It seems like it is all the rage to follow a restrictive diet. The trend has gained momentum as big-name celebrities (like Beyoncé going vegan, Tom Brady throwing shade at night shades or a Bachelor contestant likening gluten to Satan) commit to a challenging eating style. But unlike Queen Bey, most of us commoners do not have personal chefs, assistants and trainers who keep us on track for our health goals. When it comes to going vegan, here five nutrients to make sure to prioritize and incorporate into your new way of eating.
Don’t forget about vitamin B12
Vitamin B12, also known as cyanocobalamin, is important for metabolism as well as heart, nerve and muscle health. Because vitamin B12 is predominantly found in animal-based foods, especially organ meats such as liver, along with shellfish and some finfish (including herring, sardines and trout), vegans may have difficulty getting enough vitamin B12 from foods. To make sure you aren’t vitamin B12-deficient, fortified foods such as ready-to-eat cereals and meal replacement shakes often contain vitamin B12. In addition, multivitamins and vitamin B12 supplements can also be used.
Calcium (along with vitamin D) is key
Calcium supports dental, nerve, muscle and bone health and is found predominantly in animal-based foods like milk, yogurt and cheese. Vegetables like kale and broccoli also contain calcium. Similar to vitamin B12, fortified foods like breakfast cereals and soy products can also contain calcium.
Since most of the calcium from food is in its inactive form, it needs to be converted to an active form for calcium to support health outcomes. Enter vitamin D. It helps convert calcium into its active form, so eating foods that contain vitamin D (think eggs, fatty fish and some fish liver oils as well as fortified foods like cereals, milk, milk-alternative products and some fruit juices) is a critical part of the equation.
Iron is key for metabolism and heart health. Food sources of iron include animal protein like fish, chicken and beef. Bread, breakfast bars, cereals, fruits and whole grain products also contain iron. Iron deficiencies are common even in women and children who are not vegan, so it’s important to keep this in mind as well.
Similar to the relationship between calcium and vitamin D, vitamin C helps with iron absorption. Foods rich in vitamin C include vegetables such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, potatoes, spinach and tomatoes; fruits like citrus and strawberries; and juices like citrus juice and tomato juice.
Opt for omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3s are polyunsaturated fats that have been shown to support cardiovascular health. Found in both plant and animal sources, they include alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
ALA cannot be made by the body, so it must be derived from plant-based foods like flaxseed, chia seed, walnuts, and canola and soybean oils. EPA and DHA are found only in animals, such as salmon, sardines, and mackerel. While EPA and DHA can be made from ALA in the body, only low levels of these omega-3s can be made. The only vegan EPA and DHA sources are microalgae and seaweed food products or supplements.
Although a vegan eating style has some notable components, such as emphasizing fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds and soy products, it is not the only diet that promotes overall health. Rather, what’s most important is building an eating style that is sustainable, fits your lifestyle and includes:
- A variety of vegetables—dark green, red and orange, legumes (beans and peas), starchy and others
- Fruits, especially whole fruits
- Grains, at least half of which are whole grains
- Fat-free or low-fat dairy, including milk, yogurt, cheese and/or fortified soy beverages
- A variety of protein foods, including seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, legumes (beans and peas), and nuts, seeds and soy products
- Vegetable oils
At the same time, you should limit saturated fats and trans fats, added sugars and sodium.
So if you are planning on going vegan, give a “high five” to your health! Make sure you are getting enough vitamin B12, calcium, vitamin D, iron and omega-3s.Check with your doctor or registered dietitian if you have further questions specific to your needs.