What is a vegan or plant-based diet?

master the vegan diet

Plant-based predominantly means a diet consisting of only whole plant foods with little to no processed food sources and a wide range of vegan essential nutrients.

No dairy consumption, meaning no products that use the milk of any animal which in the typical western diet would be cow/goat milk, cheese yogurt.

A person who has no meat, fish or animal flesh but still consumes dairy is generally a vegetarian.

No meat meaning no foods that contain chicken, pigs, cows, sheep or any other land animal.

No fish, which means no animals that come from the sea, including but not limited to shellfish, seasnails, haddock, salmon, and any other fish you can think of. A person who eats fish but no meat is called a pescatarian.

A vegan diet eliminates all of these categories and takes into account that animal food consumption is not needed for humans to nutritionally thrive. Vegans in general tend to take this one step further than just diet and try to avoid any products especially clothing and make up that may use animals in their creation.

Benefits of a vegan diet

  • High in fiber – great for digestive health
  • Low in unhealthy fats (especially if you stick to whole plant based foods and not heavily processed products)
  • High in a wide range of vitamins since fruits and vegetables contain the most nutrients in comparison to meat and dairy
  • High in essential minerals like calcium, iron, zinc and magnesium
  • Great for healthy weight management and keeping the waist trim
  • Better for the environment
  • Helps with mental clarity and cognitive function

Obtaining nutrient balance with only plants

If you have decided to adopt a plant-based diet, whether for health the animals, environment & sustainability or a combination of all, it is crucial to understand where a plant-based diet excels and where the limitations lie. 

This is pivotal to the understanding of how to maintain a healthy nutritional balance while being vegan.

Balance in any diet is key, and one of the best approaches we have found to obtaining balance is to take analyze where a plant-based diet excels and where it needs some help. 

The 9 essential nutrients for vegans

If your macronutrient choices arent varied and based predominantly on whole, plant-based foods, there is potential for your body to develop mineral and vitamin deficiencies that may start to rear their ugly head over time.

It is important to be aware of the main nutrients that you are more susceptible to becoming deficient in and begin to understand which foods and supplements are high in these nutrients so you can stay on track to better health and avoid potential problems in the future. Below are the main minerals and vitamins that vegans should take note of to make sure we stay on track. 

protein food sources

Protein

Protein is one of the most important macronutrients since it is the key building block of the human body. It falls into one of the 9 essential nutrients vegans should pay attention to since It plays a pivotal role in the building and repair of our hair, bones, blood, and skin as well as muscles that everyone knows protein is typically known for.

Unlike carbohydrates and fats, the body does not store protein as it does with the other macronutrients, which means we need a consistent regular supply for us to stay healthy and avoid problematic issues in the future.

No doubt everyone has heard the question asked, “where do vegans get their protein,” but the first thing for people to understand is that nearly all foods contain protein. From fruits and vegetables to nuts, seeds, and grains, protein is found in all, so in most cases, if your calorie intake is at or above the recommended daily amount for your height and weight, it becomes tough for you to become deficient. 

Protein deficiency is predominantly seen in countries with famine or when people decide to go on heavily calorie-restricted diets. Since protein and veganism are talked about nearly synonymously, its vital anyone on a plant-based diet knows which foods they can eat to confidently continue on their plant-based journey without doubts from the misinformed.

  • Some of our favorite high protein plant-based food sources are
    • Firm tofu 
    • Edamame
    • Pumpkin seeds 
    • Chia seeds
    • Quinoa 
    • Lentils
    • Black beans
  • For a more in-depth look into plant-based forms of protein and how to make the most of this vital macronutrient, check out our comprehensive guide to mastering protein on a vegan diet

B12

  • B12 plays a crucial role in red blood cell formation, nerve function, and the synthesis of DNA. Due to eliminating meat and dairy, the amount of b12 vegans are able to obtain from whole food sources is limited. 
  • B12 is one of the main vitamins that people against vegan diets tend to refer to when talking about the viability of the diet itself. 
  • The main thing that many fail to understand is that b12 is not created by animals specifically but created by bacteria, which can be found in animals due to them consuming a lot of things that contain the b12 bacteria such as soil and feces for land animals and algae for water animals.
  • Another vital thing to note is that the majority of the b12 found in the flesh that meat-eaters consume comes from b12 supplements fed to these animals, so either way, you look at it you are consuming b12 supplements. The question ends up being, would you rather have full control of how you get your b12, or would you prefer getting a regurgitated form?
  • The b12 forming bacteria can also be found in the guts of healthy individuals (albeit in small amounts), so due to eliminating meat and dairy, its vital for vegans to externally add b12 to their diets either through fortified foods or through supplementation.

Plant-based foods with high b12 content

The main plant foods with high b12 content are algae, specifically chlorella but there is still much debate on how reliable the algae is as a consistent source

The main alternative to b12 supplementation is b12 fortified foods such as fortified cereals, fortified milk, and nutritional yeast.

zinc food sources

Zinc 

  • Zinc plays a key role in maintaining a robust immune system, breaking down, and utilizing the nutrients in food and plays a vital part in over 300+ enzymatic reactions. The primary source of zinc for non-vegans is meat and fish, whereas for vegans, the main sources tend to be whole grains and legumes. Meat does tend to have more zinc in comparison to a lot of the plant-based alternatives, but studies have shown that plant-based sources of zinc tend to be more easily absorbed by the body, therefore, requiring less overall. 
  • It is important to balance out your diet with foods high in zinc or add a quality vegan zinc supplement to your diet to make up for any potential deficiencies that could arise.
    • Plant-based foods naturally high in zinc
      • Fortified cereals
      • Tofu
      • Lentils 
      • Hemp seeds
      • Oatmeal
      • Non-dairy milk and yogurt (fortified)
      • Quinoa
  • For a more in-depth look into plant-based forms of zinc and how to make the most of this essential nutrient, check out our in-depth guide to mastering zinc on a vegan diet. 
iron food sources

Iron

Iron plays a key role in the production of blood (red blood cells) and the transfer of oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body. Many multivitamin tablets won’t contain iron unless specifically aimed at women. 

This is because most men who have balanced diets are closer to being over the optimal amount rather than under, so the iron is considered unnecessary. The situation is the same for postmenopausal women or women above 50-55 where iron will not be added due to the amount needed as women age gradually decreasing, especially after menopause

Iron is also not added too many multivitamins aimed at kids since its the number one vitamin that children have accidentally overdosed on, so it has been removed from many supplements

One of the things for vegans to bear in mind is that the primary source of iron for most individuals is meat (heme-iron), so a lot of these studies and tests are based on a diet with meat playing a pivotal role. 

Since vegans choose not to consume animal products, we must consume foods high in iron from plant-based sources (non-heme iron) to maintain balance. If vegans can consistently eat a well-balanced diet, iron supplementation is not compulsory in your multivitamin.

Some healthy plant-based sources of iron are as follows

  • Tofu
  • Black beans
  • Lentils
  • Soybeans
  • Brown rice
  • Quinoa
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Cashew nuts
  • Greens 

For a more in-depth look into plant-based forms of iron and how to make the most of this essential nutrient, check out our detailed guide to mastering iron on a vegan diet

vegan iodine food sources

Iodine

Iodine, another vital mineral that is essential for the creation of thyroid hormones. 

Thyroid hormones help to regulate metabolism and support healthy brain and bone development, especially in babies. 

Since the primary iodine food in the western diet is fish, many believe that without it, vegans will suffer, but luckily for us, there are many plant-based sources. 

The problematic thing with iodine is that it’s hard to judge how much is in the actual fruit or vegetable vegans since its all dependent on how much iodine was in the soil that the food was grown in. 

Seaweed is known to have vast amounts of iodine, but the numbers vary wildly, so it can potentially be unsafe, providing you with too little or too much. The easiest way to measure your iodine intake is to use a quality vegan iodine supplement while consistently eating plant foods known to contain iodine. 

Another option all though less common is the addition of fortified vegan foods such as milk and yogurts. Always check the ingredients for iodine or potassium iodine to see if your chosen product has been fortified with it.

Some Plant-based foods naturally high in iodine

  • Wholegrains and bread
  • Greens
  • kale 
  • Watercress
  • Skin on potatoes
  • Strawberries
  • Fortified non-dairy milk

For a more in-depth look into plant-based forms of iodine and how to make the most of this essential nutrient, check out our comprehensive guide to mastering iodine on a vegan diet

omega 3 food sources

Omega 3’s

These essential fatty acids play a vital role in the brain, eye, and heart health and are also known to help with depression and anxiety. The primary source for the average meat-eater tends to be fish, but for us vegans, our best sources usually come from nuts & seeds or algae.

The general vegan diet doesn’t typically contain many algae, so most of our Omega 3 fatty acids would be derived from nuts and seeds such as flax. The main downside to only using flax and other plant-based sources is that they are high in ALA but low in EPA and DHA (the two most important omega 3’s). The ALA is converted into EPA and DHA in the body, but the conversion rate is between 8-20% leaving you with a pretty small amount in the end while the rest of the ALA is used as energy. 

Algae is our best source of readily usable EPA and DHA, so the most effective vegan Omega 3 supplements will be algae-based. 

Below are some plant-based foods high in omega 3

  • Flaxseeds
  • Chia seeds
  • Hemp seeds
  • Walnuts
  • Edamame 
  • Brussel sprouts
  • Algal oil

For a more in-depth look into plant-based forms of Omega 3 and how to make the most of this essential nutrient, check out our detailed guide to mastering Omega 3 on a vegan diet

calcium food sources

Calcium

Calcium is an extremely vital mineral for the healthy development and maintenance of our bones and blood. 99% of the calcium in our bodies is found in our bones and teeth https://www.nof.org/patients/treatment/calciumvitamin-d/, and for optimal absorption of calcium consumed through nutrition, we need a healthy amount of vitamin d in our systems. 

It’s important to remember that calcium is one of the minerals we cant naturally produce, so if we allow our bodies to drop below the levels needed for our bodies to thrive, the calcium will be taken from our largest calcium storage, which is our bones. 

Non-vegans are probably screaming how do you get calcium without drinking cows Milk, but as vegans, you will be happy to know that there are quite a few plant-based sources of calcium that our bodies can absorb at a better rate than calcium from dairy. The caveat is if your current diet isn’t full of many plant-based foods high in easily absorbable calcium, it is smart to add calcium-fortified foods or a plant-based calcium supplement to help create balance. 

Below are a few plant-based foods you can add to your diet to up your calcium consumption

  • Mustard greens 
  • Kale
  • Broccoli
  • Tofu 
  • tempeh
  • Fortified non-dairy yogurts and nut milks (almond, soy, cashew, etc.)
  • Fortified cereals
  • Tahini
  • Nut butter’s

For a deeper look into plant-based forms of calcium and how to make the most of this essential nutrient, check out our in-depth guide to mastering calcium on a vegan diet. 

vitamin d sources

Vitamin D

Vitamin D plays a key role in the development and maintenance of bones and is a necessary component for sufficient absorption of calcium.

If you live in areas that have a lot of sunlight, do not waste its rays. It’s an excellent way to allow our bodies to create sufficient stores of vitamin d provided you don’t allow yourself to get cooked in the heat, so we recommend using the sun wisely. The reality is not everyone lives in climates where they can get enough, and even those that do may not have the time or energy to frolic and chill to the point where they can safely get enough.

Overall there aren’t many natural food sources that provide large amounts of vitamin d. The highest vitamin d content tends to be found in fish, but as vegans, our plant sources are limited, with the most abundant plant-based option being mushrooms and their various types. Fortified foods and supplementation, along with regular sun exposure, are generally the best options to boost vitamin D levels.

  • Plant-based foods naturally high in vitamin D
  • Mushrooms (shitake, portobello, maitake, chanterelle)
  • Fortified cereals
  • Fortified milk’s and yogurts (almond, soy, cashew)
  • Fortified juices (orange, tropical)
  • Sunlight 🙂

For a more in-depth look into plant-based forms of vitamin D and how to make the most of this essential vitamin, check out our in-depth guide to mastering vitamin D on a vegan diet

Magnesium

Magnesium is an essential mineral that plays a crucial part in energy metabolism and protein synthesis. Also, like Calcium and vitamin D magnesium plays a vital role in the health and formation of our bones while also helping with calcium absorption. You will find the best vegan calcium supplements will always have magnesium and vitamin D added since they all work to complement each other. Magnesium is usually found in vegetables, so deficiencies tend to be lower in vegetarians and vegans, but if as vegans you are not consuming enough of the right vegetables, in general, there is a chance to develop a deficiency.

Some of our favorite Plant-based foods naturally high in magnesium are (each food can link out to a recipe list using that ingredient)

  • Tofu
  • Spinach
  • Black beans
  • Nuts (cashews, almonds brazil nuts, etc.)
  • Avocado
  • Quinoa 

For a more in-depth look into plant-based forms of magnesium and how to make the most of this essential nutrient, check out our comprehensive guide to mastering magnesium on a vegan diet

* Always consult your doctor if you feel you have any potential deficiencies that are showing negative symptoms *

Summary

Nutritionally speaking eating an entirely plant-based diet has a multitude of benefits but it’s imperative you also know where potential struggles may come which is why we made this list to give you a go-to outlook on the nutrient pitfalls that can arise while eating only plants and the solutions to overcoming them with ease. We have a detailed guide for each essential nutrient needed on a vegan diet, so don’t hesitate to delve deeper to gain all the necessary knowledge to eat plant-based with confidence. 

Supplementation is another way to support a nutritionally balanced vegan diet but the key to remember is that supplementation is not a replacement for a well-balanced diet but there to support one.

One of the main responsibilities for everyone, no matter what diet they choose, is to obtain the basic knowledge of what your body needs to thrive naturally and the best foods you can use on your chosen diet to effectively keep your body in a healthy state. With this knowledge, you can understand the advantages and disadvantages of your food choices and how to make up for any weak points. No diet is perfect, but with knowledge comes understanding, and with this newfound understanding, you will have laid a healthy nutritional foundation for you to build upon. 

With a more thorough understanding of the 9 essential nutrients needed to master a vegan diet, we hope you feel empowered to make the next few steps towards healthy plant-based eating with clear clarity and confidence.

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