Your guide to being a healthy vegan  
or a healthy vegetarian! 
 
Health Guide:  
 Exercise
 Fruits & Vegetables
 Legumes / Beans
 Oils & Fats
 Vitamins & Minerals
 Whole Grains
Additional Info:  
 Caffeine
 Herbs & Spices
 Nuts & Seeds
 Organic Produce
 Salt & Sodium
 Soy & Tofu
 Sugar & Sweeteners

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VitaminsVitamins, Minerals, Nutrients, and Supplements

Like anyone else, we vegans and vegetarians still have to make sure we're getting enough vitamins and minerals. Woman cannot live by Uncle Eddie's™ cookies alone! Seriously though, we usually get more nutrients in our diets than omnivores, thanks to all the vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains, but we still need to be mindful of things like vitamin B12, essential fatty acids (including omega-3 fats), and iron.

Quick Page Summary: Most people think vegans and vegetarians need to worry about protein. In reality, a healthy vegan/vegetarian who eats plenty of fruits, vegetables legumes (beans, peas, etc.), and whole grains, gets plenty of protein. What we do need to be concerned about is getting enough vitamin B12, iron, and omega 3. To make sure you're getting plenty of these, eat fortified foods (like cereals), take vitamins/supplements (like a decent multivitamin), and be sure to eat foods and oils (like olive oil, canola oil, and especially flaxseeds or flaxseed oil) that are high in essential fatty acids.

Below are some handy tips on some of the key vitamins/minerals, including some that we don't really need to worry too much about, but we usually do anyway (like protein). Be sure to visit VegProductsGuide.com for a list of vegan vitamins and supplements and the VeganHealth.org Summary of Recommendations for a list of recommended daily vitamin intake amounts.

  • B12 – Vitamin B12, whether in supplements, fortified foods, or animal products, comes from micro-organisms. Very low B12 intakes can cause anemia and nervous system damage.

    Vegan sources of B12 include brewer's yeast; sea vegetables, such as dulse, kelp, and nori; foods fortified with B12 (including some plant milks, some soy products, and some breakfast cereals), and B12 supplements.

    Most vegans consume enough B12 to avoid anemia and nervous system damage, but many do not get enough to minimize potential risk of heart disease or pregnancy complications. To get the full benefit of a vegan diet, vegans should do one of the following:

      • Eat fortified foods two or three times daily to get at least three mcg of B12 daily.
      • Take one supplement daily that provides at least 10 mcg of B12.
      • Take a weekly B12 supplement providing at least 2000 mcg.

    The less frequently you obtain B12, the more B12 you need to take, as B12 is best absorbed in small amounts. There is no harm in exceeding the recommended amounts or combining more than one option.

    For more information, read the following.

  • BroccoliCalcium – For Calcium, focus on dark green, leafy vegetables. Eat almonds, asparagus, blackstrap molasses, brewer's yeast, broccoli, cabbage, carob, collards, dandelion greens, dulse, figs, kale, kelp, mustard greens, and watercress. Calcium-rich herbs include alfalfa, burdock root, cayenne, chamomile, chickweed, chicory, dandelion, fennel seed, flaxseed, kelp, nettle, paprika, parsley, peppermint, plantain, and many more. Tip: Be sure to eat organic blackstrap molasses so you know it doesn't contain lard as a foam-reducing agent.

    We all know Calcium is incredibly important for healthy bones and the prevention of osteoporosis. If you're interested in up-to-date facts and research regarding how vegans can get a calcium-rich diet and healthy bones, read Vegan Society's "Diet and Bone Health" paper and the Physician Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) Calcium and Strong Bones page.
    Calcium Absorption
    Food Source
    Calcium Absorption Percentage Rate
     
    Beans, white
    17.0 %  
    Broccoli
    52.6 %  
    Brussels sprouts
    63.8 %  
    Kale
    58.8 %  
    Kohlrabi
    67.0 %  
    Mustard greens
    57.8 %  
    Orange juice, calcium fortified
    37.0 %  
    Soy milk
    31.0 %  
    Tofu, calcium set
    31.0 %  
    Turnip greens 51.6 %  

    Source: Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM)

    For more information on getting Calcium in your diet, visit these web pages and online articles:

  • Tip: Flax seeds are an excellent source of omega 3 (and numerous other vitamins and minerals). To get the most from flaxseeds, grind them in a blender or coffee grinder, and then store them in the freezer. Ground flaxseeds have a nutty flavor and can be sprinkled on cereal or veggies or used in baked goods.

    Essential Fatty Acids – The main components of all fats are the fatty acids, which can be saturated, monounsaturated or polyunsaturated. "Essential fatty acids" are polyunsaturated fats that the body cannot make, such as alpha-linolenic acid (ALA, a.k.a., LNA), an omega-3 fatty acid found in flaxseeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, soybeans, and some leafy green vegetables and plant foods; and linoleic acid (LA), an omega-6 fatty acid found plant foods and vegetable oils.

    Because vegans and vegetarians get plenty of omega-6 fatty acids in their natural diet, it is unnecessary to supplement their diet with it; however, most vegans and vegetarians do not get enough omega-3 acids in their diet, making omega-3 supplements extremely important (unless you have heart problems).

    To make sure you're getting plenty of healthy fats in your diet, eat one (1) teaspoon of flax seed oil (alone or mixed into salad dressings, etc.) or four to five (4 – 5) teaspoons of ground flaxseeds each day. (Be sure to store flax products in the refrigerator and never cook the oil.) You should also replace your "vegetable" oil or corn oil with olive oil or canola oil.

    See this site's "Oils, Fats, and Essential Fatty Acids " section for more information.

  • CabbageIodine – Iodine is used by the thyroid to maintain a healthy metabolism. "Goitrogens" present in some vegetable and grains, like soy, flax seeds, and raw cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and cabbage) counteract iodine and can cause an enlarged thyroid gland, called a goiter. For this reason, large amounts of soy combined with inadequate iodine intake can make iodine deficiency worse. North American vegans should take a modest iodine supplement but should be careful to not have too much. Fortunately, most vegan multivitamins contain the recommended iodine supplement amount.

    For more information about iodine intake and recommend supplement amounts, see the VeganHealth.org article on Iodine. For more comprehensive information, be sure to also read the article "Perchlorate Controversy Calls for Improving Iodine Nutrition" by David M. Crohn, PhD.
     
  • Iron – Iron is found in green leafy vegetables, whole grains, almonds, avocados, beets, blackstrap molasses, brewer's yeast, dates, dulse, kelp, kidney and lima beans, millet, peaches, pears, dried fruits, pumpkins, raisins, rice and wheat bran, sesame seeds, soybeans, and watercress. Iron-rich herbs include alfalfa, catnip, cayenne, chamomile, chickweed, dandelion, fennel seed, kelp, lemongrass, paprika, parsley, peppermint, plantain, and many more. The use of ironware when cooking foods also contributes to dietary intake. Tip: Be sure to eat organic blackstrap molasses so you know it doesn't contain lard as a foam-reducing agent, which may reduce it's healthful effects.

    Up to 22 percent of the iron in meat is absorbed, while only 1 – 8 percent is absorbed from eggs and plant foods. Iron absorption can be further reduced by tannins (e.g., teas) and phytates (found in nuts, grains, and seeds).

    AvocadoThis might make you wonder whether the rumors of vegans suffering from anemia have truth to them; however, research shows that iron deficiency in vegans is no more common than it is in the rest of the population. This is probably because iron is prevalent in a wide variety of plant foods, especially beans and grains, which vegans eat quite frequently, and because iron absorption from plant foods is greatly improved by the presence of vitamin C (absorbic acid), malic acid (e.g., in pumpkins, plums, and apples), and citric acid (e.g., in citrus fruits), which are common in any healthy vegan diet.

    If you think you need more iron in your diet, avoid calcium and tannins (e.g., coffee and tea), which block iron absorption; eat or drink more vitamin C (during the same meal in which you eat iron), which helps iron absorption; and eat more beans and legumes and grains, which contain iron. See a doctor if you think you might have iron-deficiency anemia. Over-the-counter supplements are available for people with an iron deficiency.

    For more information about iron, see the VeganHealth.org Iron web page.
     
  • Protein – It's been suggested that we need about 50 grams of protein per day. Foods which commonly supply the most protein in a vegan diet are legumes/pulses (peas, beans, lentils, soy), nuts (brazils, hazels, almonds, cashews), and seeds (sunflower, pumpkin, sesame). Many vegetables and grains also contribute significant amounts.

    CashewsStudies show that most vegan diets provide the ideal amounts of protein recommended by the World Health Organization. On the other hand, many omnivores eat more protein than guidelines recommend, and this may have disadvantages for their health. Excessive protein consumption may be associated with health risks. Kidney function can be compromised by too much protein in older people and in patients with kidney disease; also, a high protein intake may adversely affect calcium balance and contribute to osteoporosis. Learn more about how too much protein can be dangerous to your health.

    FYI: A widely-held myth about protein—and vegetarianism itself—is that vegetarians must carefully "combine" various plant foods in their diets by consuming them within a few hours of each other in order to make a "complete" protein which contains all 8 essential amino acids. While this myth has been extensively published, it has never been substantiated by research, and American Dietetic Association (ADA) cites research which refutes this myth. In their Position Paper on Vegetarian Diets, the ADA states: "Plant protein can meet requirements when a variety of plant foods is consumed and energy needs are met. Research indicates that an assortment of plant foods eaten over the course of a day can provide all essential amino acids and ensure adequate nitrogen retention and use in healthy adults, thus complementary proteins do not need to be consumed at the same meal."

    For more information about protein, lists of protein amounts in common foods, and supplement recommendations, visit VeganHealth.org's "(Where Do You Get Your) Protein?" article and the Physician Committee for Responsible Medicine's (PCRM's) "The Protein Myth" web page. Athletes looking to load up on protein can visit the "Athletes and Nutrition: Meeting Protein Needs" article by NutritionMD.org.

For more information about nutrients that most vegans and vegetarians get plenty of (and therefore don't typically need to be concerned about), or information about pregnancy, infants, and children, visit the VeganHealth.org site.

PillsSupplements and Multivitamins

Whenever possible, nutrients should come from natural sources (like fresh food) instead of supplements. Fresh fruits, vegetables, and legumes, for example, contain not only vitamins and minerals found in supplements, but also fiber and naturally occurring substances that may help protect you from chronic diseases. Additionally, foods are more easily digestible than supplements, and they can give you energy. Despite this, sometimes it's helpful to supplement our diet. If you think you need dietary supplements, a general vegan multivitamin may be a good way to go. Be sure to talk with your physician or dietician before starting or stopping any supplements.

There's a lot of tasty vegan vitamin/mineral supplements available online or through your local health food mart. To learn about how to eat a healthy vegan diet that meets all nutritional requirements, read Staying a Healthy Vegan by Vegan Outreach.

Resources

For resources specific to a particular nutrient, see the relevant sections above. For general resources, visit these sites:

Great Books

Where can I buy healthy vegan alternatives?
Our sister site, Vegan and Vegetarian Products Guide, lists hundreds of tasty alternatives to dairy, eggs, meat, pet food, supplements, and more that can be found in many grocery stores.

Disclaimer
This web site is intended for information purposes only and is not intended to be professional medical advice. This site is provided by health-minded volunteers, not professionals. Always confirm the information you read with verified medical journals and articles before using the information. Always seek the advice of your physician, dietician, or other qualified health provider before changing your diet or taking supplements.

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The information above is for informational purposes only.
Always remember to talk to your physician if you have questions or plan on changing your diet.


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