“Where do you get your protein?” It’s one of the most common questions for vegans and probably one of the easiest to answer. Protein, like carbohydrates and fat, is a macronutrient that we need to survive. While the question of protein is important, there are several other micronutrients vegans need to include in their diet to ensure optimal health for an active lifestyle. Here are the essential nutrients for vegans and exactly how to eat them for most benefits.
1. Iron The primary source of iron in the Standard American Diet is meat, but there are plenty of plant sources for this important nutrient. Iron is is a part of hemoglobin, which is the binder for oxygen in red blood cells. If we fall short of our daily supply of iron, we can become anemic and suffer symptoms like fatigue, lethargy, and dizziness. Because plant-based iron is harder to absorb, it should be consumed with a source of vitamin C which aids in the metabolic process. Great sources of iron rich foods are: Dark leafy greens, legumes, tofu, and dried fruits such as apricots, prunes and dates. Try throwing some lemon juice on your next leafy green salad to get the maximum absorption of this vital nutrient.
2. Zinc Zinc is important in over 100 different cell functions in the body, including but not limited to: growth, hormone functions, immunity, fertility, and skin health. Zinc is best found in beans, nuts, peanut butter, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, bran flakes, wheat germ and tempeh. as with iron, zinc is not easily metabolized by the body. To maximize absorption from these sources, try sprouting nuts and grains.
3. Iodine is important for thyroid function, which produces hormones and helps control metabolism. A diet that is too low in iodine can cause hypothyroidism, which can slow metabolism, elevate cholesterol, and cause weight gain. People usually get iodine by eating fish or consuming dairy products. For vegans, iodine can be found in small quantities in sea vegetables such as seaweed or kelp. Iodized salt is also another way to get your daily recommended dose. These sources have varying amounts of iodine, so taking a daily vegan multi-vitamin that contains iodine should cover your needs.
4. Calcium is important in bone health, blood clotting, transmission of nerve impulses, and heart rhythm. Since the body sheds calcium every day, it needs to be constantly replenished. Calcium is found in leafy greens and is most easily absorbed from kale, collards, and mustard and turnip greens. Other great sources for this essential mineral are fortified tofu, juices and plant milks. Again, leafy green sources need to be combined with vitamin C in order to get the greatest benefit. But here’s the catch: studies have shown that calcium inhibits iron absorption when ingested together. This means individuals with high iron needs—such as adolescents and pregnant women—should limit calcium-rich foods during main meals and may need to get their calcium from supplements, preferably taken before bed.
5. B12 is needed for energy, nervous system production, cell division, and formation of healthy blood cells. B12, also known as cobalamin, is made by a bacterium that is found in the intestines of animals which makes this one of the few nutrients that is solely found in animal products. It can be found in fortified foods, but the best and most reliable way to ensure daily requirements are met is by taking a sublingual or chewable supplement. You can also try adding fortified nutritional yeast into your diet; some recommended brands are Red Star and Bragg’s.
Try these nutritious recipes: Earth and Sea Buddha Bowl with Sweet Ginger Dressing (Iron, iodine, calcium, B12)
Cumin Dijon Dressing (B12, Zinc)
For further reading, try: Vegan for Life – Virginia Messina, MPH, RD