing these deficiencies.
In the following article we’ll discuss the most common nutrient concerns for vegans and present a few tips and tricks to ensure optimal nutrition.
Vitamin B12 (Cobalamin)
Most vegans are familiar with Vitamin B12, because it’s one of their most common nutrient deficiencies. Since Vitamin B12 is a water soluble vitamin that’s only naturally found in animal products, it’s no wonder vegans are at a higher risk for deficiency.
B12 deficiency can develop slowly overtime, so it’s important to be aware, and take action long before a deficiency develops. As we age our ability to absorb B12 is also diminished. Or, if you take a proton pump inhibitor for acid reflux, you’re ability to digest B12 can also be reduced. When you combine any of these factors with also eating a vegan diet, you can see how those risks are compounded.
How to Get More B12 in Your Diet
Vitamin B12 is the most commonly supplemented vitamins in the vegan diet. So, first of all, you should discuss B12 supplementation with your doctor, or primary care provider to better assess your risk for deficiency.
In addition to supplementation, there are a number of fortified that have B12 added to them. Keep in mind though, supplementation may still be necessary even with these foods included.
Tip #1 - Try a Dash of Brewer’s Yeast. Brewer’s yeast, or nutritional yeast is a popular item in vegan cupboards everywhere, and a tasty improvisation for cheese. Most people enjoy it sprinkled on popcorn with a little salt and pepper. Plus, brewer’s yeast also contains iron, potassium, and other B vitamins. But, make sure you read the label before you assume all brewer’s yeast contains B12. This is a common misconception. Vitamin B12 does not naturally occur in brewer’s yeast and it must be added in production.
What About Seaweed for B12?
Seaweeds and algaes, like Spirulina, provide a lot of nutritional benefits, and they’re a good source of several minerals and B vitamins. Unfortunately, they are not a good source of vitamin B12, and it can actually interfere with B12 absorption.
Algae actually contains a B12 analogue. So, it basically has a different form of B12 that looks like B12, but it can’t be used the same way in our body. This B12 analogue can compete with B12 if you take them at the same time.
Since Spirulina is an excellent source of essential amino acids, it’s a common supplement used by vegans. So, if you are taking a Spirulina supplement and a B12 supplement, you just need to take them at separate times of the day, so they don’t interfere.
Iron is a vital constituent of hemoglobin, which allows our blood to transport oxygen throughout our body. In our diet, iron comes in two forms: heme iron, and non-heme iron. As you may have guessed, heme iron comes from animals. When you get iron in this form, your body can more readily utilize it, since it’s already in a similar form that’s required.
However, you don’t need to eat meat to get enough iron in your diet. There are an abundance of non-heme iron sources from nuts, legumes, leafy greens, and cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts.
How to Get More Iron in Your Diet
If you’re eating a vegan diet, you’ll only be able to eat non-heme sources of iron, which are less absorbable. So, it’s helpful to have a few tricks up your sleeve, to optimize your iron intake.
Tip #2 - Use a Cast Iron Pan. Cast iron pans are great for cooking because they’re durable and they hold heat well. However, they can also add an extra bit of iron to your meals.
Tip #3 - Add a Twist of Citrus. Most vegetables taste even better with a twist of lemon, or lime. As an extra bonus though, the Vitamin C in citrus also helps to increase the bioavailability of non-heme iron.
The highest sources of Zinc include meat and shellfish. And, since your body doesn’t store Zinc, you need to consume enough every day. Fortunately, legumes, lentils, and beans also provide good sources of zinc. But, the absorption of Zinc in legumes is not as high as the absorption from animal products. That’s because legumes contain phytates, which interfere with the absorption of Zinc. Whole grains, another source of Zinc also contain phytates.
How to Get More Zinc in Your Diet
Most vegans are able to get enough Zinc, despite the interference of phytates in their foods. However, here are a few tips to maximize your Zinc absorption.
Tip #4 - Nibble on Nuts and Seeds. Both are an important part of a healthy vegan diet because their high in healthy fats, protein, and minerals. In particular, cashews are particularly high in Zinc, as well as sesame and pumpkin seeds.
Tip #5 - Soak Beans Before Cooking. By soaking beans and legumes in water overnight, and then rinsing them before you cook them, you’ll reduce the amount of phytic acid available to interfere. By soaking them, you’ll also reduce their cook time.
Tip #6 - Treat Yourself to Dark Chocolate. Since chocolate is high in calories, you’re best not to use it as your prime source of Zinc. But, you can still enjoy an occasional nibble knowing it’s not all bad.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
There are three different types of Omega-3 fatty acids. A-linolenic acid (ALA) is an essential fatty acid that you must consume through your diet. It’s contained in animal sources as well as some vegetables, soy, flax, hemp, and chia seeds. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), both long-chain fatty acids are found largely in fatty fish. These fatty acids are vital for brain health, and associated with a reduced risk of heart disease, which is why the American Heart Association recommends two servings of fatty fish per week.
How to Get More Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Technically, you don’t need to eat fish to get EPA and DHA since ALA can be converted to EPA, and then into DHA. However, studies have shown that vegetarians and vegans often have lower levels of EPA and DHA than meat eaters. So, here are a couple tips to optimize your Omega-3s.
Tip #7 - Eat Like a Fish. Oily fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines are often lauded as the best sources of omega-3s. However, the source of their omega-3s originates from microalgae. Since you might not find algae to be the tastiest treat, you can get it in powdered form and add it to smoothies. Spirulina powder is a good source of both EPA and DHA. Just remember to take it separately from any B12 supplements or food sources.
Tip #8 - Chow Down on Chia and Flax. There are a variety of seeds you can include in your diet to help boost Omega-3s, and Chia and Flax top the list. Chia can be used to make a chia pudding dessert, or mixed with flax seed in a morning smoothie.
The 8 Vegan Tips for Optimal Nutrition, in Summary
So far, we’ve gone over a lot of information. So, here’s a quick summary of the 8 vegan tips for optimizing your nutrition.
- Try a Dash of Brewer’s Yeast - This is high in Vitamin B12, and goes great on popcorn.
- Use a Cast Iron Pan - This will add some extra iron to your meals.
- Add a Twist of Citrus - A squeeze of vitamin C can increase non-heme iron absorption.
- Nibble on Nuts and Seeds - A good source of Zinc, other minerals, protein and fat.
- Soak Beans Before Cooking - This will reduce phytic acid and increase Zinc absorption.
- Treat Yourself to Dark Chocolate - A good tasty source of Zinc, in moderation.
- Eat Like a Fish - Algae, such as spirulina can be a good source of Omega-3s.
- Chow Down on Chia and Flax - Both seeds are another excellent plant-based source of Omega 3s.