Updated: Sep 23, 2022
There's been a rise in campaigns like Meatless Monday and Veganuary, as well as growth of plant-based companies like Beyond Meat, which are now available in supermarkets across the country and around the world. These meatless initiatives and animal-free brands are aimed to improve the health of individuals (and the planet!) with ongoing research showing that plant-based foods can help with things like managing weight and reducing the risk of lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. One review from Nature explains that there is robust evidence for short to moderate-term beneficial effects of plant-based diets, versus conventional diets, on weight, metabolism and inflammation in healthy participants, those with obesity and those with type-2 diabetes. It also shows that plant-based diets can diversify the gut microbiome toward favorable types of bacteria that lead to positive health outcomes. In another review, they state that epidemiological studies show the consumption of fruits and vegetables can prevent cognitive decline, while low intake has been associated with increased cognitive decline. However, unless it's planned properly, like any way of eating (not just plant-based), some key nutrients may fall short on a plant-based diet. How do you know if you're getting enough? First, there are a few general things you can do to ensure you're getting enough nutrition from plants:
Consume enough calories. When calorie consumption is insufficient, so are all of the vitamins and minerals that accompany calories.
Eat a wide variety of whole plant-based foods. While Oreos and potato chips might be vegan, they won't give your body the nutrients it needs. They may be O.K. on occasion, but it's important to consume a wide variety of whole plant-based foods daily as every single plant brings its own set of nutrients.
Create meals that are half veggies, one-quarter whole grains, and one-quarter plant-based protein. Veggies include broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, cabbage, leafy greens, tomatoes, onions, and many many more! Grains include brown or black rice, quinoa, amaranth, farro, oats, and more (starchy veggies like sweet potato or purple potatoes could also be inserted here). Plant-based proteins include beans, lentils, edamame, tofu, tempeh, nuts, and seeds. Shoot for up to 10 fruits and veggies a day and well-balanced meals.
More specifically, there are some nutrients that can occasionally fall short unless you carefully plan your plant-based diet. These seven essential nutrients, as well as their food sources, are listed below so you can be on your way to becoming a well-nourished plant-based foodie!
1. Vitamin B12
When it comes to plant-based diets, B12 may be an issue if you're unaware of where to obtain it and how much you need. Vitamin B12 deficiency does not immediately manifest symptoms and long-term vitamin B12 deficiency can damage the nervous system. It's important to consume sufficient amounts of the right plant foods such as unwashed organic produce (since B12 may come from the soil), mushrooms grown in vitamin B12-rich soil, fortified plant-based milk, or nutritional yeast on a daily basis. Consider taking a B12 supplement if you feel you're not getting the recommended amount of B12. The recommendation is 2.4 mcg a day, but you’ll see supplements with 250 to 2000 mcg doses because the absorption is very low. Consider having your B12 levels checked by your healthcare provider since it's an easy test and important to know if you're unsure if you're getting enough.
Iron is key to the production of red blood cells and oxygen circulation. Iron deficiency can lead to anemia and cause symptoms like fatigue and decreased immune function. Iron can be found in beans, lentils, peas, tempeh, cruciferous vegetables, whole grains, dried apricots and leafy greens. Soaking beans for 24 to 48 hours before cooking significantly reduces the phytic acid, a nutrient that can bind iron, making it less available to us. Another trick to maximizing iron absorption is to combine high-iron foods with high-vitamin C foods. Mixing beans with vitamin C also aids iron absorption in the body. Good sources of vitamin C include bell peppers, broccoli, citrus fruits, kiwi, mango, leafy green vegetables, tomatoes, and sweet potatoes. Also, combining iron with plant foods high in vitamin A can enhance iron absorption. Foods high in vitamin A (in the form of carotenoids in plants) include leafy greens, orange, yellow and red peppers, carrots, zucchini, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin. What's awesome is that high iron foods naturally pair with foods high in vitamin C and A. Some examples include:
tacos with beans, tomatoes, and avocado
oatmeal with blueberries and dried apricots
chickpea pasta with tomato sauce, spinach and ground tempeh
The recommendation for iron is 18 milligrams a day for premenopausal women and 8 milligrams a day for post menopausal women, as well as men.
Iodine is a mineral found in fish, shellfish, and sea vegetables. It supports thyroid function and metabolism. Iodine deficiency can result in an enlarged thyroid gland, fatigue, weight gain, thinning hair, and increased risk of infections. The recommendation for iodine is 150 micrograms a day for men and women between the ages 19-50 years of age. You have a couple of options to get enough iodine.
Enjoy a few servings of sea vegetables each week, such as wakame (approximately 66 micrograms per gram of wakame), nori (16-43 micrograms per gram) or kombu. Note, be careful with kombu as it can have almost 3000 micrograms per sheet of kombu and iodine toxicity is also a thing!
Use iodized salt whenever you use salt in cooking (there's approximately 71 micrograms of iodine in 1/4 teaspoon of iodized salt).
Take a multivitamin with iodine (many contain 150 micrograms of iodine).
4. Vitamin K2
Vitamin K2 plays a supportive role in bone and cardiovascular health, and may prevent blood clotting. Wellness website SymptomFind highlights in its post that it also serves as a cell-signaling nutrient that can help prolong cell life. Vitamin K2 is different than K1, which is found in leafy green vegetables, tomatoes and peas. Vitamin K2 is mostly produced by human and animal gut bacteria. It can be challenging to get from food alone. Your gut bacteria can convert some K1 to K2, but it's difficult to know exactly how much. The highest plant-based source of Vitamin K2 is natto (Japanese fermented soybeans) — a 100 gram serving contains 108 micrograms of Vitamin K2. You can also incorporate it into your diet through other fermented foods like tempeh, kimchi, and sauerkraut. If you take a calcium supplement look for one that also includes vitamin K2 as it helps to transport calcium to the bones. Studies are suggesting that the effects of K2 are best seen with a daily intake between 10-40 micrograms.
5. Vitamin D
Vitamin D insufficiency and deficiency are common whether you follow a plant-based diet or a standard American diet. Vitamin D plays an important role in bone health as well as immune function, cancer prevention and heart health. Your body produces vitamin D in response to sunlight, therefore, the best way to obtain enough vitamin D is to get 15-30 minutes of sunshine a day. Additionally, you can get vitamin D from some fortified food products such as plant-based milk, some plant-based cheeses, cereals, and fortified orange juice. If you're unsure of your vitamin D status, ask your healthcare provider to check your levels. Supplementation may be warranted if levels are less than 50 nmoL/L.
6. Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega 3 fatty acids have been shown to support brain and heart health, and reduce inflammation. Consuming two tablespoons of flax meal, chia seeds, and hemp seeds can provide 3.2 grams, 4 grams, and 1.7 grams of omega 3's, respectively. Walnuts are another good source of omega 3 fatty acids with 2.5 grams per ounce. The type of omega 3 fatty acids in plant foods is ALA. The type of omega 3’s that are important for brain and heart health are DHA and EPA. The body can convert some ALA to DHA and EPA, but the conversion rate is low, between 2-10 percent. It’s important to include flax, chia, hemp seeds, and walnuts as a part of a plant-based diet since they’re also power packed with other essential nutrients. However, since the conversion of ALA to DHA and EPA is low, it may also be necessary to take a plant-based omega 3 fatty acid supplement (in the form of algae oil) if only eating plants.
Zinc is an essential mineral that supports immunity, metabolism, collagen, and cellular repair. Suboptimal zinc intake can result in impaired wound healing and immune function. Plant-based foods rich in zinc include legumes, nuts, seeds, dark chocolate, and soy products. The recommendation for zinc is 8 milligrams a day for adult women and 11 milligrams a day for adult men.
Like any way of eating, plant-based diets can require a little planning and preparation to ensure adequate nutrition for optimal health. Taking a food-first approach and incorporating those foods that are good sources of these vitamins and minerals is important. Adding supplements where needed would be the next best step. One thing I often recommend is adding everything that you eat in a day, or over the course of three days, to cronometer.com. It gives you a complete analysis of all the nutrients above, plus other essential nutrients, and is a great way to see if you’re not meeting your needs for anything specific. Also, it’s free! For nutrient-rich recipes, visit the purely planted blog. If you’re unsure about your own diet, consider consulting with a plant-based dietitian or health are provider.
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