The health benefits of a plant-based diet include antioxidant protection and weight management, according to Harvard researchers, but meatless meals also mean you’re probably lacking some of the nutrients your body needs to function optimally. Learn more about essential vitamins for vegans here!
Ancient civilizations as early as the sixth century BC relied on plant-based diets, largely in part because the process of gathering plants was easier than hunting dangerous animals as food sources.
Today, plant-based nutrition has an international following and is increasingly accepted among natural health advocates. In the U.S. alone, an estimated 2.5 million people ages 55 and older have abandoned red meat and poultry in favor of a predominantly plant-based diet. Reasons for choosing a plant-based diet vary from health concerns to ethical, ecologic, and social issues.
Advantages of a Plant-Based Diet
A plant-based diet means eating more fruit and vegetables, which are rich in dietary fiber, folic acid, vitamins C and E, potassium, magnesium and antioxidants in the form of phytochemicals. According to researchers at the Harvard Medical School, the potential health benefits with this way of eating include weight management, maintaining blood pressure levels in the normal range, and promoting overall heart health.
There are a variety of commonly practiced plant-based diets. Here are the important differences.
Vegan: This solely plant-based diet means eating no animal products at all, including meat, fish, dairy and eggs.
Lacto-ovo vegetarian: This diet means skipping meat, fish, and poultry but still eating dairy and eggs.
Pescatarian: This diet means avoiding meat and poultry but still eating fish and seafood.
Semi-vegetarian: This diet means eating select animal products, such as chicken and fish but not red meat.
Nutrients Vegans Need
While plant-based diets are certainly healthy, they lack certain nutrients that animal food sources would normally provide. Vegan diets, specifically, may lack sufficient vitamin B12, calcium and omega-3 fatty acids, among other critical nutrients. Taking plant-based supplements may offer your body the micronutrients and macronutrients it needs to function optimally.
Here are some vitamins for vegans, as well as minerals, which make up the key micronutrients our bodies need to be healthy and support biological processes. In addition, there are macronutrients like protein, carbohydrates and fats that our bodies need to develop muscles, tissues and skin, as well as produce energy.
Calcium: Not eating dairy products means a lack in calcium, which could lead to brittle bones. Calcium is an important mineral that helps to maintain healthy bones and teeth. Eating green leafy vegetables, drinking fortified soy or rice milk, and taking a calcium supplement with vitamins D and K (to support absorption) is a good way to fill nutritional gaps.
Iron: Iron is a mineral that helps metabolize proteins and supports the production of red blood cells. Vegans should eat kale or spinach for iron, as well as take a plant-based iron supplement.
Omega-3: This heart-healthy fat is essential for survival, because the human body doesn’t make it on its own, and it supports brain health, cardiovascular function and much more. Omega-3 essential fatty acid can be found in ground flaxseed, walnuts, soy products, DHA-fortified foods, and other foods in very small amounts. The best source for a vegan will be in a dietary supplement of DHA and EPA.
Protein: The one advantage to eating meat is not having to worry about getting enough complete protein, which the body uses to build bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, tissues and blood. However, the good news is that there are plenty of plant-based protein options (see our previous blog), including from eating lentils, beans, quinoa, tofu and nuts, or taking plant protein supplement. The one thing to realize is that just because a food lists that it contains protein, doesn’t always mean that it is a complete protein source. Be mindful of the need to combine foods if necessary to get the full amino acid profile daily.
Vitamin B12: This vitamin is only found in animal foods sources such as meat and dairy products. B12 is important because it supports brain health, nerve health, mood health, heart health, healthy digestion and energy production. Vegans can get B12 from eating fortified soy or rice milk, or fortified cereals. It is also a crucial vitamin for vegans when taken in the form of a vitamin B12 supplement.
Vitamin D: Vegans must regularly consume vitamin D-fortified foods such as soy or rice milk, orange juice, or breakfast cereals to support bone, heart and immune system health. However, taking a vitamin D supplement is also a good way to fill nutritional gaps.
Zinc: Zinc, although not a vitamin, is an essential mineral that helps supports healthy immune system, enzyme activities, tissue synthesis and energy metabolism. While you can get some zinc from eating green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grains, plant-based diets do not provide enough of the mineral for optimal health. That’s why it’s important for vegans to take a zinc supplement.
For more details about these important nutrients, read our previous blog.
Are you interested in starting a plant-based diet? Start by filling half of your plate with vegetables (cooked, raw, or in a salad), and spice up your meals with various seasonings. Be sure to supplement your diet with the necessary vitamins for vegans, and let us know how it goes in the comments below!