Lets get something straight right off the bat: vegans are at no more a risk of vitamin or mineral deficiency than omnivores. A well planned vegan diet is eleventy kabillion times more nutritional than your average omnivore. The American Dietetic Association has even stated:
“It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life-cycle including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence and for athletes.” (Source: ADA – eatright.org)
Ok so maybe it’s not eleventy kabillion times more nutritious, but typically, “Average vegan diets tend to be deficient in three nutrients, whereas average omnivores tend to unfortunately be deficient in seven.” Dr. Michael Greger explains it best:
So what three nutrients do vegans need to be conscious of? The Vegan Three, in no particular order:
Some folks may argue protein and Vitamin D to be in that list as well. So I’ll discuss those two, too.
Calcium = milk, right? Naw. That’s so Dairy Council of you! We’ve been brainwashed from such a young age and for so long that if we don’t “Got Milk” we’re gonna get osteoporosis and suffer from calcium deficiency. Not true at all. In fact, the US has such high rates of osteoporosis and other bone issues despite the fact that we consume so much dairy. I could go on and on about the ickies of dairy, but that’s a whole blog entry in itself. After all, calcium isn’t naturally found in milk — cows (are supposed to) eat grass. Lets just go straight to the source, yeah? Where vegans get their Calcium: kale, broccoli, collard greens, and fortified nutmilks and tofu. PLUS! Calcium in kale and broccoli is absorbed twice as well as the calcium in milk. So booyeah to that!
You mean, salt? Say what? No, actually most folks get their iodine from dairy products because cows teats and milk storage containers are cleaned with an iodine solution that then seeps into the milk. Geeee-ross, right? Folks don’t need a lot of iodine in their diets (only about 150 micrograms a day) but its important for thyroid function. If you use salt in your cooking, use an iodized salt. Or, add sea vegetables to your pantry. A sprinkle of Sea Seasonings once in a while on your salad should do it. Finally, you can always take a supplement.
This one I will give to the omnivores. Yes, this is vitamin typically cannot be found in a vegan diet without consuming a supplement/fortified food. You know why? Because it’s a bacteria that is found in the digestive tract of animals that is absorbed into their bodies which are then eaten by folks who eat them. So how do we non-flesh eaters get our B12? Fortified soy/nut milk or cereals, Nutritional Yeast (more on the delicious Nutritional Yeast forthcoming) sprinkled on salad or pasta, or a supplement. I take a B12 supplement 3 times a week as well as Nutritional Yeast sprinkled on my salad every day. I’m a fiend for Nutritional Yeast. It’s totally yum.
I hate to even acknowledge this, but will because it’s probably the most common question I ever get asked. There is protein in EVERYTHING! There is protein in all vegetables! Protein in tofu. Protein in soy milk, beans of every shape, size, and color, nuts, seeds, peanut butter, oatmeal, pasta, broccoli, corn, etc. etc. etc. If you eat a varied and complete vegan diet, protein is the least of your concern.
The first things people might think as to where you can get vitamin D is either the sun or milk. Vitamin D is actually not found in any foods naturally. The vitamin D that is found in milk is there because its been added in via supplement into cow’s feed. Ten to fifteen minutes in the sun during mid-day hours is a great way to get your vitamin D. If you can’t manage that, your fortified nutmilk or cereal will contain parts of your daily intake as well. Or if you still are nervous, you can also take a supplement. (I take one!)
If you’re interested in learning more about vitamins and minerals in a vegan diet (which you totally should!), check out the book Vegan for Life by Jack Norris, RD and Virginia Messina, MPH, RD. This is my nutritional bible. Its comprehensive, easy to understand, full of charts and graphs and all the bells and whistles to help you learn and feel confident about your nutritional intake.
I must disclaim: I am not a doctor or nutritionist! All of the information I have presented here I’ve gathered from reading books by professionals. It’s all ingrained in my noggin from having to recite the answers for the inevitable 20 questions vegans get asked about their nutrition. Please do your research, read the book I recommend, and absorb as much as you possibly can on this topic.