The Basics of Vegan Nutrition

Many people erroneously believe that vegan diets cause poor health and cannot provide sufficient nutrients. In reality, vegan diets can provide an individual with all of the nutrients they need to be healthy, and vegan diets are linked with lower instances of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and some forms of cancer (Dietitians of Canada). A healthy diet is one that is informed and adequately planned. As such, both those who consume animal products and those who do not can be unhealthy or malnourished, but only due to insufficient planning or education, not by the merit of their dietary restrictions. With that out of the way, this essay will explore the ways in which vegans can get sufficient macronutrients (i.e. carbohydrates, fats, and proteins) and micronutrients (i.e. vitamins and minerals) in their diets.

Macronutrients

     Macronutrients consist of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, and the body needs these nutrients in large portions. The energy that macronutrients provide is measured in calories. Every gram of fat provides 9 calories of energy, while every gram of carbohydrate or protein provides 4 calories of energy. According to the National Academy of Sciences, adults should receive 45-65% of their calories from carbohydrates, 20-35% from fats, and 10-35% from proteins. Of these groups, the most important for vegans to pay attention to is protein (not because it’s difficult to acquire sufficient protein – it isn’t), while the other groups are relatively straight forward.

     There are two large categories of carbohydrates: digestible carbohydrates and non-digestible carbohydrates (fiber). Both are important for proper health, but some carbohydrates are better than others. For digestible carbohydrates, there are monosaccharides, disaccharides, and polysaccharides. Saccharide means sugar, and the prefix determines the sugar molecules that are in the chemical bond. Monosaccharides (one molecule) and disaccharides (two linked molecules) are what are referred to as “simple sugars” or “simple carbohydrates.” Glucose (the basic sugar molecule the body uses) and fructose (found in fruits) are monosaccharides. Sucrose and table sugar are forms of disaccharides. Consuming these carbohydrates can provide quick bursts of energy, but they are not good for sustained energy. These sugars are typically found in sweeteners (sugars and syrups), jams or jellies, fruit juice, soda, and candy. While there currently is not a national limit on the intake of these sugars, the foods they are in often have very little nutritional value.

     Polysaccharides, also known as dietary starch, complex sugars, or complex carbohydrates, are the most common type of carbohydrate for most diets. Polysaccharides are stored in muscle and liver cells as glycogen (another type of polysaccharide) and when our body needs energy, the glycogen is broken down into usable glucose. This is why consuming foods high in polysaccharides provides sustained energy throughout the day. These types of carbohydrates are found in grains, cereals, vegetables, beans, and nuts. While so-called “refined” grains still contain high amounts of polysaccharides, they have had the micronutrients removed from them. For this reason, whole grains and similar products are better because they provide more nutrients per calorie than the refined grains. Quinoa, lentils, steel cut oats, beans, peas, and potatoes are all nutrient dense complex carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are essential to the body, so restricting the intake of carbohydrates (especially complex ones) will end up greatly depleting one’s energy. In short, low-carb diets should be avoided; whole grains and nutrient-dense complex carbohydrates should be consumed instead.

     Non-digestible carbohydrates are called fiber, and they play a pivotal role in the digestive system. Dietary fiber, which is listed on nutrition labels, is fiber that naturally occurs in plants. Functional fiber, which is not listed on nutrition labels, is fiber that has been extracted from plant and/or animal sources. Dietary and functional fiber make up the total fiber that is listed on nutrition labels. Now, there are two kinds of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Both kinds are important for digestion. Soluble fiber absorbs water which causes it to gel. This traps nutrients and slows their absorption into the blood and intestines. This results in the feeling of fullness as well as controlling blood sugar (which reduces the risk for type 2 diabetes). Additionally, soluble fiber interferes with the absorption of dietary fat and cholesterol, thus lowering the risk for cardiovascular disease. Fruits (e.g. strawberries, apples, oranges), steel cut oats, lentils, peas, beans, Brussels sprouts, turnips, and more, are all very high in soluble fiber. Insoluble fiber, on the other hand, clings to water and helps to prevent constipation and bowel inflammation. Beans, berries, whole grains, and nuts are high in insoluble fiber. The National Academy of Science recommends that males and females under 50 consume 38g and 25g of total fiber per day, respectively. Overall, having a diet high in nutrient-dense complex carbohydrates and fiber is incredibly important for digestive and cardiovascular health, as well as sufficient energy levels.

     Fats are an important nutrient because they carry fat-soluble vitamins (e.g. A, D, E, K), aid the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins in the intestines, protect organs from injury, and regulate body temperature. The three types of fat are saturated fats, cholesterol, and unsaturated fats. Saturated fats are unnecessary for nutrition and they are harmful because they increase the amount of “bad cholesterol” in the body. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature. Fortunately, the products highest in saturated fats are animal products (e.g. meats, dairy milk, cheese, butter, etc.), so vegans do not typically need to worry about this. Some processed vegan desert products have saturated fats in them, so if anything, products high in this should be limited. While saturated fats should be limited as much as possible, the individual calorie-consumption of saturated fats should not exceed 10% of the daily intake of calories.

     Cholesterol is manufactured by the body and only found in animal products. The consumption of cholesterol is not required for nutrition or health. There are three types of cholesterol: high-density lipoproteins (HDLs), low-density lipoproteins (LDLs), and very low-density lipoproteins (VLDLs). Low-density lipoproteins are harmful to our cardiovascular system because they accumulate on the walls of our arteries (this is what is known as plaque). This results in a higher blood pressure that can cause atherosclerosis and a number of related cardiovascular diseases. If too much plaque builds up, it can can block the artery entirely. When this occurs in the heart, it results in a heart attack. When this occurs in the brain, it results in a stroke. Very low-density lipoproteins are also harmful as they lead to plaque build-up. High-density lipoproteins, on the other hand, are helpful because they transport lower density lipoproteins to the liver for removal. This lowers the risk for cardiovascular diseases. Saturated fats increase the level of low-density and very low-density lipoproteins in the blood. Unsaturated fats decrease these levels and increase the levels of high-density lipoproteins.

     Unsaturated fats are the healthy fats that should make up the overwhelming majority of a person’s fat intake. They’re liquid at room temperature and come in two forms: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Monounsaturated fats are helpful for improving blood cholesterol levels, and they’re found in peanut and olive oils. Polyunsaturated fats contain omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids reduce the risk of blood clots and they lower very low-density lipoproteins. They’re found in flax seeds and walnuts. Omega-6 fatty acids lower low-density lipoproteins, but they may potentially lower high-density lipoproteins as well. For this reason, they’re best to eat in moderation. They’re found in sunflower, safflower, and corn oil, as well as sunflower seeds. Nuts and nut-based oils are great sources of unsaturated fats. Trans fat is an engineered type of unsaturated fat that behaves much like saturated fat does. For this reason, trans fats should be eliminated or severely restricted in the diet. Soybean, corn, canola, olive, safflower, and sunflower oils are free of trans fats, low in saturated fats, and high in unsaturated fats, so these are great oils for cooking with. Nuts, avocados, and seeds are high in unsaturated fats. Having a diet rich in these foods (while still within the 25-35% intake margin) is a great way to meet one’s nutritional needs and reduce the risk for cardiovascular diseases.

Protein is critical for growth and repair, especially for muscles, bones, blood, hair, and fingernails. Proteins are comprised of amino acids and there are eight amino acids essential for nutritional health. There are two classifications of protein. Proteins that contain all eight amino acids are called complete proteins. Animal products are generally the only sources of complete proteins. Proteins that do not contain all eight amino acids are called incomplete proteins. Plant products are often incomplete proteins, and this is why vegans need to pay attention to protein in this sense. Most protein-containing plant products are high in most amino acids while deficient in one or two. For this reason, vegans should vary their sources of protein to ensure adequate nutrition. This means consuming beans and nuts, for example, as a way to get all the essential amino acids. When a secondary or tertiary source of protein provides the other essential amino acids, it’s called a complementary protein. The National Academy of Science recommends that individuals consume 0.8g of protein for every 1kg of body weight. Nuts, beans, veggie meats, non-dairy milks, quinoa, spinach, and cruciferous plants (e.g. cauliflower, broccoli) are great sources of plant protein. Quinoa is one of the exceptions in that it is a complete protein. For proper nutrition, vegans should make sure to vary their protein sources.

Nutrition in general – not just vegan nutrition – might seem daunting at first, but one of the most important aspects of having a healthy, nutritious, and balanced diet is combining foods together and varying your sources of nutrients. For example, one easy-to-make and quick snack involves mixing Silk dairy-free yogurt, 3/4 cup of steel cut oats, and a cut-up banana. This quick snack provides 14.3g of protein, 77g of carbohydrates (including 8.1g dietary fiber), and 6.5g of unsaturated fat. For the lower bounds of the intake recommendations, that’s 33% of the carbohydrate requirement (and 21% of the dietary fiber for males), 25% of the protein requirement, and 15% of the fat requirement. If one snacks on 1/2 cup of almonds, that’s 10g of protein, 19.5g of unsaturated fat, and 10g of carbohydrates (including 5.5g of dietary fiber). This would place an individual at 50% of their carbohydrate requirement (and 35% of the dietary fiber for males), 50% of the protein requirement, and over 50% of the fat requirement. Note that this is based on a 2,000 calorie requirement and would need to be adjusted for the individual. This is derived purely from snack foods, disregarding the prospect of meals. As it can be seen, meeting the nutritional requirements in a day is rather straight-forward. All it takes is a little information about nutrition and a varied diet. A vegan diet is no different in this regard.

 

Micronutrients

     Micronutrients are nutrients that are needed by the body in small quantities, and they’re divided into two categories: vitamins and minerals. Vitamins are responsible for facilitating the usage of macronutrients, regulating growth, maintaining bodily tissue, coordinating chemical reactions, and releasing energy from food. They also aid in the manufacturing of blood cells, hormones, and other compounds. Minerals, on the other hand, are important for bones and teeth, muscular function, and the transmission of signals in the nervous system. The only nutrient that humans cannot acquire naturally from plant-based products is the B12 vitamin. This is because B12 is found in the soil and is in such minuscule amounts that humans cannot meet their requirements from soil-based plant products. As a result, B12 is often added as a supplement to veggie meats and non-dairy milks. These are a suitable way for vegans to meet their B12 needs. Outside of this, vegans are fully able to meet their micronutrient requirements through plant-based products.

     There are two categories of vitamins: those that are fat-soluble and those that are water-soluble. The former means that these vitamins are transported by fats and the latter means that they’re transported by water. Fat-soluble vitamins include vitamin A, D, E, and K. Water-soluble vitamins include the B vitamins and vitamin C. They also include panothenic acid and biotin, but because these are relatively widespread in foods, they will not be discussed. Of these vitamins, vitamin D and B12 are the only vitamins of unique concern to vegans. These concerns will be addressed later on.

     Vitamin A is important for cornea health, skin health, bone growth, reproduction, immunity, and many other functions. Males and females, 19-50, need 900µg and 700µg, respectively. Foods rich in vitamin A include sweet potato, carrots, dark leafy greens (e.g. kale and spinach), apricots, and cantaloupe. A quarter-cup of carrots, a quarter-cup of sweet potato, or two cups of spinach are enough to meet the vitamin A needs for the day.

    Vitamin D is important in vegan diets because it facilitates the absorption of calcium and phosphorus, which is important for bone formation, repair, and health. Males and females both need 5µg of vitamin D. Vitamin D can be synthesized in the skin. For an individual of light-skin, it takes approximately 10-15 minutes of sun exposure on a clear day around 10-2pm for the body to make all the vitamin D it needs. For an individual of dark-skin, it takes approximately 20 minutes of sun exposure (Norris “Calcium and Vitamin D”). During winter months or cloudy days, fortified foods or supplements may be used to make up for the deficit. Fortified non-dairy milks, soy yogurts, orange juice, and cereals are good sources for meeting vitamin d requirements. It’s not more difficult for vegans to get vitamin D – it’s a problem (especially during winter months) that faces people of all diets. Acquiring vitamin D is just more important in vegan diets because calcium is less plentiful in a lot of plant-based foods.

     Vitamin E is important because it acts as an antioxidant, which is important for the functioning and health of cells. Males and females need 15mg of Vitamin E per day. It is found in polyunsaturated plant oils, green leafy vegetables, whole-grain products, and nuts. Half of a cup of sunflower seeds or almonds provides roughly the daily requirement for vitamin E.

     Vitamin K is important because it helps synthesize proteins involved in blood-clotting and bone-formation. Males and females need 120µg and 90µg, respectively. It is found in green leafy vegetables, soybeans, and vegetable oils. A sixth cup of kale or roughly a half cup of spinach are all it takes to meet the daily requirements for vitamin K.

     There are six different B vitamins and while they all play slightly different roles, they’re most important for cellular metabolism and functioning. Males and females require 1.3mg of B6 daily, and it’s found most abundantly in legumes, fruits, potatoes, soy products, and whole grains. Males and females require 2.4µg of B12 per day. B12, as mentioned earlier, cannot be acquired sufficiently from plant-based products. Non-dairy milks, veggie meats, and similar products are often quite high in B12 for this reason and make good sources of this vitamin. Males and females require roughly 1.2µg of B1, also called Thiamin, per day. It’s found most abundantly in legumes, nuts, and whole grains. Males and females require 1.3µg and 1.1µg, respectively, of B2, also called Riboflavin, per day. This vitamin is found in leafy vegetables and whole grains. Males and females require 16mg and 14mg, respectively, of B3, also called Niacin, per day. This vitamin is found in nuts and whole grains. Males and females require 400µg and 5mg, respectively, of B9, also called Folate, per day. This vitamin is found in leafy green vegetables, seeds, and whole grains. With the exception of B12, which can be acquired through non-dairy milks and veggie meats, the B vitamins are found throughout many types of whole grains, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds. By including many of these foods in daily meals, it’s easy to acquire sufficient amounts of B vitamins.

     Vitamin C is important for metabolism and immune function, and it also acts as an antioxidant. Within the vegan diet in particular, vitamin C greatly facilitates the absorption of iron, which is important because plant-based iron isn’t absorbed as easily as animal-based iron. Males require 90mg of vitamin C per day while females require 75mg. It’s found in citrus fruits, cabbage-type vegetables, dark-green vegetables, cantaloupe, strawberries, tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, and mangoes. A single cup of kale, a single kiwi, a cup of broccoli, a single orange, or five strawberries are all enough to meet the vitamin C daily requirement.

     Minerals are divided into two categories: major minerals and trace minerals. Major minerals are required in large amounts while trace minerals are required in smaller amounts. The major minerals are sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, and sulfate. The trace minerals are iron, zinc, selenium, molybdenum, iodine, copper, manganese, fluoride, and chromium. Of these minerals, calcium and iron are the two that vegans need to pay particular attention to. Calcium is not as plentiful in plant-based products while plant-based iron (or non-heme iron) is not absorbed easily by the body. These will be discussed further in detail later. Sulfate is contained within any foods containing protein and so, if an individual is acquiring a sufficient amount of protein, they will not be lacking in sulfate. For this reason, sulfate will not be discussed further. Similarly, many of the trace minerals are widely dispersed in grains, vegetables, and fruits. It’s unlikely for an individual to have a deficit in these minerals unless they are not eating a varied diet. With the exception of iron, which is of concern to vegans, trace minerals will not be discussed. With some attention to iron and calcium sources, vegans can acquire all the minerals they need from plant-based sources.

     Sodium is important for maintaining the fluid and acid-base balance within the body. It also plays a vital role in nerve-transmission. Both males and females require 1,500mg of sodium per day (National Academy of Sciences). Table salt, various sauces and dressings, salted snacks (e.g. nuts and pretzels), and pickled vegetables are all sources of sodium. Approximately three pickles, two cups of pretzels, or two cups of salted pumpkin seeds are enough to meet this daily requirement.

     Chloride is important for digestion and, like sodium, is important for maintaining both the fluid and the acid-base balance within the body. Both males and females require 2,300mg of chloride per day (National Academy of Sciences). Food sources that are high in sodium often have high amounts of chloride within them, but chloride is also in tomatoes, lettuce, celery, olives, and seaweed (Evert).

     Potassium is important for maintaining the body fluid and acid-base balance and for nerve and muscle activity. Both males and females require 4,700mg of potassium per day (Kiefer). Potassium is found in all kinds of fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes, and so meeting daily potassium requirements should not be difficult.

    Calcium is one area that vegans need to pay some attention to, only because many plant-based foods are not particularly high in calcium. Calcium is important for bone maintenance, muscle and nerve activity, and blood clotting. Males and females should acquire 1,000mg of calcium each day. Adequate calcium can be acquired most easily through non-dairy milks, orange juices, calcium-set tofu, and veggie meats, most of which are fortified with calcium (and some of which have more calcium than dairy milks). Outside of this, almonds are also high in calcium. A cup of almonds provides a quarter of the calcium needs for a single day. Bok choy, broccoli, and green beans also provide calcium. By combining these sources of calcium together, it’s easy for a vegan to meet their calcium requirements for the day.

     Phosphorus is essential for bone and cellular maintenance as well as energy formation. Males and females require 700mg of phosphorus per day (National Academy of Sciences). Pumpkin seeds, brazil nuts, tofu, beans, and lentils are high in phosphorus.

     Magnesium is important for bone maintenance, immune function, nerve activity, and the synthesis of energy and protein. Males require about 420mg per day while females require 320mg (National Institutes of Health). There are many sources of magnesium, including nuts, legumes, whole grains, dark-green vegetables, and dark chocolate.

     Iron is very important to the vegan diet because plant-based iron is not absorbed as easily by the body as animal-based iron. For this reason, vegans need about twice as much iron than non-vegans (Dietitians of Canada). Iron is an important mineral for both transporting oxygen and forming bodily energy. Vegan males need 16mg of iron per day while vegan females need 36mg (Norris “Iron”). Fortunately, soy products, veggie meats, various kinds of beans and lentils, fortified grains, fortified non-dairy milks, spinach, and kale are high in iron. These are excellent sources of iron for vegans. Vitamin C also aids in the absorption of iron, so having adequate vitamin c intake is important for having healthy iron levels. With some planning, vegans can sufficiently acquire all the iron they need to be healthy.

     Vegans are able to acquire all the vitamins and minerals they need to be healthy. The only areas that require some extra attention are iron and calcium because vegans need more iron than non-vegans and because calcium is not plentiful in many plant-based foods. However, by consuming fortified non-dairy milks or orange juice, veggie meats, or other similar products in addition to the typical regiment of dark leafy greens, beans, whole grains, and so on, one can acquire all the calcium and iron needed to be healthy. B12 is also the only vitamin that cannot be acquired normally through plants, but most non-dairy milks and other fortified foods already include this, so this is not a major area of concern for vegans. Overall, acquiring the sufficient amount of micronutrients is about having a varied diet rich in whole grains, vegetables, fruits, dairy substitutes, beans, and nuts.

Conclusion

     Nutrition often seems daunting at first, and vegan nutrition may seem even more daunting if one is accustomed to the myths that circulate about vegan diets. In reality, meeting one’s nutritional requirements is more about paying attention to a few details and overall, eating a nutrient-dense and varied diet. Vegans only need to pay a little extra attention to complementary proteins, vitamin D, iron, and calcium. The most important aspect to eating a healthy diet, especially as a vegan, is variety. Consume all sorts of whole grains, vegetables, fruits, dairy alternatives, beans, and nuts. Carbohydrates should be the greatest source of calories, followed then by fats and finally proteins. Choose complex carbohydrates, unsaturated fats, and nutrient-dense sources of protein. After this, attention should be given to acquiring nutrients from a variety of sources. Using food-group and serving size guide, such as the vegan food pyramid, can be a helpful tool for getting started on veganism (particularly because food groups are organized by the dominant nutrients they provide and by the macronutrient recommendations.) Patty Knutson’s commentary on the vegan food pyramid, as found here, is a good start to beginning a healthy, nutritious vegan diet. Generally, a better strategy than becoming meticulous about nutrient intake is to attempt to match servings up to the food pyramid over the span of a few days. As Knutson states, a balanced diet means that “you’re not perfect every day, but over the course of a couple days things even out and you’re still on track.” Daily attention should be given to complementary proteins, vitamin D, iron, and calcium – otherwise, the diet should simply be varied according to serving recommendations and macronutrient recommendations.

Disclaimer: Dietary recommendations are based on typical individuals 19-50. It is not meant for individuals outside of that age-range, nor is meant for individuals of unique conditions, such as pregnancy, physical ailments, or otherwise. Additionally, much of the information provided is from “An Invitation to Health” by Dianne Hales and Lara Lauzon. Due to the amount of information utilized, in-text citations have largely been left out for this source.

 

References:

Evert, Alison. “Chloride in Diet.” National Library of Medicine. MedlinePlus, 18 Feb. 2013. Web. 6 Jan. 2016.

“Healthy Eating Guidelines for Vegans.” Dietitians of Canada. Dietitians.ca, 27 Nov. 2014. Web. 5 Jan. 2016.

Hales, Dianne, Lara Lauzon. An Invitation to Health. Nelson. 2014. Print.

Kiefer, David. “Potassium.” WebMD. WebMD, 1 Mar. 2015. Web. 6 Jan. 2016.

Knutson, Patty. “Let’s Uncover the Truth Behind The Vegan Food Pyramid.” VeganCoach. VeganCoach, n.d.. Web. 6 Jan. 2016.

“Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids.” National Academy of Sciences. National Academies Press, 2005. Web. 5 Jan. 2016.

Norris, Jack. “Calcium and Vitamin D.” VeganHealth. VeganHealth, Oct. 2013. Web. 6 Jan. 2016.

Norris, Jack. “Iron.” VeganHealth. VeganHealth, Jun. 2013. Web. 6 Jan. 2016.

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