Plant-based diets are great for your health, and when part of a vegan lifestyle can be a great benefit to the animals, the planet, your body and mind. The benefits of veganism are being talked about more and more, and it’s getting easier and easier to imagine a critical mass of vegans! Hooray!
With all of the benefits that come with a healthful vegan diet, it is very possible to live a vegan lifestyle that neglects your health. For example, you could eat Oreos for every meal, which are technically vegan, and you would probably not end up with a very healthy diet ☺
Nutrition is a confusing thing, and scientifically we are just starting to link nutrition to major diseases. I hope that with this handy guide you’ll find great ways to manage your whole-health, mostly with whole plant foods– and maybe sometimes with a very well researched vitamin supplement. The bottom of this article has a great healthy food shopping list with every food mentioned to make it easier to incorporate into your meals.
These nutrients are essential but often overlooked…
Iodine is something most of us my be familiar with either as part of an old school first-aid kit, or from the periodic table of elements. However, the “iodized” label on a package of standard table salt is that same iodine. Iodine plays a big role in regulating the function of the thyroid gland, an essential hormone factory, which regulates metabolism, bone formation, brain development, weight management, emotions, mood, and even sleep regulation. There’s a lot of good stuff in that list, so iodine is really important and not often discussed or mentioned.
Iodine can be found in a number of food sources. That adorable little Morton’s girl on your salt container is pouring out iodized salt on the sidewalk, for example. Table salt contains plenty of iodine, but it was fortified. Himalayan Pink salt, on the other hand has iodine naturally in its delicious salty goodness.
Other good sources of iodine include: sea vegetables (they come up a lot, its probably time to stock up), baked potatoes, dried prunes, navy beans, bananas, strawberries, cranberries, pineapple, rhubarb, and watercress. Not too bad, huh?
Something to keep in mind when aiming for iodine in your diet is that foods like soy, and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower, may block the absorption of iodine. This usually isn’t a cause for concern, however, as studies on modern diets show that iodine is present in so many items from fertilizer on crops, to table salt, and processed foods like bread, that ordinarily iodine deficiency is rare in developed countries.
As with all things, diversity in your diet will ensure that all the good things from soy and broccoli reach you sometimes, and the iodine reaches you at other times.
Supplementing with iodine is very rarely needed. You should plan to supplement with iodine only when directed by a doctor, because iodine deficiency is uncommon and usually the sign of a thyroid dysfunction or other serious medical condition.
Calcium is a fundamental building block of our bodies. Calcium makes healthy bones, and we need Calcium to make our muscles and nerves function, to regulate how blood, hormones, and important enzymes move through the body (and communicate to each other).
Also, Calcium and Vitamin D are in a co-dependent relationship with each other, and as such, aren’t much good without the other present. Go figure.
Calcium is readily available in foods such as kale, broccoli, Chinese cabbage, and grains. It is also commonly fortified in many foods, from bread and pasta, to tofu and plant milk. Luckily, many of the same foods that fortify Vitamin D have calcium added too, pretty convenient!
Calcium supplements are somewhat controversial. Taking mineral supplements in general are cautioned against, and some data suggests that you can not adequately absorb Calcium from vitamin pills, especially because the more you take at one time the harder it is for your body to absorb any at all, which could seriously backfire.
Interestingly, there are medical studies that show that dairy reduces the overall Calcium in the body, the same thing happens from diets that are too high in protein and salt. It is believed to cause something called renal acidosis, which can cause blood acidosis which triggers the body into releasing Calcium from its own Calcium stores (we typically call these stores bones and teeth). This acidosis can result from supplements, so best to only do so as prescribed by your doctor.
Iron is another basic building block of our bodies. Iron helps to form blood, specifically the protein in our blood, and it moves oxygen around the body most importantly to the brain. Iron also helps to form connective tissues like cartilage and ligament.
Iron is in a lot of foods, but there are two different kinds of iron that we encounter: Heme Iron and Non-Heme iron. Heme iron, gets absorbed by our bodies more efficiently, but is also highly associated with cancer, stroke, heart disease, and things like diabetes. Animal products contain both types of Iron, but plants contain predominantly non-Heme iron, except for the Impossible Burger.
While non-Heme iron may have less bang for the Iron buck, plant sources still provide plenty of Iron, especially from foods like:
White beans, lentils, spinach, kidney beans, and peas. Hummus, chickpeas, lentils, Edamame, black beans, mushrooms, spinach, broccoli, kale, and garlic, pumpkin seeds or pine nuts, cashews, pecans, peanuts, steel cut oats, brown rice, quinoa, nuts, dried fruits like raisins, and dark chocolate.
To make sure you absorb the iron in your diet efficiently, make sure to eat enough vitamin c, which usually isn’t so hard if you regularly eat things like citrus, peppers, and tomatoes.
You should only take Iron when specifically prescribed by a doctor. Iron is very dangerous to supplement and can be toxic if taken for too long, and Iron levels need to be regularly monitored by a doctor.
Omega 3 and DHA
Fatty Acids, specifically Omega 3s and Omega 6s, play an important role in our health. Omega 3s, also referred to as DHA, are particularly important to our health, but it’s striking the right ratio of 3s to 6s that we need to aim for in our diet.
Research shows that Omega 3s can radically reduce inflammation in the body, which means it can help the entire body’s healing process, something that is especially important for inflammatory conditions like arthritis and auto-immune diseases. Omega 3s are also important for preventing and treating chronic diseases like heart disease, and cancer. Omega-3s like to camp out in your brain, and are linked with memory, mental acuity, and mood.
Keeping a regular amount of the Omegas pumping through your system means balancing high cholesterol, blood pressure, and insulin resistance, too.
The good news is that Omega 3s are incredibly easy, and delicious, to include in your diet. Unsurprisingly, there are some great overlaps with foods already mentioned, so that should make a well-rounded diet easy-er. Things like flax, chia, and hemp get the most attention for being high in Omegas. In fact, for those, often just a teaspoon a day will do the trick. Suddenly all those smoothie recipes make great sense, right?
Additionally, walnuts, soybeans (and soy foods like tofu), kidney beans, black beans, and winter squash also have a solid amount of Omega 3s in normal serving sizes. The oil from flaxseed (also known as linseed oil), as well as soybean and canola oils, are a good source of Omega 3s, however many argue that avoided refined oils and seeking out the whole plant is the best way to go for overall health benefit and nutrient absorption.
Omegas are very important, but because they can be readily obtained in your diet, you only need to take Omega 3s when directed by doctor. Besides, you’ll absorb them better from ground up flax anyway ☺
Zinc is a heavy hitter when it comes to fighting viruses, and maintaining immune health. This is because Zinc plays a crucial role in making the DNA and protein in our bodies, which means that Zinc is a champion healer.
There aren’t a ton of different sources for Zinc, but you are probably eating them already! Beans, nuts, and whole grains are your best bet for Zinc, much like many of the nutrients listed above, so stock up.
Zinc is another nutrient you want to be careful taking supplements for. Zinc is safely supplemented for very short periods of time, for example while you have the flu, which explains why things like cold medicine and cough drops frequently advertise zinc added into their mixes. The Mayo clinic followed various studies and effects of Zinc, positive and negative, and came out with this statement. So before loading up on zinc, ask your doctor first!
Overall, vitamin deficiency is not a vegan issue, with almost half of the population taking daily supplement regardless of the animal products in their diet. Supplements are a good safety-net for overall nutrition, but should be viewed with a bit of skepticism since the FDA does not verify most of them, and when they do test them, many supplements get marked as dangerous, fraudulent, or as having wildly different ingredients than advertised– both in addition to, or instead of, those advertised.
High quality vegan multi-vitamins do exist, so research to find the ones that you can trust. If you aren’t the type to balance and log your diet down to the last micro-nutrient, supplements are an excellent addition to a healthful diet and vegan lifestyle.
When evaluating your diet, getting the widest range of fruits and vegetables will help ensure that you can properly absorb the nutrients you eat and/or take by supplement. And, as common sense would have it, we absorb nutrients straight from unprocessed food sources as much as 10 or 20 times better than in pill form. So make that salad a double next time! If you want to know more, check this video out: (http://nutritionfacts.org/2015/02/26/are-multivitamins-just-a-waste-of-money/)
Below is a list of every health-happy food mentioned in all 4 sections of this article. Basically, if you just take this list shopping with you at the grocery store, and eat some of them in one meal and some in other meals, you’ll be happy and well-fed.
Condiments and Oils
Himalayan Pink Salt
Nuts and Seeds
Vegetables (and things treated as a vegetable)
Dried shitake mushrooms
Lion’s mane mushrooms
Dried seaweed (nori sheets, lavar)
Bell peppers, like green peppers
Citrus fruit, like oranges and lemons
Grains (and things treated as grains)
Steel cut oats
Soy milk protein powder
Peanut flour (protein powder)
Plant milk (like rice milk, soy milk, cashew milk, flax milk, and almond milk)