"The health benefits of a plant-based diet are well-known amongst health professionals—as are the drawbacks associated with a typical American diet (which, according to the 2015 USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans, is too high in sodium, saturated fat, and added sugars, and too low in vegetables, fruits, and whole grains)," says Kate Geagan, M.S., R.D.N., America’s "Green Nutritionist".
But there are also quite a few challenges to abstaining from meat and animal byproducts.
A team of physicians at the Mayo Clinic recently compiled a review of studies in an attempt to advise vegans on how to best craft a well-planned diet to ensure they're getting enough essential nutrients. "The report found that vegans need to be especially mindful of getting an adequate intake of vitamin B-12, iron, calcium, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids," Geagan says. So, if you're vegan—or planning to try a vegan diet—ensure you're getting enough nourishment with Geagan's following food recommendations.
B-12 is only found in animal products, so most vegans (and vegetarians) are deficient in the essential vitamin. The simplest way to fix this? Eat fortified foods or take supplements. "One of the easiest and tastiest ways vegans can find B-12 is in fortified foods like breakfast cereals, as well as a nutritional yeast, which gives an 'umami flavor' to recipes," Geagan says.
Get a morning calcium boost by drinking some plant-based milk, adding it to your fortified cereal (like we mentioned to get adequate B12), or splashing some in your smoothie. "One glass of Silk® Soymilk delivers plant-powered protein and 50% more calcium than dairy milk," Geagan says. (Also check out The Unique Health Benefits of Every Type of Milk.) "Dark, leafy greens such as bok choy, collards, kale, and broccoli can also deliver calcium, as can tofu processed with calcium citrate, and sesame seeds," she adds.
"Mushrooms exposed to UV light are the only source of vitamin D in the produce aisle, and one of the few non-fortified food sources," Geagan says. That's not to knock fortified foodstuff. Orange juice, ready-to-eat cereals, soymilk, and soy yogurt are just some of the enhanced foods you can buy. "Interestingly, vitamin D was originally called 'The Sunshine Vitamin' because of our body’s ability to synthesize it from sunlight (although it’s highly dependent on season, latitude, time of day, our skin pigmentation, sunscreens, time indoors, urban pollution, and more)," Geagan says. We're not saying to ditch the sunscreen, but spending some time outdoors every day can do wonders for your health and even ward off some nutrient deficiency.
Iron deficiency can make you tired and worn out, because it's crucial in helping carry oxygen from your lungs to muscles in need. Dried navy and lima beans and dark green leafy vegetables are especially good sources of iron. "According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Position Paper, the popular trend of soaking or sprouting grains, beans, and seeds can also help enhance iron absorption," Geagan says. This process diminishes phytate—an acid that inhibits the absorption of iron, zinc, and calcium—levels in food. "A fortified, 100% whole-grain breakfast cereal can also be a good option, as well as including a source of vitamin C with your plant-based iron," she adds. This can help iron absorption and bioavailability in your body.
Omega-3s aren't just essential for cardiovascular, brain, joint, eye, and skin health. Check out 10 Reasons Every Lifter, Runner, and Athlete Needs Omega-3s. "Good sources of the essential alpha-linolenic acid include soy products, walnuts, canola oil, hemp, and flaxseed," Geagan says. "And if you’re looking for vegan options of DHA omega-3 fatty acids, there are supplements available that are derived from microalgae."