By: Sarah Gold Anzlovar, MS, RDN, LDN
Following a plant-based diet offers many health benefits, but it’s good to know some of the challenges so you can proactively mitigate ‘em. I always encourage plant-based eaters to pay attention to nutrients and mineral intake. Some nutrients are less abundant in plant-based diet, so getting everything you need from a plant-based diet requires some planning.
Iron helps transport oxygen around the body and plays a role in cell growth and energy metabolism. There are two types of iron found in food: heme, from meat, poultry, and fish;and non-heme found in beans, legumes, and some vegetables. While both forms of iron can provide you with what you need, non-heme iron isn’t as easily absorbed by the body, so it’s recommended that vegans and vegetarians consume up to 2 times more iron-rich foods than omnivores.
The other challenge with iron absorption? Many plant foods that are rich in iron also contain phytates. Phytates have been shown to reduce iron absorption (how’s that for a double whammy?). Try soaking, sprouting, or cooking beans, grains, and seeds to reduce phytate levels, which may help with iron absorption.
One final helpful hint: vitamin C can also enhance the absorption of iron. Consider pairing vitamin C-rich foods like citrus fruits, tomatoes, and red bell peppers with iron-rich foods.
Don’t forget, the best plant-based sources of iron include lentils, tofu, kidney beans, chickpeas, and cashews.
Important for bone health, nerve function, and muscle contraction, calcium is one of the essential minerals. While many people rely on dairy to meet their calcium needs, calcium is also found in some plant foods such as fortified tofu, spinach, and broccoli. If you drink or cook with plant-based milks, try ones fortified with calcium as well.
Vitamin D is an important nutrient for bone health and some emerging research has linked it to cardiovascular health. The best source of vitamin D is the sun, but that comes with other riks, so it’s important to consume it via your diet, too!
While people who eat a flexitarian diet can also get vitamin D from some foods, there are very few plant-based foods that offer any vitamin D. Fortified plant milks and mushrooms exposed to vitamin D provide a small amount, but taking a supplement may be the best option if you don’t spend time in the sun year-round. And, don’t forget to have your doctor check your blood levels before starting a supplement (it’s just good practice)!
This vitamin plays a major role in metabolizing nutrients, DNA generation, red blood cell formation, and nerve function. But here’s the challenge: the main dietary source of B12 is animal foods. So, if you follow a vegan diet, this is one vitamin you should absolutely pay attention to!
Some foods are fortified with B12 such as plant milks, some plant-based “meats.” Nutritional yeast also touts itself as a good source of B12, but not all brands are fortified with the vitamin, so pay close attention! Ultimately, if you follow a vegan diet, ask your doctor or registered dietitian if a supplement makes sense for you.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
The recommended dietary intake of omega-3s for adults emphasizes the need for ALA (ALA is one particular type of omega-3 fatty acid found in a variety of foods). The best plant-sources of ALA include walnuts and chia, hemp, and flax seeds, so aim to eat these foods daily.
There are two other types of Omega-3 fatty acids: EPA and DHA. These types of omega-3 fatty acids have been linked to better cardiovascular health, brain health, and lower levels of inflammation. But, EPA and DHA are only found in fish and marine algae. If you are concerned about getting enough, there are vegan EPA and DHA supplements, but the research on the benefits of omega-3 supplements is conflicting, so aim to get most of your omega-3s from nuts and seeds.
The Bottom Line
A well-planned plant-based diet can provide most of your nutrient needs, but there may be cases where a supplement is useful. Always check with your doctor before starting a new supplement. If you’re concerned about meeting your needs, working with a registered dietitian who specializes in plant-based eating can help you maximize your nutrient intake.
Sarah holds a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and Marketing from The George Washington University and a Master of Science in Nutrition Communication from Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. She completed her Dietetic Internship at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a Harvard University teaching hospital in Boston, MA.
When not in the kitchen, you can find Sarah seeking out the latest restaurant opening, teaching indoor cycling, running, training for triathlons, or hiking or skiing with her husband, son, and golden retriever pup.