A nourishing vegan diet starts with fresh produce, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds – basically, the ingredients that form the basis for our Four Pillars of Healthy Eating.You can find most of what you need for a satisfying and nutritionally sound vegan diet in our produce aisle, frozen section, grocery aisles and bulk bin section.
Get the Nutrition You Need
Several key nutrients found primarily in animal products can’t easily be obtained by eating a plant-based diet, so it’s essential to approach your diet with careful planning and forethought.
To maintain optimal health, it is especially important that vegans consume adequate amounts of the following nutrients, either from foods (including fortified foods) or supplements. Remember, this information is only a guide. Always go to your doctor or nutritionist with questions about maintaining a healthy vegan diet.
The USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 notes that about half of Americans eat plenty of protein1. (A 2016 Harris Poll conducted with the Vegetarian Resource Group estimates about 3.5 million Americans are vegan.2) Luckily, the plant kingdom’s beans, nuts, seeds, legumes, and grains all provide protein. Many vegetables outside the legume family also contain protein but in smaller amounts. However, some researchers note protein from plants may be less digestible, and, therefore, less available for your body to use. The important thing is to make sure you’re eating adequate calories so your body can use that protein to best effect (and not for energy). The Daily Values for an average adult on a 2,000-calorie diet require about 50g protein daily.
The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of iron for vegetarians and vegans is 1.8 times higher than for non-vegans: 27mg. versus 15mg. For women aged 19 to 50 who follow a vegan diet, that need goes up to 32mg iron a day versus the 18mg iron needed for the same age group of women on an omnivorous eating plan. For men aged 19 to 50 on a plant-based diet, about 14mg iron each day is needed compared to the 8mg iron required daily for the same age group of omnivores.This is because iron from plant foods is not as available to the body as iron from animal sources. Although iron intake and stores are usually adequate in vegetarians and vegans, young and pregnant women and athletes should pay special attention to make sure their needs are met.
Plant foods tend to be lower in zinc concentrations than animal foods. (Whole grains and cereals are among the best sources of zinc in a vegan or vegetarian diet.) And zinc’s bioavailability is inhibited by several compounds, such as fiber and phytates, which are common in vegan and vegetarian diets. In addition, the bioavailability of plant-based zinc is lower than from animal products. Marginal deficiencies in zinc may be common in vegans, especially if they consume a lot of wheat bran and soy, as well as tea, chocolate and coffee. (These foods are high in phytates, which interfere with zinc absorption.) Zinc, however, is widespread in the food supply and consuming a varied diet will help ensure you’re getting enough.
Iodine is an essential mineral required for good thyroid function. Too little or too much iodine in the diet can lead to hypothyroidism, a precursor to disease. Vegetarians and vegans generally consume less iodine than the general population, but this varies depending on their intake of supplements, iodized salt, and seaweeds. Vegetarians or vegans who do not consume iodized salt may be at risk for iodine deficiency.
Essential Fatty Acids
Essential fatty acids are aptly named because they are truly essential to health: Since the body does not manufacture them, they must be obtained from the diet. Omega-3’s are one class of essential fatty acids that are important for maintaining cell membranes, including those of the brain and eyes, and for regulating bodily processes.
** To achieve a balanced Omega-6/Omega-3 ratio, decrease intake of certain vegetable oils including corn, soy and grapeseed oils. **
It is challenging to maintain adequate levels of vitamin B12 on a primarily plant-based diet. Because low levels of this vitamin increase disease risk and can negate the positive cardiovascular effects of a vegetarian or vegan diet, supplementation with vitamin B12 is strongly recommended. This is especially true for pregnant and lactating women for whom optimum vitamin B12 intake is crucial.
Calcium is essential for overall body health, helping to ensure proper muscle and nerve function as well as strong bones and teeth. Vegetarians and vegans are most likely to have calcium levels lower than the general population along with the lower bone density that implies.
Calcium levels can be negatively affected by other dietary factors such as high sodium consumption, caffeine and soft drinks with phosphoric acid, so be sure to be aware of these, as well.
If you’re a vegetarian or vegan who spends a lot of time indoors or lives in a northern clime, chances are you have less-than-optimal vitamin D levels. Sufficient vitamin D can be produced by exposure to the sun during warm months: 10–15 minutes on face and forearms for people with fairer complexion or 30 minutes to 3 hours for people with darker complexions. During cold months, you will likely have to depend on fortified foods or supplements.
Animal-derived ingredients abound in supplements, and vegans must be alert to avoid them.
Look for capsule and softgel products that say “vegi-caps” or highlight plant-derived sources on the label. A knowledgeable Whole Body Team Member can also help you find the supplements you need.
Here are some things to look out for:
- Gelatin, derived from cattle and pigs, is the most pervasive animal product in nutritional supplements. Beware of capsule and softgel products that do not have “vegi-caps” or plant-derived sources on the label.
- Beta-carotene, though vegetarian sourced, is often coated in gelatin for stabilization purposes.
- L-Tyrosine is typically derived from poultry feathers.
- Glucosamine Sulfate is usually derived from shellfish, although a new vegetarian source is now being tested for efficacy and stability.
- Chondroitin Sulfate is derived from cattle.
- Vitamin D3 (as cholecalciferol) is usually derived from lanolin (sheep’s wool), animal hides or fish oil. D2, a synthetic version, is not as bioavailable as D3.
- DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid), an essential omega-3 fatty acid, is derived from seaweed but normally packaged in gelatin softgels. Finding a vegetarian or vegan form may require some effort.
Some of the above products have vegan- and vegetarian-friendly alternatives but they are not as widely available because they cost more to produce. Many quality supplements announce their vegetarian or vegan status on the label. If it doesn’t say it on the label, you can assume that it is not veggie friendly.
Whole Foods Market is committed to carrying the highest quality nutritional supplements available. We strive to offer vegetarian-derived products whenever possible and to ensure that all products are labeled accurately.
To educate yourself further about specific products, ask a Whole Body Team Member for the manufacturer’s contact information. Asking questions helps companies understand the importance of this issue.