Six Critical Nutrients for Healthy Vegan Eating

The popularity of plant-based eating is on the rise, and many people are discovering the power of produce. In our 2022 Food and Health Survey, 12% of our survey participants said they followed a plant-based diet within the past year. Without a doubt, eating more plant-based foods can improve your health, especially if you do not already eat enough fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds, vegetables, or whole grains. In addition to the numerous nutritional benefits of eating more plant-based foods like these, according to the National Cancer Institute, people who eat plant-rich diets have a lower risk of developing many types of cancers and other health conditions.

Because of its potential health benefits, some people follow a vegetarian diet, while others take plant-based eating a step further and follow a vegan diet—a choice that is often driven by ethical beliefs and environmental concerns as well as a desire for better health. But while following a vegan diet can benefit your health, without special planning, it can also mean missing out on some crucial nutrients traditionally provided by animal foods. The need for dietary planning, however, is not limited to vegan diets—omnivorous diets also require attention to get the nutrients we need.

If you follow a vegan diet or are considering giving it a try, “lettuce” help you level up your eating routine to ensure you’re getting enough of the following six nutrients.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is vital for proper metabolism and DNA and protein synthesis, all of which support our brain, heart, muscle, and nerve health. Our bodies do not make vitamin B12, so we must get it from foods and/or dietary supplements. Vegetarian and vegan diets must pay special attention to vitamin B12 because it is only found naturally in animal foods.

Without adequate amounts of this nutrient, people may develop Vitamin B12 deficiencies, which can cause anemia, mood changes, nerve and neurological damage. Yet vitamin B12 deficiencies are common and they are of special concern to older adults. To help prevent deficiencies, a variety of packaged plant-based foods and beverages are fortified with vitamin B12.

If you follow a vegan diet, getting enough vitamin B12 can be accomplished, but doing so takes intentional planning. Here are a few foods that will beef up the B12 in any eating routine:

Calcium and Vitamin D

Calcium and vitamin D are also critical nutrients for good health. Calcium supports dental, nerve, muscle, and bone health and is found predominantly in animal-based foods like milk, yogurt, and cheese. Vitamin D plays a critical role in muscle, nerve, and immune function, in addition to helping our bodies absorb calcium and phosphorous to build and maintain bone health.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans encourage higher consumption of foods and beverages rich in calcium and vitamin D, since eating foods rich in both these nutrients is critical to strong, healthy bones. Unfortunately, many people (including non-vegans) don’t get enough of these nutrients, partly because vitamin D is not found naturally in many foods.

Here are some vegan sources that deliver calcium and vitamin D:


  • Dark leafy greens (like bok choy, collard and mustard greens, and spinach)
  • Figs
  • Fortified breads, cereals and oats
  • Fortified 100% juice (such as fortified grapefruit and orange juices)
  • Fortified plant-based beverages (such as almond, coconut, oat, pea, rice, and soy milks)
  • Fortified soy products (such as fortified tofu and yogurt)
  • Legumes (primarily, beans—including navy, pinto, and white beans, as well as black-eyed peas, chickpeas, and soybeans)
  • Nuts and seeds (like almonds, Brazil nuts, chia seeds, flaxseeds, and sesame seeds)

Vitamin D

  • Fortified breads and cereals
  • Fortified 100% orange juice
  • Fortified plant-based beverages (such as almond, coconut, oat, pea, rice, and soy milks)
  • Mushrooms (particularly those exposed to UV light)

Iron and Vitamin C

Iron and vitamin C are another important combination of nutrients. Iron is a key nutrient that works all over the body to transport oxygen to tissues, produce energy, and support brain health. Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that plays an important role in collagen synthesis, immune health, nervous system functioning, wound healing, and protecting against cell damage that can lead to the development of certain cancers, cardiovascular disease, and other health conditions.

One reason that iron is important for vegans is that they need to consume nearly twice as much iron as meat-eaters because our bodies absorb iron more efficiently from animal sources than from plant sources. As a result, people who follow vegetarian and vegan diets have a higher risk for iron deficiency.

Similar to how vitamin D helps our bodies absorb calcium, vitamin C helps us absorb iron, which can be especially helpful for a vegan diet. Including both iron and vitamin C foods in the same meal or snack helps the body stay iron-strong.

Here are some vegan sources of iron and vitamin C:


  • Dried or dehydrated fruit (including dates, figs, prunes, and raisins)
  • Fortified breads, cereals and oats
  • Legumes (like black beans, chickpeas, lentils, and soybeans)
  • Nuts and seeds (such as cashews, pumpkin seeds, and sesame seeds)
  • Vegetables (like asparagus, mushrooms, spinach, and Swiss chard)
  • Whole grains (like amaranth, millet, quinoa, and brown rice)

Vitamin C

  • Citrus fruits (including grapefruit, lemons, limes, and oranges)
  • Other fruits (such as cantaloupe, kiwi, and strawberries)
  • 100% juice (like grapefruit, orange, and tomato juices)
  • Peppers (including bell, chili, and sweet peppers)
  • Other vegetables (such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, and potatoes)

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are a specific type of polyunsaturated fats that are known to promote health during every stage of life, including infancy, pregnancy, and as we age. Most notably, omega-3 fats promote heart health in adults by lowering stroke and heart-disease risks, although much of the supporting research for this evidence is related to the consumption of fish and fish oil—two non-vegan sources.

But that doesn’t mean that vegans shouldn’t consume omega-3 fats—it’s just that they must come from plants. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is the type of omega-3 found in plant foods, while docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) are (mostly) found in animal foods. Our bodies can convert ALA into DHA and EPA, but only in small amounts. And our bodies can’t produce ALA, so we have to get it in our diet from plant foods.

Top sources of DHA and EPA are seafood, and a diet without seafood makes it difficult to get enough of these healthy fats. But did you know that fish get DHA and EPA from plants? Fish get DHA and EPA directly from microalgae, and vegans can too because microalgae and seaweed are vegan marine sources of DHA and EPA. If you find it challenging to get DHA and EPA from foods, there are vegan algal oil, chlorella, and spirulina supplements available. But be sure to check the DHA and EPA contents of supplements. And if you are curious about supplements, discuss them with your primary medical provider before trying something new.

Here are a few vegan sources of omega-3s:

  • Algae and seaweed *marine sources of DHA and EPA
  • Cooking oils (including canola oil, flaxseed oil, and soybean oil)
  • Nuts and seeds (like chia seeds, flaxseeds, hemp seeds, and walnuts)

This article contains contributions from Kris Sollid, RD, and Nutrition On Demand.