Proponents of vegan and vegetarian diets often promote them on the basis of their potential health benefits, but, in the past, dieticians worried that these diets might not adequately meet people’s nutritional needs.
Protein is typically the nutrient that people are most concerned about when they consider adopting a plant based diet, although studies have found that a haphazard approach to eating vegan foods can also lead to a lack of other nutrients.
Vegans do not eat red meat, poultry, seafood, dairy, eggs, honey, or any foods containing these or other animal products. Currently, approximately 2% of the population in the United States describe themselves as vegans.
People who only eat vegan foods and consume no animal products do not have the direct access to complete dietary proteins that other people have.
As a result, vegans need to pay attention to their diet to ensure that it contains enough protein.
It is difficult to overestimate the importance of protein in the diet. Protein is one of the basic building blocks of the human body.
It is present in cells throughout the body and plays a part in most key bodily functions. Its roles include maintaining muscle and bones, supporting the immune system, and transporting oxygen in the blood.
According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein is 56 grams (g) for adult males and 46 g for adult females. However, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding have an RDA of 71 g of protein.
Another way of looking at protein needs is to consider the advice of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, who state that each day, people need to eat 0.4 g of protein per pound of body weight. They add that vegans may benefit from eating 0.5 g of protein per pound of body weight because plant proteins are slightly less digestible.
Experts used to encourage people following a vegetarian or vegan diet to eat different plant-based proteins at the same time to get enough complete proteins in their diet, but they no longer consider this practice essential.
The current thinking is that people can obtain the full range of amino acids that they need over the course of a day and that they do not need to balance the amino acids in every meal.
The following vegan foods are good sources of protein:
Protein may get most of the attention when it comes to making sure that vegans eat a balanced diet, but there are other nutrients that it is important to monitor as well.
The body needs vitamin B-12 to make red blood cells and keep the neurological system functioning properly.
This vitamin is also essential for healthy neurological development in infants.
The RDA for vitamin B-12 is 2.4 micrograms (mcg) a day for men and women aged 14 years and older. For pregnant women, the RDA is 2.6 mcg, and for women who are breastfeeding, the RDA is 2.8 mcg.
However, vitamin B-12 only occurs naturally in foods from animal sources, such as clams, liver, and dairy products. People who eat only vegan foods have two options to ensure that they consume enough of this vital nutrient. They can either eat foods that manufacturers have fortified with vitamin B-12 or take a vitamin B-12 dietary supplement.
Packaged breakfast cereals, nutritional yeast, soy milk, and some meat substitutes often have added vitamin B-12. The amount of vitamin B-12 in each serving can vary between products, so it is important to check the nutritional data on food labels.
Vitamin D helps keep bones healthy and strong, supports the immune and neuromuscular systems, and reduces inflammation. People sometimes refer to it as the “sunshine vitamin” because the body produces it in response to exposure to the sun.
As with vitamin B-12, vitamin D is primarily present in foods from animal sources, although mushrooms do contain variable amounts. The RDA for vitamin D is 600 International Units (IU), or 15 mcg, for people aged 1–70 years and 800 IU, or 20 mcg, for people over 70 years old.
Fortified foods are the primary source of vitamin D for most people in the U.S., whether they eat food from animal sources or not. For people who eat only vegan foods, fortified foods, which include some cereals and grains, are very important. Dietary supplements can also help vegans get an adequate amount of vitamin D.
Although people often adopt a vegan diet because of moral, cultural, and environmental concerns, many people also choose to avoid animal products for health reasons.
Vegan foods are not as likely as animal products to contain the complete proteins necessary for human health, but it is possible to eat a balanced, nutritionally sound diet comprising only vegan foods.
To do this, a person needs to take a conscious approach to eating and include a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, pulses, and whole grains in their diet.