When people ask me for tips on switching to a plant-based diet, they’re usually worried about all the things they’ll miss out on. “How will I get enough protein?” they ask. But think about it this way: if your vegan diet is rich in whole foods and a variety of fruits and vegetables, you’ll actually be getting more of certain nutrients than you were before – like folate from leafy green veg.
And once you’re in the swing of things, you’ll find you can easily get enough protein by choosing the right foods. Throw in a few extra plant-based pantry staples and you won’t even miss animal products.
However, there are some essential vitamins and minerals that you may be used to getting from meat, dairy and eggs that are harder to come by when you make the plant-based switch. Here are six crucial vitamins and minerals that every vegan – and many vegetarians – need to keep in mind for their health.
1. Vitamin B12
When you start following a plant-based diet, Vitamin B12 is the most important nutrient for you to focus on. Your body uses B12 to make red blood cells, support the nervous system, give you energy and even create DNA.
Plant-based foods are not natural sources of B12, so you will need to take a supplement. Talk to your doctor about which supplement will work for you and to make sure you don’t have any pre-existing conditions that could stop your body from absorbing it properly.
To create fresh, healthy red blood cells that carry oxygen around the body, iron is absolutely essential. Iron deficiency or anemia can cause tiredness, shortness of breath, dizziness and reduced immunity. Red meat is what immediately springs to mind when we think iron, but while vegans need to think a little harder about where to get iron from, it’s a myth that being vegan automatically equals iron deficiency.
Plant-based sources of iron:
legumes, including soybeans, tofu and tempeh
nuts and seeds
dark leafy greens like broccoli, kale and spinach
Dried fruits, such as apricots, peaches, pears and raisins
3. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
You can't have healthy brain and heart function without Omega-3 fatty acids, and they need to come from food. Fish is an easy source of omega-3, but plants are a bit more complicated. While plant-based sources (such as flaxseeds, chia or walnuts) contain similar fatty acids to fish, they’re not exactly the same – meaning some supplements may be required for vegans. Luckily, there are vegan-friendly, algae-based supplements, so you can avoid the fish oil.
You body needs iodine to make thyroid hormones. Deficiency can lead to slow metabolism, hypothyroidism, weight gain, fatigue, intolerance to cold and even reduced heart function. You may be cutting seafood out of your diet, but don’t completely give up on the ocean. Sea vegetables and seaweed, such as nori and wakame, can help you meet your recommended daily intake of iodine. Soy milk and soy sauce can also contribute, but this might not always be clear on packaging. Depending on where you live, commercial bread may also be supplemented with iodine.
If you’re still learning how to balance your plant-based nutritional intake, consult with a doctor about an iodine supplement. You’ll need professional advice in this case because too much can be harmful.
5. Vitamin C
If you’ve ever been told to have a glass of orange juice (and pulp!) with breakfast, that’s because vitamin C helps your body to absorb iron. Plus, we all know the importance of vitamin C for your immune system.
You can get your daily intake from:
It's crucial for strong bones, healthy teeth and maintaining good muscle function – but you don’t need a glass of milk to get it! You can meet your daily intake with a range of plant-based sources:
Nuts and seeds
Fortified plant milks and cereals (check the label)
All of these nutrients are important for maintaining your overall health, but the specific mix of vitamins and minerals your body needs will depend on numerous factors including age, weight, sex, gut bacteria and your ability to absorb nutrients. So if you’re at all unsure or think you may need a boost from supplements, talk to a doctor or accredited dietitian.
Simon Hill is making plant-based nutrition simple and accessible through his Plant Proof podcast and with delicious recipes on Centr. A sports physiotherapist and nutritionist, he holds a Bachelor of Physiotherapy and a postgraduate degree in nutrition. He is the author of The Proof is in the Plants and the creator of our favorite vegan burgers.
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