I am thrilled to have this guest post about vegan nutrition!

Many of my eating disorder clients have adopted a vegan diet, for better or worse, and are not meeting their nutritional needs. Vegan and vegetarian diets are very healthy when done correctly, but if the whole purpose is to cut more things out in the name of restriction, then malnutrition is almost certain. 

If you are vegan, or contemplating starting a vegan or vegetarian diet, read-on to learn about plant-based sources of certain nutrients that are often hard to get when animals are off the table.


By: Emily Baird
Emily is a 1st year nutrition student at Cal Poly who plans to become a registered dietitian. She has been vegan for 2 years, and plans to incorporate that into her career.

Every year more and more people are making the transition to a vegan diet, and for good reason! The vegan diet can have so many health benefits for our bodies including disease prevention, weight management, and protection against cancers. But with being vegan, also comes the common questions about: “How do vegans get enough protein?” “How are they getting any B12 in their diet?” “How to vegans get calcium if they don’t drink cow’s milk?”. And although these are valid questions, a well-balanced diet full of fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, and carbohydrates is all a vegan needs to fulfill their nutritional requirements.

Iron is an important component of the red blood cells that carry oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body, as hemoglobin. Think of it like the engine to a car; the engine provides the car with the power it needs to make it move. Similarly iron allows hemoglobin to have the needed strength to get oxygen where it needs to go. Without it, the body cannot make hemoglobin, which means organs and tissues won’t get the oxygen they need.

There are two types of iron – heme and non-heme. “Non-heme” iron is found only in plants foods and is harder for the body to absorb than “heme” iron which is only found in meat products, so we need to eat more plant-based iron to truly get the same amount as if we were eating meat.

Many plant foods are naturally high in iron, but there are also many packaged foods that are now being fortified with iron. The recommended daily allowance (RDA) is between 8 – 18 mg (depending on age and gender, up to 27 mg during pregnancy). Be sure to include a source of vitamin C with your iron for better absorption.

1 cup soybeans: 8.8 mg
2 tbsp flax seeds: 4.1 mg
½ cup cooked lentils: 3.3 mg
½ cup fortified total whole grain cereals: 8 mg
(For a complete list click here)

Calcium is responsible for building and maintaining strong bones and teeth. When the body isn’t supplied with sufficient amounts, it increases the risk of developing disorders like – osteoporosis, hypercalcemia, kidney disease, and even alzheimer’s. Calcium can be included either by nutrient dense foods or by incorporating calcium fortified foods. Most breakfast cereals, milks, breads, and juices contain added calcium, but be sure to read the nutrition label to be sure. The RDA is around 1000 – 1300 mg. Vitamin D intake is essential to adequate calcium absorption.

100 g calcium set tofu: 350 mg
¾ cup calcium fortified plant milk: 240 mg
⅓ cup cooked kale: 110 mg
¼ cup dried figs: 95 mg
(For a complete list click here)

Zinc is essential for the body’s immune system to function properly. It also works in cell division, cell growth, the breakdown of carbohydrates, and wound healing. Although it is so important for our bodies, not much is actually needed; the RDA for zinc is 11 mg for men and 8 mg for women. Even though plant sources of zinc are not absorbed as easily as animal sources, vegans were shown to only have a slightly lower amount of zinc.

Tofurky italian sausage: 9 mg
½ cup hummus: 2.3 mg
1 tbsp nutritional yeast: 2 mg
¼ cup roasted pumpkin seeds: 2.3 mg
(Click here for a complete list)

Your body must have vitamin D in order to properly absorb calcium in the body. Vitamin D is not typically a problem for vegans during the summer months, but those living in colder climate may be at risk of developing a vitamin D deficiency. The RDA is 600 – 800 IU. Just about 10 to 20  minutes (depending on skin tone) in the sun per day will provide the body with sufficient levels. But those living closer to the northern hemisphere, may need to include more vitamin D rich foods in their diet.

1 cup portabella mushrooms: 634 IU
1 serving instant oatmeal: 180 IU
1 cup fortified soymilk: 120 IU
1 cup fortified orange juice: 100 IU
(Click here for a complete list)

Eating a healthy variety of plants and grains will ensure that the body gets sufficient levels of nutrients. The exception to that is vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 is not as easily accessible through plant based foods, so it can be important to include a supplement in your diet. If you are overwhelmed by what kind of B12 supplement to choose, check out this article. Nutritional yeast is an example of a vegan food that does naturally contain B12. It is usually used as a cheese replacement or topping, and can supply 2.4 mcg per 3 tbsp (which is the RDA).

A well-balanced, plant based diet will supply the body with all the nutrients that it needs to thrive. There are many people who question the vegan diet and believe that vegans are lacking essential nutrients, but with the right knowledge of nutritional needs, a vegan diet can be very beneficial.

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