How to Get the Nutrients You Need When Being Vegan

The topic of nutrition is extremely complex – no wonder why there are numerous books on the subject that explain in detail who needs how much of what and why. When we're doing Q&A sessions, we also always get the question of how to get all of the important nutrients with a plant-based diet.

Nevertheless, we wouldn't call this a vegan "issue", as everyone should care about a balanced diet. Someone who is an expert on this subject is Niko Rittenau who published books about this topic and was a guest in our podcast, so we highly recommend to listen to this episode if you want to learn even more. We ourselves have neither a medical education nor are we nutritionists. Therefore, it's always important to discuss specific questions about your body and your diet with professional doctors.

For the groundwork for you to know we've compiled an overview of 8 important nutrients that we're most often asked about. We'll tell you what you need them for and share a list of some great plant-based sources for them.

The Exception: How to Supplement Vitamin B12?

Looking at the common diet of the Western world, you most likely won't cover your need of vitamin B12 with a plant-based diet, which is why you need to supplement it. It's actually of minor importance in which way you do this, but way more important to get the right dose. Whether you supplement it with tablets or drops, vitamin B12-enriched toothpaste, or enriched foods – as long as this provides enough vitamin B12, you're good to go. Feel free to do some own research, decide on what you like the most, and talk to your doctor about your supplementation plan.

8 Important Nutrients at a Glance

Dietary fiber

What do you need it for?
Dietary fiber is important for us, for example for our digestion – even though we can't digest and utilize the fiber ourselves. There's a distinction between soluble fiber (which is mainly found in fruits and vegetables) and insoluble fiber (which is mainly found in grains and legumes). Their task is to bind water in the small intestine, which results in them swelling up to ensure that (almost) no food components remain in your intestine and that the intestinal wall is exercised.

What you should consider:
If you have been eating a low-fiber diet so far, you shouldn't necessarily do a one-eigthy overnight. Many people experience an uncomfortable feeling of fullness, especially at the beginning, so you should only gradually get your body used to more fiber. Also make sure to drink sufficiently so that the fiber has enough water to swell up.

High-fiber foods (in alphabetical order):

  • chia seeds
  • coconut flakes
  • dried plums and apricots
  • flaxseeds
  • lentils
  • Psyllium husks
  • soy (als beans or meat substitute)
  • wheat bran
  • white beans
  • wholegrain foods

Vitamin B2

What do you need it for?
B2 (which is also called riboflavin) is important for many things in our body, e.g. our metabolism and the detoxification of the body. It also supports vitamin B6 in its important function for our nerves and defense system. More specifically, B2 is needed when our body converts carbohydrates, fats, and proteins into energy. Although it's mainly found in dairy products and in high doses in offal and fish, there are plenty of plant-based sources that can meet your requirements.

What you should consider:
Our body can absorb B2 from animal-based sources better than from plant-based foods, which is why we've included it in our list of noteworthy nutrients to take care of. Because of this it's important to pay extra attention to their preparation and storage. Although B2 isn't heat-sensitive, it quickly passes into the cooking water during the boiling process. This is why you should use the cooking water, if possible – for example when soaking dried mushrooms. B2 is also sensitive to light, which is why you should store the following foods in darker places.

Plant-based sources of vitamin B2 (in alphabetical order):

  • almonds
  • dried mushrooms
  • lentils
  • nutritional yeast
  • peas
  • pine nuts
  • pumpkin seeds
  • soy beans
  • tempeh
  • whole wheat flour

Iron

What do you need it for?
Iron is vital for our metabolic processes. Among other things, it helps in the forming of blood and in the transport of oxygen to our muscles and brain, which is why you notice an iron deficiency quite quickly through symptoms such as flabbiness, fatigue, or a lack of concentration. Nevertheless, you shouldn't immediately use iron supplements as it's possible to overdose it. Start to eat more plant-based sources of iron and talk to your doctor about whether you need other forms of supplements.

What you should consider:
The absorption of iron can be inhibited or promoted by combining iron-rich foods with others. This is also important to know as iron from plant-based sources is generally poorer utilized than iron from animal-based foods. It'srecommended to combine it with vitamin C –either by eating vitamin C-rich foods with iron-rich foods or quite easily by drinking a glass of orange juice after your meal. What you definitely shouldn't drink right after a meal is coffee, black or green tea, and red wine as their tannins inhibit the absorption of iron. You can roughly stick to the rule to wait for at least one hour between eating and drinking coffee, red wine, or black and green tea.

Plant-based sources of iron (in alphabetical order):

  • amaranth
  • flaxseeds
  • legumes (e.g. lentils)
  • millet
  • pistachios
  • pumpkin seeds
  • quinoa
  • rolled oats
  • sesame seeds
  • sunflower seeds
  • textured vegetable protein

Iodine

What do you need it for?
The mineral iodine is important for many functions in our body, including our nerve cells and energy metabolism. However, it's primarily associated with its importance for the thyroid gland. There, it supports the production of thyroid hormones, which in turn are important for growth, our brain, bone grafting, and heat production in our body, among other things.

What you should consider:
It's possible to overdose iodine which is why you shouldn't take nutritional supplements directly when you notice a deficiency. Instead, increase the amount of plant-based sources of iodine in your diet and talk to your doctor about potential supplements at the same time. In general, almost everything that comes from the sea contains a good portion of iodine, including algae. However, some of them have such a high iodine content (e.g. kombu and wakame algae) that you should't eat too much of them to avoid an overdose. Therefore, we recommend nori seaweed, which contains sufficient, but not too much iodine.

Plant-based sources of iodine (in alphabetical order):

  • broccoli
  • button mushrooms
  • cashews
  • flaxseeds
  • iodized salt
  • lamb's lettuce
  • nori seaweed
  • peanuts
  • pumpkin seeds
  • spinach

Calcium

What do you need it for?
Most people think of bones and teeth when they hear the word "calcium" – and yes, the mineral is particularly important for both. Almost 99% of our body's calcium is hidden in them. In addition, we need it for our muscles, blood clotting, the defense against inflammation, our body cells, and for the transmission of stimuli in our neural system.

What you should consider:
The impact of calcium in our body is closely linked to vitamin D, as the vitamin promotes the absorption of calcium into our blood, as well as its incorporation into our bones. However, vitamin D is found in sufficient quantities in only a few foods – and most of them are animal-based sources. Therefore, the forming of vitamin D through sunlight is even more important when you're vegan. To compensate for the "missing" sunlight in winter, you should definitely talk to your doctor if you notice a deficiency of vitamin D.

Plant-based sources of calcium (in alphabetical order):

  • almonds
  • arugula
  • dried algae / nori sheets
  • dried figs
  • hazelnuts
  • kale
  • poppyseeds
  • sesame seeds
  • spinach
  • tofu

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

What do you need it for?
Not all fats are the same. There are unhealthy and healthy fats. There are saturated and unsaturated fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids belong to the so-called polyunsaturated fatty acids and we could divide them even further now, but that would probably go beyond the scope of this article. They are important for our metabolism. And since they are mainly associated with fish and fish oil, we wanted to include them in our list to show you some plant-based sources as well.

What you should consider:
The ingestions of omega-3 fatty acids depends on the ingestions of omega-6 fatty acids, of which we often consume more. These omega-6 fatty acids are found in large quantities in safflower oil and sunflower oil, for example. However, if the body ingests too much omega-6 fatty acids, this simultaneously inhibits the uptake of omega-3 – it's often suggested to keep a ratio of 5:1 (omega-6 : omega-3).

Plant-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids(in alphabetical order):

  • avocado
  • canola oil
  • chia seeds
  • flaxseed oil
  • flaxseeds
  • hemp oil
  • (red) algae
  • soybean oil
  • walnuts
  • walnut oil

Protein

What do you need it for?
Unlike the other nutrients that we talk about in this article, protein is one of the three macronutrients along with carbohydrates and fat. It's a basic building block for our cells, many hormones, and enzymes. And therefore the list of what we need it for is almost infinitely long, e.g. for our muscles, metabolism, oxygen transport, repair of defective cells, our immune system, the breakdown of toxins, our connective tissue, nails, hair, and more.

What you should consider:
We often get the question of how to meet the requirement of protein without eating any meat, fish, and dairy, but there actually are a lot of protein-rich plant-based foods that you should best eat every day – the superstars among them being legumes. By the way, long-term studies have also shown that plant-based protein can actually be healthier than animal-based protein, as the latter can lead to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and shorten the life expectancy in the long run.

Plant-based sources of protein (in alphabetical order):

  • almonds
  • cashews
  • flax seeds
  • legumes
  • peanuts
  • pumpkin seeds
  • rolled oats
  • seitan
  • soy (as tofu, tempeh, TVP, or cooked soy beans)
  • sunflower seeds

Zinc

What do you need it for?
Zinc is important for numerous processes in our body, such as metabolic processes, our immune system, reproduction, cell growth, wound healing, our skin, and hair, forming the red blood pigment hemoglobin, and more.

What you should consider:
By eating a wholefood diet you should meet the requirement of zinc fairly easily, but since there are a few specifics for a vegan diet, we wanted to include zinc in this list. Most plant-plased foods actually contain less zinc than those of animal origin. But in addition there's also something called phytate which inhibits the absorption of zinc. Phytate is mainly found in plants, which need it for germination and photosynthesis. Therefore, your intake of phytate has an effect on how much zinc your body can actually absorb. It's difficult to give concrete numbers for this, but you can orientate yourself to this: if you eat a lot of whole grains, legumes, and vegetable protein, you need to eat more plant-based sources of zinc as well to meet the requirement.

Plant-based sources of zinc (in alphabetical order):

  • lentils
  • nutritional yeast
  • poppy seeds
  • pumpkin seeds
  • rolled oats
  • sesame seeds
  • soybeans
  • sunflower seeds
  • whole grains
  • wheat germ
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