This is a natural concern for any new or transitioning vegan, we are all raised to believe that animal products are an essential part of the human diet, and that avoiding them will inevitably lead to deficiencies. This just isn’t the case, both the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the National Health Service have released public statements to state that vegan diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. There are some vitamins people tend to worry about more than others, so I will discuss each of these in turn.
The primary concern about vegan diets tends to be protein. That protein is mentioned so often is quite strange, since protein deficiency is extremely rare for anyone who isn’t malnourished, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. In first world countries like the USA, protein deficiency is almost unheard of. There is no significant evidence to suggest that adequate protein cannot be easily acquired without animal products, this makes sense when you think about it, since all protein is originally derived from plants. Unless you are a serious athlete then protein will not really be something you even need to think about when going vegan, and if you do require extra protein, there are plenty of plant based sources which are pound for pound far higher in protein than any animal product. Plant proteins also have the advantage of being very cheap, things like beans, lentils, chickpeas and whole grains are all very high in protein and are all highly accessible.
Another common concern is calcium, which again is largely unfounded. Cow’s milk is advertised as being high in calcium primarily because it is fortified with it, but vegan products like almond, oat and soy milk are fortified in exactly the same way, in equal and often greater quantities. Aside from these products, dark leafy greens usually carry calcium in plentiful amounts. Daily requirements for adults are around 1000mg, but this is easily reached through plant sources. Collard greens for example are 260mg per cup, spinach is 250mg, bean sprouts are 320mg and bok choy is 330mg per cup. A single cup of some fortified cereals can meet your entire daily requirements on it’s own in some cases, even before factoring in a plant milk, and 4 or 5oz of a fermented soy product ike tofu comes it at around half that. Calcium is present in so many plant foods that meeting your requirements is achievable with minimal effort.
After these two, iron is often cited as a concern, particularly for women. Adult men require around 8mg a day, and women around 18mg. Plenty of plant foods are very high in iron, for example, half a cup of tofu carries 6.6mg, one cup of soy beans is 8.8mg, a cup of white beans is 7.8mg, a cup of lentils is 8.8mg and spinach is 6.4 mg per cup. If you are consuming a diet primarily built around plants, even if they are frozen or canned, you should reach this amount just from enjoying a varied, whole foods diet. On top of this, many faux meat products are fortified with iron, as are many cereals and plant milks. If you track your daily iron intake using any nutrition app is it likely that it will show you that you already get enough, but if you don’t incorporating any plant foods high in iron should be relatively easy for most people.
Omega 3 is raised fairly often by people as something that vegans “can’t” obtain, and point to how many vegans are deficient in Omega 3 as a way to attack veganism. The issue with this logic is that it assumes Omega 3 is a vegan issue, when it is more of an issue with modern diets in general. Studies on the issue are sparse, but most estimate that 60% of Americans are deficient in Omega 3 and others put the number at 90%. None of this means that it isn’t possible to get enough of this as a vegan, the recommended daily amount is for Omega 3 is 1.6g/day for adult men and 1.1g/day for healthy adult women. This amount can easily be obtained with just a small handful of just about any type of nut or seed. Beans, legumes, and wheat germ are also high in Omega 3.
B12 is bought up more often by people who are a little more knowledgeable about veganism and where the main nutritional difficulties lie. B12 is another vitamin of which a high proportion of the general population are deficient in. B12 is produced by a microbe which primarily exists in soil; we used to get this from all vegetables naturally, but modern hygiene practices means that the usable amount of vitamin B12 in our diets is much lower. Experts disagree on this, the convenitional wisdom has been that no foods now naturally contain B12, though Dan Reeter, at Bio-Systems Laboratories in Coloradoholds that plants grown in organically-managed soil make significantly higher levels of usable vitamin B12, and that B12 is present in wild fruits and wild and home-grown plant foods. Fortunately, most plant milks, specialist products like yeast flakes and faux meat products are fortified with high levels of B12, the same way dairy is, meaning that a single serving of most will be 200% of your daily requirements,
Despite the fact that it is more than possible to achieve a full and balanced diet as a vegan, I would still suggest taking a supplement just to be safe. Specialist vegan supplements are common in many supermarkets, and The Vegan Society offer a great one called Veg1 which can be found on their website or on amazon, these contain all the vitamins discussed above. These should not be used in place of plant based sources of any of these vitamins, they are meant to supplement a healthy diet and provide extra intake of nutrients you may have fallen short in over the course of the day. If you have any specific dietary requirements and need more support in catering a vegan diet to your needs then please feel free to get in touch, I would be more than happy to talk through any issues and suggest potential food options or meal plans.