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Guide to Optimal Nutrition for Vegans

Avoid nutritional deficiencies by eating the right foods

Transitioning to a vegan diet is a positive step towards a healthier lifestyle and a more sustainable planet. Veganism offers numerous health benefits, including lower risks of heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and cancer.

Plant-based diets are rich in essential nutrients, fibre and antioxidants that support overall well-being, promote healthy digestion and aid weight management. A vegan diet also reduces inflammation and supports better blood sugar control, contributing to a longer, healthier life.

However, it’s essential to ensure you get all the necessary nutrients for your body to function optimally. Sometimes, people adopt a vegan diet but end up eating the wrong types of food or filling their trolleys with vegan ready meals and processed vegan foods, which are not healthy despite their vegan label.

Here’s a simple guide to thriving on a plant-based diet by incorporating vital nutrients and the best vegan sources for each.

Key nutrients for vegans

Omega-3 fatty acids: Heart-healthy fats

Omega-3 fatty acids are crucial for heart health, brain function and reducing inflammation. These essential fats help lower blood pressure, reduce triglycerides, slow the development of plaque in the arteries, and reduce the chance of abnormal heart rhythm. They also support cognitive function, memory and overall brain health. Since omega-3s are primarily found in fish, vegans need to seek alternative sources to ensure they get enough of these vital nutrients.

Top vegan sources:

  • Flaxseeds and chia seeds: These tiny powerhouses are rich in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a type of omega-3 fatty acid. ALA is a plant-based omega-3 that the body can partially convert to the more active forms, EPA and DHA, although the conversion rate is quite low. To incorporate these seeds into your diet, add them to your smoothies, oatmeal or salads.
  • Walnuts: A handful of walnuts can significantly boost your omega-3 intake while also providing protein and fibre. Walnuts are not only beneficial for heart health but also for brain health due to their high content of ALA.
  • Algal oil: For those looking for a direct source of EPA and DHA, algal oil supplements are an excellent vegan alternative to fish oil. Algal oil is derived from algae, which is the original source of omega-3s for fish.

Vitamin B12: Vital energy booster

Essential for nerve function, red blood cell formation and DNA synthesis, B12 plays a key role in energy production and cognitive health, and its deficiency can lead to anaemia and neurological issues. Since B12 is naturally found only in animal products, vegans need to find other food sources or supplements to meet their daily requirements. It’s important to note that there usually aren’t sufficient amounts of B12 in vegan foods, so supplementation is often required to maintain optimal health.

Top vegan sources:

  • Nutritional yeast: This deactivated yeast is a popular ingredient in vegan cooking and is often fortified with B12. It adds a cheesy flavour to dishes and can be sprinkled on popcorn, pasta, kale chips and salads.
  • Fermented foods: Some fermented foods, like tempeh, may contain small amounts of B12 due to bacterial contamination during the fermentation process. However, the levels are usually not sufficient to meet daily requirements.
  • Seaweed and algae: Some types of seaweed and algae, such as nori, chlorella and spirulina, contain B12. However, the form of B12 in these sources may not be as bioavailable as the B12 found in supplements.

Zinc: Skin healer

Zinc is critical for a robust immune system, wound healing and DNA synthesis, playing a role in over 300 enzymatic processes in the body. It supports cell division, growth and the breakdown of carbohydrates. While plant-based sources are available, such as seeds, nuts and legumes, they may be less bioavailable than animal sources due to the presence of phytates, which can inhibit zinc absorption. Therefore, it’s essential for vegans to ensure they consume enough zinc-rich foods and consider supplementation if necessary to meet their nutritional need

Top vegan sources:

  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Chickpeas
  • Lentils
  • Quinoa
  • Cashews

Calcium: Bone strengthener

Calcium is essential for strong bones and teeth, muscle function, and nerve signalling. While dairy is a well-known source, it can be inflammatory and mucus-forming for many people. Fortunately, vegans can get calcium from various different plant foods that not only provide adequate calcium but also offer additional health benefits like fibre and antioxidants.

Top vegan sources:

  • Leafy greens like kale, collard greens and boy choi
  • Broccoli
  • Chia seeds
  • Sesame seeds and tahini
  • Almonds
  • White beans
  • Dried figs
  • Oranges

Vitamin A: Vision protector

Vitamin A is essential for vision, immune function and skin health. This vital nutrient plays a crucial role in maintaining good eyesight, particularly in low-light conditions, by supporting the function of the retina. It also enhances the immune system by helping to produce and maintain the integrity of mucous barriers in the eyes, respiratory system, and intestines, which are essential for defending against infections. Vitamin A promotes healthy skin by supporting cell production and turnover, which keeps the skin resilient and youthful.

While preformed vitamin A (retinol) is found in animal products like liver, fish oils and dairy, vegans can obtain it from plant-based beta-carotene. Beta-carotene is a precursor to vitamin A and is found in a variety of colourful fruits and vegetables. Once consumed, the body converts beta-carotene into vitamin A as needed.

Top vegan sources:

  • Carrots
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Pumpkins
  • Butternut squash
  • Dark leafy greens like spinach, kale and Swiss chard
  • Red and yellow bell peppers

Vitamin C: Immune booster

Vitamin C is essential for immune function, collagen production and enhancing iron absorption from plant-based foods. This powerful antioxidant helps protect the body against damage from free radicals, supports the immune system by stimulating the production and function of white blood cells, and plays a vital role in wound healing and maintaining the integrity of skin, cartilage and bones.

Top vegan sources:

  • Citrus fruits – oranges, lemons and grapefruits
  • Bell peppers
  • Strawberries:
  • Kiwi
  • Broccoli
  • Pineapple
  • Mango
  • Papaya
  • Brussels sprouts

Vitamin D: Healthy mood and bones

The primary role of vitamin D is to support bone health, immune function and mood regulation. It helps the body absorb calcium, enhances the pathogen-fighting effects of monocytes and macrophages (the white blood cells that are important parts of immune defence) and decreases inflammation. Since vitamin D is primarily obtained from sunlight and animal products, vegans need to find alternative sources to ensure they get enough of this vital nutrient.

Top vegan sources:

  • Sunlight exposure: The most natural way to get vitamin D is through sunlight exposure. Spending about 15 minutes in the sun several times a week can help your body produce sufficient vitamin D. Remember to expose your arms, legs and face to maximise production, but also practice sun safety to avoid skin damage.
  • Mushrooms: Certain types of mushrooms, such as maitake, portobello and shiitake, can produce vitamin D when exposed to sunlight or UV light. Incorporate these mushrooms into your meals for an extra vitamin D boost. Expose them to sunlight yourself before consumption.
  • Vitamin D supplements: Since it can be challenging to get enough vitamin D from food alone, especially during the winter months or for those with limited sun exposure, taking a vitamin D3 supplement is a reliable option. Look for vegan vitamin D3 supplements (cholecalciferol) that is sourced from algae.

Achieving optimal nutrition on a vegan diet is both attainable and enjoyable with some thoughtful planning and knowledge. By incorporating a diverse range of these nutrient-rich foods into your meals, you can easily ensure you’re meeting your body’s needs for essential vitamins and minerals.

To learn more about nutrition for vegans:

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Blog/Article content reflects the author's research and diverse opinions, not necessarily CNM's views. Items may not be regularly updated, so represent the best available understanding at the time of publication.

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