By: Selena Shanahan, ’18, University Health Center Nutrition Peer Educator
First of all…what does it mean to be vegan? Vegans are individuals who do not eat animal products. This means that like vegetarians, they do not eat meat, poultry, or fish, but vegans also do not consume products containing dairy or eggs. Although many diet trends have come and gone, veganism seems to be on the rise with no sign of waning. People make the switch to vegan diets for many different reasons. Some do it believing it is a way of eating healthier, some do it for the environment, and others do it for ethical reasons.
Whatever your reason is for making the switch to a plant-based diet, there are a few things you should pay special attention to in your diet.
- Vitamin B12: This nutrient is not naturally found in a plant-based diet, but it is extremely important for our nervous system to function properly. However, this does not mean vegans can’t get this nutrient in their diet. There are many vegan products that are fortified with vitamin B12. Some of my favorites are non-dairy milks like soy and almond milk, nutritional yeast, and tofu. Not all brands of tofu and non-dairy milks are fortified with vitamin B12 so be sure to check the label.
- Iron: There are many plant-based sources of iron, so why am I mentioning it in this list? Well, the iron in plants is not absorbed into our bodies as well as iron in meat, but there are ways around this. Eating iron-rich foods like legumes and dark leafy greens with vitamin C rich foods like tomatoes or bell peppers will increase iron absorption.
- Calcium: Everyone knows you need calcium for healthy, strong bones, and where do we find loads of calcium? In cow’s milk. Well, fortunately for us vegans, that’s not the only food that has calcium. As with vitamin B12, you can find calcium in fortified foods like non-dairy milks or orange juice, but also dark greens, some tofu, blackstrap molasses, and other vegetables. It is important to note that it may be difficult to meet the recommended amount of calcium from veggies alone, so make sure you’re getting it through fortified sources as well.
- Vitamin D: Vitamin D is another nutrient that is associated with cow’s milk, but even there, it is fortified. Other than the varying levels in mushrooms, vitamin D is not found naturally in a plant-based diet. However, our bodies can make vitamin D when exposed to sunlight. During the winter months, vegans should rely on fortified product like (you guessed it) non-dairy milks or fortified orange juice.
You might be asking, why isn’t protein on this list? After all, that is what most people are concerned about when going vegan or vegetarian. However, it is very rare for an otherwise healthy individual in the U.S. to develop a protein deficiency. Previously there were concerns about the quality of protein in a vegan diet, but recent studies show that as long as someone is eating enough calories from a variety of foods, it would be very difficult for someone to develop a protein deficiency.
If you are interested in adopting a vegan lifestyle, it is important to do some research from credible sources before simply eliminating things from your diet. As I discussed above, it is important to replace those foods with non-animal sources of the same nutrients. Just like with any other diet, a well-balanced vegan diet is necessary for optimal nutrition.