We’ve listed some nutrients that people often ask about as well as where you can get them. A healthy, balanced vegan diet rich in beans, nuts, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables—along with a bit of vitamins B12 and D—will give you everything that your body needs. If you often eat on the go and don’t always have time to eat nutritious meals, taking a multivitamin might be a good option.
Calcium is plentiful in the plant world. Good sources of calcium include some dark-green leafy vegetables (such as broccoli, collard greens, and kale), almonds, sesame tahini, calcium-fortified soy or rice milk, some brands of tofu, and calcium-fortified orange juice. By choosing these foods instead of dairy products, you can avoid the health risks associated with cow’s milk—the Harvard School of Public Health says that dairy consumption is linked to high rates of obesity and ovarian and prostate cancers. Harvard also reports that there is a lack of evidence for a link between the consumption of dairy products and the prevention of osteoporosis—Harvard even cites studies showing that heavy dairy consumption appears to cause bone loss!
Sunshine is one of the best sources of vitamin D. During warmer months, your skin manufactures enough of the vitamin if your face and forearms are exposed to sunlight for 15 to 20 minutes per day. But during colder and cloudier weather, it’s important to get some extra vitamin D through a multivitamin or a vitamin D supplement or by consuming vegan foods containing vitamin D. Many brands of soy and rice milks contain both calcium and vitamin D, as do some brands of fortified orange juice. (If you rarely spend time in the sun or always use sunblock, then it’s a good idea to get some vitamin D from vegan foods or supplements.)
Iodine is a trace mineral that’s important for healthy thyroid function. Table salt is the most common and reliable source of iodine in Americans’ diets. (However, sodium in processed foods usually does not contain iodine.) If you don’t consume table salt, you can get iodine from a multivitamin or from kelp tablets. For vegetarian-sushi lovers, seaweed is a good source of the trace element.
Iron is found in numerous plant foods, including black beans, cashews, kidney beans, lentils, oatmeal, raisins, black-eyed peas, soybeans, spinach, many breakfast cereals, sunflower seeds, chickpeas, veggie burgers, tomato juice, tempeh, molasses, and whole-wheat bread. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found no significant difference in anemia levels between vegetarians and meat-eaters. (A study by Harvard researchers even found that although the type of iron found in some kinds of animal flesh can raise the risk of developing diabetes, the iron found in plant foods does not.) Consuming vitamin C-rich foods (e.g., citrus fruits and peppers) when you eat iron-rich foods is a good way to increase iron absorption. Because young women—regardless of whether they eat meat—tend to have higher rates of anemia compared to the overall population, it may be wise for them to take a multivitamin containing iron.
Well-planned vegan and other types of vegetarian diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including during pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence. Vegetarian diets offer a number of nutritional benefits …. Vegetarians have been reported to have lower body mass indices than nonvegetarians, as well as lower rates of death from ischemic heart disease; vegetarians also show lower blood cholesterol levels; lower blood pressure; and lower rates of hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and prostate and colon cancer. —American Dietetic Association and Dieticians of Canada, joint position paper on vegetarians diets
Although some people eat fish flesh because it contains omega-3 fatty acids, a recent comprehensive review of scientific studies on omega-3s found that eating lots of fish may actually raise the risk of heart attacks because of high mercury levels. A better bet is to stick with plant-based sources of omega-3s. There are several good vegan sources of omega-3 fatty acids that may contribute to heart, brain, skin, and joint health. The best are flaxseeds and walnuts (which are also good sources of protein and iron) as well as canola oil. Unlike fish flesh, these foods are free of dangerous levels of mercury and PCBs. Flaxseeds can be found at most health-food stores and should be ground up in a blender or a coffee grinder (some of their nutritional value is lost if they are eaten whole). Ground flaxseeds have a pleasant, nutty taste-try sprinkling them on cereal or oatmeal. You can also pour a teaspoonful or two of flaxseed oil on warm foods, but flaxseed oil should not be heated. (Keep flaxseeds and flaxseed oil refrigerated when storing.)
One of the fatty acids found in fish flesh is docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which fish ingest by consuming algae. But both fish flesh and fish-oil supplements can contain dangerous toxins. So several companies have begun taking DHA directly from algae and offering a cholesterol- and toxin-free vegan DHA supplement. These capsules can be purchased through VeganStore.com and other Web sites. Doctors recommend these capsules especially for pregnant women.
B12 is an important vitamin that helps our bodies make DNA and red blood cells. It’s essential for optimum health, and B12 deficiency can lead to serious health problems, such as anemia and nervous system damage. You can get B12 from non-animal sources that have been fortified with B12, such as cereals, soy milk, nondairy yogurt, and fortified nutritional yeast, a delicious flakey ingredient that tastes cheese-like and can be added to many dishes. You can also get all the B12 you need from a vegan B12 liquid or pill-based supplement. If you are concerned you aren’t getting enough B12, ask your doctor to check during your routine blood test.
Protein is found abundantly in plant foods. Vegans should consume a variety of protein sources, including legumes and foods made from them (e.g., beans, peas, lentils, peanuts, peanut butter, tofu, tempeh, edamame, soy milk, and faux meats), nuts, seeds, nutritional yeast, and whole grains. It was once thought that various plant foods had to be eaten together in order to get their full protein value, but current research has shown that this is not the case; a varied diet of nutritious plant foods provides all the protein that you need. Unlike animal protein, plant-based protein sources usually also contain healthy fiber and complex carbohydrates. Animal products are also full of artery-clogging cholesterol and saturated fat, and consumption of animal protein has been linked to some types of cancer. Plus, it’s suspected that the high sulfur content of animal protein weakens people’s bones. For example, a study by researchers at the University of California found significantly less bone formation in meat-eating women than in vegan women.