The Nutrients I Care About Most Since Going Vegan (and Maybe you Should too)

If you’re following my vegan journey blog, then you know I have nutrient issues I’ve been trying to fix for a while now. It started when I found out I was anemic– specifically iron-deficient anemic. Then, once I finally took control of my health and fitness, I figured I should just pay attention to all nutrients because that could probably fix anything else I had (or thought I had) issues with.

But then I went vegan. And although I still feel like it was the best decision I could have made for myself, I knew I would have to go over my nutrients again. It was actually kind of funny because within a few weeks of going vegan, it hit me like a rock…

**Hmm, you know that thing that happens when you say something, or in this case type something, and it happens to be the title or lyrics of a song you really like? And then that song pops in your head and you can’t get it out? Well that just happened, so I had to put on CSS’s “Hits Me Like a Rock” — which is a great song by a great band, but I digress 🙂 **

… that I hadn’t eaten meat for some time and my first thought was “oh no, what’s happening with my iron?” I hadn’t taken iron supplements in over a year– in fact, I stopped way before I went to the doctor and found out that I wasn’t even anemic anymore (I know, I was the worst with taking my health seriously). I figured maybe my intake of iron through meat sources had been enough. Not to mention I was also lazy and forgetful when it came to taking supplements.

But in any case, I was no longer eating meat — so now what?

I looked up plant-based iron sources immediately and initially, I was both happy and sad at what I discovered. That led me to look up the top nutrients that vegans lack on a plant-based diet. Here’s what I found and what I felt was most applicable to me and possibly you too:

Iron

Iron was automatically at the top of my list because of the whole anemia thing (old deficiencies die hard). Iron is important because it helps transport oxygen through the body — it’s a major component of hemoglobin which is the part of red blood cells that takes oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. Too little iron means the body can’t make enough red blood cells. So, when I discovered that iron is found in tons of plant-based foods such as dark, leafy greens (kale, collards, swiss chard), many nuts and seeds (cashews, pistachios), tofu and tempeh, I was thrilled because I already consumed these foods. But then I found out that there are two different types of iron. Heme-iron and non-heme iron. Heme-iron is only found in animal meat sources, and it is more readily absorbed by our bodies. All of the plant-based foods I just mentioned are higher only in non-heme iron, which is the type found in plant-based foods and is not as easily absorbed by the body. But that doesn’t mean you have to lack in iron. Here’s what I started doing to ensure I was getting enough of the mineral:

  1. I increased my intake of non-heme iron foods, but in small increments over the course of the day. Apparently, eating too much can actually have the opposite effect on iron absorption–and absorption is the important part!
  2. I started consuming non-heme iron foods with vitamin C rich foods — this increases absorption a whole bunch.
  3. Also, I try not to eat this non-heme iron and vitamin C combo with any caffeine which can cause absorption interference.

So there you have it — A few changes and now I have complete control over my iron — just call me Magneto 😉

Calcium

Most people think of milk as the only calcium source, but this isn’t true! There’s a ton of plant-based calcium sources — some of which might be better than milk. Calcium is very important when it comes to building strong muscles and teeth, and in supporting our skeletal structure– so making sure we are getting enough of it is key. Most dairy-products do contain the mineral but not naturally– they are actually fortified with calcium. Plant-based sources like edamame, tofu, black-eyed peas, kale and mustard greens, and sesame seeds contain a decent amount of calcium in each serving, ranging from about 10% to 33% of the daily recommended value! Plus the mineral occurs naturally in all of these foods.

Check out this page to get the percent breakdown as well as see other calcium-rich foods you should add to your diet! **The page does include some non-vegan calcium sources– it only omits dairy sources.

Vitamin B-12

Vitamin B-12 is the vitamin that vegans tend to lack the most– it’s super important for our nerve cells and also helps with DNA production among the many other important functions it contributes to. But the sucky part is that it is only naturally occuring in animal sources, hence the widespread need for vegans (and vegetarians) everywhere to get more of it. The annoying part is that it isn’t found in the animal itself, but is actually found in the soil that the animals eat — and that is how it gets into the animals. So can we get some scientists working on making this soil edible for us vegans?

Well, they sort of have been working on it. Plant-based sources of B-12 are only found in foods that have been fortified with the vitamin, but there are also some foods that contain it in small amounts, such as mushrooms that have been grown in B-12 rich soil — woohoo! Some plant-milks are fortified with B-12, but not every brand fortifies their milk– check the label to be sure. By far, the most popular fortified vegan-friendly food that contains B-12 is nutritional yeast — the amazing nooch. I’d heard so much about it when I first went vegan, and didn’t understand the hype until I tried it. Yes, it’s yummy. And most fortified nutritional yeast contains the recommended daily amount in one serving. For example, Trader Joe’s nutritional yeast contains 3.1 mcg in the 1 tablespoon serving size — that’s 130% of the daily recommended amount!*

But like iron, absorption is key, and B-12 is best absorbed when consumed in smaller amounts. So go easy on the nooch in one sitting and consider using it throughout the day. Also, vitamin B-12 may be more easily absorbed in supplement form altogether, so do some research on it!

Protein

Okay, before all the vegans across the globe ban together to hunt me down, let me clarify what I mean by a necessity for protein!

I know, I know — it’s highly unlikely to suffer from a protein deficiency. In fact, one of the most popular types of vegan memes include the ones with jokes about the ignorance of the general public as to how much protein humans really need, as well as their perceived idea that vegans get absolutely no protein since we don’t eat meat.

Batman vegan protein meme

Vegans however, are aware that most plant-based sources of protein are actually higher in protein than some popular animal meat sources.

So why do I mention protein as a nutrient to be wary of lacking? Well when I started this blog post, I did mention that all of these nutrients were applicable to me (and maybe you too!). So I mention protein because I am physically active. I move around a lot, I run, and I use my muscles — while training but also in my everyday life because I currently work at a job that’s labor intensive.

So for me, making sure I get enough protein is a reality because I need to rebuild my muscles regularly so I don’t have to function in pain– and protein plays a key role in helping to rebuild and repair those tiny little tears that occur in your muscles after you workout (the tears are the reason you’re sore after you strength train!). If you are currently physically active or plan on incorporating more physical activity (particularly any form of strength training) into your life, you should probably make sure you are indeed getting enough protein. It’s an easy thing to miss because as an omnivore who strength trains, it is likely that you would eat eggs, chicken and beef daily, which are considered “healthy” and “high-protein” sources. But on a plant-based diet, you may not automatically consume some of the best protein sources such as tofu, seitan, beans, quinoa, chickpeas or peanuts daily. Some people do whether they are active or not, which is great. I try to consume a lot of these foods daily whether I’m training or not because I want to keep my diet varied. It helps not only in the nutrients department, but also keeps me from getting bored with what I’m eating– I hate eating the same thing everyday– unless it’s pizza… I could eat pizza every. day.

So the chances of you having a protein deficiency are very low, but just be aware that you might need to up your plant-based protein intake if you’re strength-training or super active!

And remember, I’m not a doctor so I can’t say what will work best for ensuring that you get all of these nutrients. It’s best to check with your doc before doing any of these things. Also, see if it makes sense to take a multi-vitamin or any specific supplements to get some of the daily recommended amounts of most of these nutrients. And of course, keep your vegan diet rich in fresh foods that are high in various nutrients and you should be good!

 

*For most adults the recommended daily amount of vitamin B-12 is about 2.4 – 2.8 mcg.

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