7 nutrients for optimum health
Important vitamins and minerals for vegans By plant-based dietitian, Yvonne O’Halloran
It’s Veganuary again, a month where thousands of people around the world try going vegan for a month and hopefully will want to continue it on afterwards. For new vegans and even for seasoned vegans, it can be overwhelming to read different recommendations, sometimes complicated meal ideas, and confusing advice.
Let’s look at some of the important vitamins and minerals vegans should focus on to ensure a healthy, well-rounded diet including vitamins B12, D and A, as well as iron, calcium, choline and zinc.
Vitamin B12 is a water-soluble vitamin that is essential for human health. It plays a role in making red blood cells and nerves and it also helps synthesise DNA in our body. Even though it is called a vitamin, B12 is made by bacteria that blanket the Earth. Many people believe that animals make B12 but neither plants nor animals make it.
Ruminant animals like cattle and sheep require cobalt from the soil to synthesise B12, but these days the soils can be low in cobalt so many animals are now supplemented with B12. Before our water was treated, B12 existed in our water supply, but in our very sanitised world today, it has been eliminated from the water we drink.
Today, there are three ways to obtain the vitamin — from animals, from supplements or from fortified foods. Therefore, vegans have two ways of obtaining B12 and fortified foods may not be enough to meet our needs. I would say that B12 supplementation is a must for all vegans.
Deficiency can be sneaky and unpleasant and even though we store a nice amount of it in our liver, by the time symptoms show, we are already low. It is recommended that vegans take between 50-250 mcg daily or one weekly dose of 2,000 mcg.
Vitamin D is the sunshine vitamin, meaning we best obtain it from sunlight through our skin. Even though some vitamin D can be ingested from certain mushrooms, it would not be enough to meet our needs.
In the summer, about 5-15 minutes on the face and arms should be sufficient to obtain all the vitamin D we require — usually about half the time it takes for the skin to burn.
During the winter, vitamin D would need to be taken in the form of a supplement due to the long dark days and limited sunlight.
Vitamin D plays a role in calcium absorption, reducing inflammation, aiding our immune function, glucose metabolism and even plays a role in our mood and our mental health (1). Adults require about 15mcg (600 IU) daily, with over 71-year old’s needing a bit more — 20 mcg (800 IU) daily.
Vitamin A is essential for growth and development, eye health and the healthy functioning of our immune system. Many people think that vegans don’t take in any vitamin A, but this is not true. Beta carotene is converted to vitamin A in the body, which is the form the body can use known as preformed vitamin A.
Foods rich in beta carotene have been associated with reduced risk of certain cancers, cardiovascular diseases and cataracts, they include pumpkin, rock melon, carrots, sweet potatoes and spinach, so make sure to add these to your diet.
“Foods rich in beta carotene have been associated with reduced risk of certain cancers, cardiovascular diseases and cataracts”
Iron is important for many functions in our body such as transferring oxygen from the lungs to the tissues, boosting our immune system, supporting healthy hair, skin and nails and it is required for growth and development.
There are two forms of iron, haem iron from animal-based sources and non-haem iron from plant sources. Non-haem iron is not absorbed as well as haem iron, but this also means the body has more control over how much is absorbed.
Vitamin C-rich foods enhance the absorption of iron and calcium and tannins from tea can inhibit absorption. Include foods such as dark leafy greens, lentils, baked beans, oatmeal, tofu, prunes, dried figs and blackstrap molasses.
Great news, we do not need dairy for calcium! Calcium is found in a range of foods and most sources are easily absorbed. Most adults require 1,000mg per day and this can be sourced from foods like green leafy vegetables, calcium fortified tofu, baked beans and dried figs.
Choline is an essential nutrient that is essential for fat transport and metabolism, early brain development, and cell signaling.
The body naturally synthesizes choline in our liver but it is not enough to meet our needs, therefore, we must obtain it from our diet. You will find choline in soyabeans, potatoes, quinoa and kidney beans. Adults require 450mg-550mg per day.
Zinc is important as it is involved in our immune health, cell division, cell growth and wound healing. Vegans generally require 150 per cent of the RDI for vegans — 12 mg for adults rather than the usual 8mg because zinc from plant sources is less bioavailable as they contain phytates. Food sources include baked beans, pumpkin seeds, cashews and breakfast cereals.
Vegan diets are healthful, appropriate and safe for all stages of the lifecycle once they are well-planned and varied with plants while minimising processed, fried and fast foods.