Getting Enough Nutrients
A recent German study found that some vegetarians -- particularly those who eat no animal products at all -- may end up with low vitamin B12 and iron levels. The study, which looked at vegans, lacto-vegetarians and lacto-ovo vegetarians, found that vegans had the lowest counts of those nutrients.
It is easier to meet the dietary requirements for protein, calcium, iron, and B12 when your diet contains dairy and/or egg foods, as these foods are rich in some nutrients that plant foods have little or none of.
But the bottom line is that you can meet your nutritional needs on a vegan diet -- though you may need to include certain, high-nutrient plant foods and buy some special food products and/or supplements.
If you're a vegan, here are the nutrients you need to make sure you're getting enough of:
- Riboflavin (Vitamin B2). This is found in green leafy vegetables, whole and enriched grains, mushrooms, yeast, beans, seeds, and nuts.
- Vitamin D. If you don't get out in the sun (with your hands, arms and face exposed) for at least five to 15 minutes per day, consider including a fortified food or supplement containing vitamin D. Some margarines and breakfast foods are fortified with vitamin D (check the labels).
- Vitamin B-12. This is found only in animal foods so if you've cut out all dairy, eggs, meat, fish, and fowl, you'll probably need to add it to your diet. You may find it in some fortified soy milks, yeast, and breakfast cereals (like Grape-Nuts): The body can store enough B-12 for up to four years, so it can take a while for a deficiency to show up. If a deficiency develops, nerves can be damaged irreversibly and brain function can decrease.
- Calcium. Fortified soy milk and orange juice are among the best vegan sources for calcium. Calcium is also found in tofu, almonds, beans, and green leafy vegetables.
- Iron. There are some plant sources of iron -- whole grains, prune juice, dried fruits like raisins; beans; nuts and seeds; leafy vegetables like spinach and broccoli, peaches; apricots; and blackstrap molasses. But this type isn't absorbed as well by the body as the iron in animal foods. Eating these plant foods with vitamin C-rich fruits and vegetables will increase iron absorption.
- Zinc. Whole grains, wheat germ, beans, nuts, and seeds are all good sources of zinc.