There has been a lot of hype around eating plant-based—especially once Beyonce gave her endorsement. Since then both google searches and real-life conversations have skyrocketed around the questions:
- Is it healthy to be vegan?
- Should I be vegan?!
- What nutrients am I missing?
- How do I get these nutrients?
Question no more! We took to the pavement to get answers from the experts.
On one hand, there are a variety of benefits from eating plant-based. However, there are several nutrients to put a focus on to ensure you don’t become deficient. A balanced vegetarian or vegan diet is high in fruits, vegetables, beans and lentils, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. An unbalanced vegetarian or vegan diet is high in refined grains, sugar-sweetened beverages, and highly processed snacks.
Dana Hunnes, PhD, MPH, RD stated “I’ve seen people try every kind of diet you’ve heard of” but she has not seen long-term benefits or adherence to these diets. “There is a lifestyle diet,” She says “one that I’ve discovered works well for most people—including me, an athlete, a dietitian, a mom…That diet is plant-based.”
Lisa Hayim, a registered dietitian and founder of The Well Necessities, mentioned in her own blog “I eat ‘plant-based.’ To me, that means I really really really like plants, but sometimes I eat eggs, fish…” She says she does not ever push plant-based diets on her clients, friends or family because “many can benefit from consuming slightly fewer animal products throughout the week, while others could benefit from adding some grass-fed beef into their diet. It’s all specific.”
It is crucial to remember that everyone’s nutrition is personal. No diet is one-size-fits-all. If a plant-based diet is your thing and works for YOUR body, that’s great! Just keep in mind that a plant-based diet may lack certain essential nutrients that are vital to your health. Therefore, it’s important to educate yourself on their plant-based sources and find ways to ensure you reach your nutrient needs.
We interviewed some plant-based RDs and nutrition experts on how they obtain these essential nutrients that are either low or non-existent in plant-based food sources. Let’s break it down.
Maximize these nutrients
Most common source: Red meat
“Iron is found in meat whereas plant-based iron is found in tofu, beans, nuts, seeds, and whole-grain cereals. It’s important to include a variety of iron-rich foods in your diet, but more importantly, it’s vital to include vitamin C with those foods in order to enhance the absorption of the iron.”
Jenna Corsi RD, LDN of @balanced.nutrition
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Most common source: Fatty fish
“This healthy fat is important for eyes, nerves, and brain development and helps prevent heart disease. The best sources are fish, but some plant-based sources are ground flaxseeds, soybeans, tofu, walnuts, and oils (flax, walnut, canola). Like iron, plant-based sources of omega-3 aren’t as well absorbed as animal-based sources.”
Caroline Doucet RD of @unsweetened.caroline
Most common sources: Red meat, poultry, fish, eggs
“Buckwheat, quinoa, soybeans, and hemp seeds are some of the only plant-based complete proteins. I typically use soy milk as a dairy alternative, I add hemp powder to my smoothies, and often choose quinoa or buckwheat as my choice of grain.”
Juliana Dewsnap RD, LDN
Most common sources: Fish, ham, pork
“When it comes to selenium, Brazil nuts contain more selenium than any other food. So much so, that consistently eating more than 6-8 nuts per day may lead to selenium toxicity. I recommend eating 3-4 Brazil nuts per week to ensure adequate selenium intake. Other plant-based sources of selenium include brown rice, whole wheat bread or pasta, beans, oatmeal, lentils, spinach, cashews, peas, seeds, mushrooms, and tofu.”
Cole Adam RD, LDN of @eat.wild.greens
Most common sources: Fish, meat, poultry, eggs
“Vitamin B12 is naturally found only in animal products. If vegetarian, you can get it from dairy and eggs. To get enough vitamin B12, I make it a point to drink fortified plant-based milk daily. I either drink a tall glass at breakfast or use it to cook my oatmeal in the morning. My favorite is unsweetened soy milk as it contains the most protein, compared to other plant-based milk. Another great source of vitamin B12 is nutritional yeast. Try sprinkling some on salads, vegetables, homemade salad dressings, casseroles, soups, and more!”
Caroline Doucet RD of @unsweetened.caroline
Vitamin D and calcium
Most common source: Dairy products
“Dark leafy greens such as spinach and kale, as well as tofu, are all rich in calcium. However, calcium found in dairy products is more readily absorbed by the body than plant-based sources. Therefore, it is important to keep in mind that if you are eating a diet free of dairy, a variety of plant-based foods is recommended. To enhance calcium absorption, a diet high in vitamin D is crucial. Without vitamin D, our bodies would not be able to use calcium for its key functions. A majority of vitamin D comes from fatty fish, egg yolk, and cheese. Therefore, individuals following a vegan diet may need to consider supplemental forms of vitamin D.”
Marianna Moore BS in Exercise Science & MS in Nutrition of @mariannas_pantry
Most common sources: Shellfish, red meat, poultry
“Zinc is widespread in a plant-based diet and despite lower bioavailability, zinc deficiency is rare. I eat plenty of whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds that are rich in zinc and pair them with bioavailability enhancers like vitamin C.”
Whitney English MS, RD, LDN of @whitneyerd
An extremely important factor of a plant-based diet is the transparency around your personal health. In order to be sure you are working towards an optimal state of health, tracking your nutrient levels while obtaining plant-based sources and/or supplementing what you are lacking, will be key.