Eating Vegan? Tips for adequate nutrition

This graphic shows the best food structure for vegetarians to gain adequate nutrition every day. Graphic created by Virginia Messina, in her study A new food guide for North American vegetarians.

COLUMBIA, Mo. — What should I eat today? Can I get enough nutrients? For vegans, these questions are not easy to answer.

Vegansgo beyond the vegetarian diet to exclude meat, eggs, dairy, and all other animal products. About 1 million people in the United States are vegans, and 7.3 million people are vegetarians, according to the “Vegetarianism in America” study. The study has also shown that about 22.8 million people or 10 percent of U.S. adults say they tend to rely on vegetables and eat only a little meat. Many people are eating less meat, which enables the market for vegetarians to grow rapidly, according to the study.

According to the American Dietetic Association, a well-planned vegetarian diet can be rich in nutrition for people.  Nutrition experts suggest vegans follow a diversified diet and keep track of their nutrition intakes every day. “The key to the whole thing is variety,” said Pauline Landhuis, a registered dietitian at the University of Missouri, Columbia. Here are some tips for vegans, especially for protein and minerals.

Protein

Most plant-based foods are considered to only have incomplete proteins, as they do not contain all of the amino acids our bodies need. In some vegetable proteins, the pattern of amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein, is different from that in meat, egg or milk protein, said Dale Brigham, associate professor of nutrition at MU. However, vegans can also gain enough proteins to fulfill their needs by following these guidelines:

  • Eat a variety of vegetables and grains:  Vegans can gain enough proteins by eating a combination of vegetables within one day, Landhuis said. For example, in the Southwest United States, many Native Americans traditionally ate corn and beans together, and by combining these two kinds of vegetable proteins, they can fill in the gaps of the amino acids and make two incomplete proteins into a complete one, said Brigham. If a vegan eats legumes, lentils, whole grain breads, green-leaf vegetables and seeds within one day, he or she can get enough protein, Landhuis said.
  • Eat more soy: Scientists have recently rated soy as containing similar quality of proteins to eggs, milk or meat, which are considered complete proteins, Brigham said. Thus, vegans can also consume more soy products to maintain their protein levels.

Minerals

Minerals are probably the hardest kind of nutrition for vegans to get, Brigham said. Especially for iron, zinc and calcium, the absorption rate of these minerals from some grains and vegetables is only 5to 10 percent as compared to nearly 30 percent from meat and dairy products.

The main reasons for this are two-fold. First, many grains and vegetables have certain components that will grab those minerals and reduce their absorption, a process is called “chelation”, which is originally from Greek, meaning “to claw,” Brigham said. Second, there are factors in meat and dairy products that tell our body to absorb minerals such as iron and calcium, while vegetables don’t have that factor, he also said.

Here is some advice for vegans regarding mineral intake:

  • Eat soy products and supplements: Some soy products such as tofu contain calcium and other minerals as we need, so vegans may be able to improve their mineral intake by eating these products, Brigham said. He also suggested that vegans take supplements to increase their mineral intakes, and the best way to take iron supplements is to take them with Vitamin C, as is found in orange juice,  to enhance the absorption of minerals.

Experts also suggested that vegans can take fortified products to get enough nutrients, such as fortified soy milk with added calcium and Vitamin D.

For further reading, see these articles about veganism.

Washington Post: 5 Myths about vegans.

The Atlantic: The evidence for a vegan diet

Huffington Post: Busted: Top vegan nutrition myths

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