Also see: Essentials of Vegan Nutrition
Vegan Nutrition Information Basics 101
by Mark Rifkin, MS, RD, LDN
Preventive Nutrition Services, Baltimore, MD
Like any diet, a vegan diet can be complete and balanced, or incomplete and unbalanced. Unfortunately, vegan eating is not a guarantee of good health. We still need to pay attention to our choices, watch our portion sizes, limit junk and processed foods, and ensure adequate intakes of a few nutrients not easily available from vegan foods.
Protein - Requirements
Protein is frequently at the top of the list of concerned parents and skeptical friends. And converting from a typical American diet to vegan is mostly about shifting our protein sources. However, getting enough is easy, if we remember that any reasonable diet that provides sufficient calories and variety is almost guaranteed to supply enough quality protein to an average healthy vegan. After all, the cow is a vegan.
Protein requirements will differ, based on age, gender, body size, physical activity, and health status. A stereotypical vegan woman who weighs 130 lbs will need about 40-55 grams per day. A stereotypical vegan man who weighs 160 lbs will need about 50-65 grams per day. More than that is not better, since your body essentially can't store it, and will excrete the excess.
Vegan protein sources include:
- soy foods: soya beans
- processed soy like tofu and soymilk
- processed soy foods like veggie burgers, hot dogs and sausage
- non-soy beans (lentils, black beans, chick peas, etc)
- nuts and seeds
- whole grains
- mildly processed foods: like tempeh and seitan
- Even vegetables will contribute 10- 20% of your protein requirement.
Although the processed soy foods are very common and very appealing, they do have a less desirable side: they are as processed—or more so---as any typical American junk food. The processed soy foods also tend to be high in sodium, fat or sugar, and they can still contain genetically-modified ingredients (unless they're organic), artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives. Although there are exceptions, labeling most of these foods as "healthy" would be an overstatement. And criticizing the conventional food industry while eating a soy veggie burger is just a bit dishonest.
The popularity of these processed soy foods has made soy in general an easy target for criticism from some internet "experts," who claim that all soy is unhealthy, contains compounds that prevent protein absorption, increase the risk of breast cancer or early puberty, threatens hormone balance, or increases risk of food allergies. For the most part, there is no truth to the claims. Much of their information is based on research:
- in animals (not reliable, since you don't look like an overgrown rat)
- using very high intakes (up to six servings per day, more than anyone should be eating)
- using soy supplements (powders, etc) instead of foods
- fails to account for the effects of cooking
- fails to mention interactions with other nutrients.
- Soy is a common source of food allergies and sensitivities. Anyone who appears to have ANY reaction to soy foods (rashes, hives, itching, digestive challenges, or even breathing difficulties) should be evaluated by a qualified physician. For the rest of us, eating some soy (up to three servings, or about 20 g of protein per day) is not a problem, and most of that should be unprocessed foods, such as tofu, tempeh, soymilk, miso, edamame (green soy beans), or a new soy food called yuba (aka "tofu skins").
Protein sources - Non-soy
Since soy foods are so easy and convenient, it's easy to forget that there are at least a dozen other commonly available beans. Pinto, black, kidney, red, navy, black-eyed peas, chick peas, yellow and green split peas, lentils, Great Northern, Lima: the variety is endless. Additional varieties of beans (cranberry, French lentils, cannelini, red lentils, etc) can be found in gourmet, organic and natural food markets. Barring allergies or sensitivities, vegans should be eating beans at least once daily. If you're not accustomed to eating beans or you're concerned about digestive upset or gas, start with small portions and focus on lentils and split peas. Slowly increase portion size and variety, and, over time, most will find very little digestive response.
Seitan is wheat protein which has been concentrated and separated from the naturally occurring wheat starch and fiber. It is usually sold in rolls or large pieces. Although it is very high in protein, it also has no fiber. Since it's derived from wheat, a common food allergen, eating seitan would not be wise for anyone who is allergic or sensitive to wheat, and eating it frequently might----possibly— increase risk for a wheat allergy in some people. Eating seitan occasionally (once or twice monthly) is probably not a problem for most people.
Nuts and seeds are also an important and nutritious protein source, since they are also a good source of healthy fats, minerals and vitamin E. This group includes peanuts (technically related to beans, and not a true nut), and nuts such as almonds, cashews and walnuts, but also pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, flax seeds and hemp seeds. Most nuts and seeds can be eaten raw or roasted. Eating some type of nut, nut butter or seed every day is a good idea.
Whole grains, vegetables and fruits
Vegans, like almost anyone following other dietary patterns, should make most of their grains whole, such as whole wheat bread or pasta, barley, quinoa and brown rice. Although white, processed grains have as much protein as the whole-grain versions, the whole grains also provide essential B vitamins, iron, fiber and anti-oxidants. These nutrients are only found in the healthy brown layers which are removed to make grains white. White grains are fortified with some of the vitamins and iron they lost, but have no fiber or anti-oxidants. All the grains are also good sources of carbohydrates, which can also be found in starchy vegetables like potatoes and sweet potatoes.
The news about vegetables is familiar, but many vegans, surprisingly, don't eat a lot of vegetables. The best balance is found by eating as much color variety as possible, especially deep dark colors, which almost always have more healthy plant chemicals than paler vegetables.
The most critical group of vegetables for vegans is probably DGLV, or dark green leafy vegetables, because, as a group, they are excellent sources of calcium, iron and scores of other nutrients. At a minimum, everyone should be eating at least three to five servings of vegetables every day.
A typical balanced meal for lunch or dinner might include the following:
- 1/2 cup of tofu or other soy food OR 1 cup of beans
- 1 cup of whole grain pasta OR brown rice OR (1) 3" redskin potatoes
- 3/4 - 1 cup EACH of broccoli and carrots OR 3/4 - 1 cup carrots, and 2 cups mixed green salad
Fruit recommendations are also similar across all eating patterns—eat more, especially as much color variety as possible. That means at least two to three servings daily, and fruit juice should be limited to no more than one serving (8 oz.) daily.
Fats / Oils
There are concerns that many vegans are eating too much fat, while others are not eating enough. A healthy vegan will avoid or reduce their use of foods which are deep fried or heavily coated in oil. Many of the tofu and soy meat items in Asian restaurants are deep-fried, as are many appetizers, such as egg rolls and Indian samosas. Other vegans avoid all oils all the time in the pursuit of good health, and may actually be depriving themselves of health and flavor benefits.
Since fat is essential in the diet, and fat also contributes to food flavor and appeal, the best balance is about 15-20% of calories. This strikes a balance between the excessive 30% recommendations from the government and mainstream health "authorities" (on one hand) and the extremely low, but not necessarily optimal, recommendations of other vegan nutrition experts who support diets containing no more than 10% of calories as fat. This 10% of calories limit would imply almost no use of oil to even saute onions, and no use of soy mayonnaise or salad dressing other than fruit-based vinaigrettes. There is little or no evidence that such low fat intakes provide better health benefits compared to diets with 15-20% of calories coming from fat.
While amount of fat matters, so does the type of fat. Vegans should be focusing their fat choices on olive and canola oils, avocado, nuts/seeds, nut butters, and olives. Those same less-than-healthy temptations in Asian restaurants are usually cooked in soybean oil, because it's cheap, has no flavor, and works well at high temperatures. However, soybean oil, like most oils high in polyunsaturated fats, is prone to rancidity, oxidation, production of free radicals, and may promote inflammation (which is linked with many common diseases and conditions). Some soybean oil is acceptable, and is likely needed for good health, but given its very common use in restaurants and packaged food, most of us should probably cut back on soybean oil.
Another important type of oil is the omega-3 fats, which promote good heart health, brain function, skin health and joint health. While omnivores would get their omega-3 fats from fish, vegans can find one type in flax, walnuts and hemp seeds, but this must be converted to the desired forms (EPA and DHA). There is some debate whether we can make enough of the desired forms from vegan sources. A vegan DHA supplement (derived from algae) is probably a good idea, along with regular use of ground flax or hemp seeds, or walnuts.
A common, but misplaced, source of concern in vegan nutrition is getting enough calcium. However, let's return to the farm, where we get milk from vegan cows! According to the milk industry and its cadre of researchers, the cows should be osteoporotic and hunched-over. Admittedly the cow does have a different digestive system which could help the cow absorb more calcium, but this does point out that all minerals originate in the soil, and plants are the primary vehicle. At best, the cow diverts calcium, and then repackages it with other components which were never intended for humans. For some reason, we never think of suckling from the neighborhood bulldog who just had pups, but dairy cows provide the all-American food?
It may be American, but it's not all that healthy to consume the mammary secretions of a pregnant cow. That's right—in modern industrial agriculture the cow is kept constantly pregnant, which helps to maintain maximum milk flow. Within a couple of weeks after each calf is born, the mother is re-impregnated. So now the milk contains not only the hormones of a lactating cow, but also a pregnant cow. According to one study, that means there are 36 hormones and growth factors----naturally occurring—in cow's milk. Of course, these are designed to stimulate a calf's rapid growth and development----a process not desirable in adults, because such a process can also stimulate cancer, another type of rapid growth and development. The specific content of fats, proteins, sugars, hormones and growth factors is unique to cows, just as the content of similar compounds in breastmilk is unique to humans. Cows' milk for children? Whose idea was that? Why not breastmilk for calves?
So where does a vegan obtain calcium? From plants, especially DGLV (mentioned above), such as collards, kale and turnip greens. In fact, one cup of cooked collard greens may contain more usable calcium than one cup of cows' milk. Other calcium sources include fortified foods, such as soy milk and orange juice, almonds, figs and beans.
Another point is that although the government recommends 1000 mg of calcium per day for adults until age 54 (and more for seniors), the certainty of that recommendation has been reduced because bone health (the primary consideration used to establish the recommendation) is affected by a lot more than just calcium intake. At least a dozen nutrients are involved in bone health, but the vast majority of official attention is directed toward only one nutrient - calcium. Vitamin D's essential role in bone health has recently been rediscovered, but what about vitamins A, C, K and iron? And new data point to fruit and vegetable intake, as well as zinc, copper, and omega-3 fats.
While we are told to try to get enough calcium to meet the official recommendation, the United Nations recommends 400-500 mg per day; and average intake among African women is even lower than the UN's recommendation, yet they have excellent bone health. Despite all that, supplementing some calcium (perhaps 250-500 mg per day) may still be a wise idea. Even vegan children and pregnant or lactating women can get enough calcium from vegan sources, although some supplementation may be required, depending upon the use of DGLV.
Although many people stereotype vegans as anemic and pale, rates of anemia among vegans are similar to that in the general population. Now that we know the cow is a vegan, and that iron is a mineral, we know that it must be available from plants. The best vegan sources are beans and DGLV (again!). For optimum absorption, eat your iron food with a source of vitamin C. How hard is that? Beans with tomatoes. Fresh spinach with strawberries. Lentils and broccoli. Enough said.
Vitamin D, B-12 and Iodine
Vitamin D's role in bone health is only one of this hormone's (yes, it's actually a hormone) critical functions—new information indicates vitamin D plays strong roles in preventing cancer, protecting the heart, and maintaining proper immune, brain and nervous system function, among others. Research is constantly revealing new roles of vitamin D, yet most Americans are probably borderline low, and many are outright deficient.
Although it was once presumed we could make enough Vitamin D from reasonable sunlight exposure, it's now accepted that this is likely not true, especially for people living north of a line running between Atlanta and Los Angeles. Air pollution, aging, darker complexions, use of sunblock, and reduced time outdoors challenge us to obtain our Vitamin D elsewhere.
Vegan sources are limited to fortified foods, sun-exposed mushrooms, and supplements. Vegans who decide to supplement will want to look for ergocalciferol as the main ingredient. Other forms of Vitamin D are not vegan. Dosages vary, but 1000 - 2000 IU (or more) may be necessary for most Americans living north of the line of quality sun exposure.
Vitamin B-12 is presumed to only be found in animal foods, but it's actually produced by soil bacteria, which are then eaten by farmed animals in their feed. Before modern industrial agriculture, dirty vegetables were probably another good source of B-12, but modern concerns about sanitation make this no longer practical. Even if we ate homegrown produce, B-12 content is not verifiable.
Since B-12 is efficiently recycled by the body, new vegans may have five to ten years or more worth of storage. However, at some point, those stores will be depleted, and use of fortified foods and supplementation will be necessary. Supplementation dosages can vary from 250 mcg to 5000 mcg, depending on health status, supplement form and frequency of use. Another source of B-12 is nutritional yeast (NOT brewer's yeast), a powdery product which has a cheesy texture suitable for sprinkling over pasta or pizza. Two tablespoons will supply more than the daily requirement.
A vegan's food sources of iodine are limited to sea vegetables, iodized salt, and some beans. Some vegans will obtain iodine from foods grown near the ocean. But for most vegans, especially those who don't use sea vegetables, and those who are reducing their salt use at home, poor intake of iodine causes concern for proper thyroid function. Unless sea vegetables (dulse, wakame, or kelp) are eaten regularly, supplementation of 150 mcg per day is necessary.
Like most Americans, vegans should also be cautious about how much sodium and sugar they eat. A food's vegan status does not preclude high sodium or sugar content (see sodium discussed above in section about processed soy). Vegans would be wise to target a maximum of 1500 mg of sodium per day and minimize their use of foods and drinks with added sugars.
Many vegans are trying to eat an all- or nearly-all-raw diet because of increased interest in fruits and vegetables. While eating more of these foods is certainly a good idea for nearly every American, there are also concerns. Cooking actually liberates some nutrients, and also helps break down tough plant fibers and bitter compounds, making vegetables more nutritious and appealing. And the large volume of low-calorie, low protein food might support healthy weight loss, but it might also lead to unplanned, undesirable losses in weight, loss of strength, and bone density. Wise vegans will find a suitable balance between cooked and uncooked food, with uncooked food making up no more than about 1/3 of their calories.
For the most part, vegan nutrition is not all that different from "mainstream" nutrition. Some education is necessary, but that can be said no matter what style of eating we choose. While American meat-eating moms have every right to be concerned about their vegetarian teens, the vegetarians should be concerned that Mom is eating her beans and DGLV (again!), and getting plenty of fruits and vegetables for those healthy plant chemicals. With a bit of balance and guidance, being vegan is easy. But being a healthy vegan is being the best vegan you can be.
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