Anyone who goes vegan can tell you that the first comment they’re likely to hear from friends and family is, “How is that a balanced diet?”. For many, it’s hard to envision the traditional food pyramid without meat, dairy and other animal products, which also means it’s hard to envision a balanced vegan diet.
However, with some thoughtful planning, vegans can have just as healthy a diet as those who choose from an omnivorous menu. In order to do it, here are the most important nutrients to include in an animal product-free diet.
Many non-vegans will point to protein as the most important nutrient that’s missing from a vegan diet however, there are plenty of plant-based sources and non-animal products. And that’s good news, as protein is made up of amino acids, which your body uses to break down food and boost metabolism.
Vegan sources of protein include beans, nut butters, seeds, tofu and edamame beans. Vegans should be familiar with ‘complete proteins’, which contain even more amino acids than the average vegan source of protein. Examples include quinoa, hummus and pitta, and rice and beans.
Iron is an important player in your body’s production of red blood cells. That’s why an insufficient amount of iron can lead to fatigue, paleness and weakness.
Surprisingly enough, you’ll find iron in a lot of the same places where you find protein: legumes, grains, nuts and seeds are all great sources. You can find iron in dark leafy greens and tomato sauce, too. In order to help your body best absorb iron, consume it around the same time you eat something else packed with vitamin C.
Some iron sources already contain vitamin C too, which makes consumption even easier. By canning your own tomatoes, for instance, you can create sauces or vegetable bases that have both iron and calcium in them. Open your canned creations all year long — it’s one of the Amish’s favourite ways to store and consume fresh foods — to keep your iron levels high.
You probably already know that calcium helps build strong bones and prevent bone brittleness and breakage in the future. Of course, you can’t get your calcium from milk anymore: soybeans, dark leafy greens and some fortified juices include calcium.
Vitamin D goes hand-in-hand with calcium. You need to consume vitamin D in order for your body to properly absorb the calcium you eat, which makes it especially important for vegans who have fewer sources of calcium than omnivores.
You can find vitamin D in fortified foods, including cereals and soy milk. You can also walk outside and absorb all of the vitamin D you need from the sun, which provides a natural, free source in its rays. Stand outside for half the amount of time it takes your skin to burn and you’ll have absorbed plenty of vitamin D to get you through the day.
Vitamin B12 is a tough one, because it only occurs naturally in animal products. But you can find it in supplements, as well as in fortified cereals, nutritional yeast and plant-based beverages. Make sure you get enough in your vegan diet, since it boosts your body’s creation of red blood cells.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Ground flaxseed or flaxseed oil are vegan sources of Omega-3 fatty acids, which improve your heart and brain function. You can also find Omega-3s in fortified foods and beverages, as well as walnuts and soybeans.
Now, Reap the Benefits of a Vegan Lifestyle
Once you know the vital nutrients to make your vegan lifestyle a balanced one, you can ensure your diet is nourishing, rich and varied. With careful planning of your meals to ensure you get enough of all you need, you will probably find yourself experiencing the benefits of a vegan lifestyle, including weight loss, lower blood sugar and cancer prevention.
With that, there’s nothing left to do but get started on your vegan routine. Track your nutrients, eat up and enjoy all that your new lifestyle has to offer you.
Emily is freelance writer, covering conservation and sustainability.