Instagram is blowing up with insanely fit vegans. Some run ultra marathons, some deadlift over 500 pounds, and collectively they are destroying the notion that animal protein is a prerequisite for human health. They’re usually young, they have unbelievable physiques and show off mouth-watering vegan dishes that anybody would want to eat. But is plant-based nutrition as glamorous as it looks or are they hiding something? [TLDR: See Conclusion]
Maybe the others know something I don’t, but after two years of vegan bodybuilding I can honestly say that there are real challenges in meeting the body’s needs through plant-based nutrition. When I started, my protein requirements dictated everything that I ate, I had to re-learn how to cook, and I almost certainly didn’t do a good job of covering my nutritional bases.
Moreover, the science shows that vegans have significantly higher prevalence of inadequate nutrient intake for several vitamins and minerals as well as lower average protein intake than adherents of any other diet1. This doesn’t mean that plant-based nutrition is itself inadequate, it just means that rainbow-and-butterfly introductions to veganism are doing a lousy job of informing vegans what they need and how to get it.
Rather than sweep these challenges under the rug, I’ve tried to be candid about the nutritional challenges of giving up meat, dairy and eggs, and how to address them.
What to Expect in this Guide
In this guide to plant-based nutrition I’ve distilled the most important things you need to know to enjoy a balanced vegan diet. Only when you’ve addressed it’s weakpoints does a vegan diet become the healthiest option for staying slim and preventing disease (not to mention an incredibly impactful way of addressing social, environmental and economic problems, which I’ve discussed in this article).
So you’re warned, it is an 8-10 minute read. That’s nothing considering its potential to improve your physical and mental health—but if you’re looking for the short & sweet version, scroll to the conclusion. This guide will tell you what you may be missing and how to get enough of it. It can’t replace consultation with a doctor, but it can get you on the right track to enjoying an insanely healthy vegan diet.
Guide to Plant-Based Nutrition
Meat and animal products tend to be rich in protein, selenium, niacin, iron and zinc, while dairy offers plenty of calcium, and vitamin B12 is exclusively available in animal products. These are the problems that a good vegan diet must solve. Fortunately, if you make it a habit it becomes automatic.
Now we’re going to go nutrient by nutrient to learn why it’s important and how to get enough. As we go through, I urge vegans to actually try to absorb this information so that, when asked, you may give an informed response about plant-based nutrition.
The biggest concern people have about plant-based nutrition is protein. But before I discuss the best protein sources, I recommend knowing your body’s protein requirements, which depend on your size and physical activity.
Those who don’t do any physical exercise need ~0.4 grams per pound (0.8g/kg), runners and endurance athletes should aim for 0.55-0.65 g/lb (1.4-1.6g/kg) and those who lift weights, or bodybuild should aim for 0.7-0.8 g/lb (1.6-1.8g/kg). Lastly, women who are nursing or pregnant should consume an additional 15-20 additional grams of protein daily.
Without getting into great detail about the nuances of plant-based protein, it is recommended that vegans vary their sources of protein to obtain all essential amino acids. Historically, this has been greatly over-complicated and we now know there is no need to combine specific foods with specific amino acids at every meal.
In my experience, I gained about 30 pounds of mostly lean mass during my first 18 months of vegan bodybuilding without knowing the name of a single amino acid. I never made any conscientious effort to combine proteins and there’s no reason to believe it’s necessary or important unless you’re aiming for the olympics. Nonetheless it is still a good idea to vary your protein sources in order to acquire plenty of the micronutrients we will discuss below.
The best sources of vegan protein are legumes, seeds, nuts, and whole grains—of which there are many, many different choices. I’ve merely pointed out a few popular choices which are easiest to find without necessarily hunting down a health foods store.
Protein is a macronutrient and the most infamous concern about veganism, but it’s actually quite easy to satisfy this requirement if you know what to eat.
However there are several micronutrients which can be more problematic because they are more obscure. But the good news, as we’ll see, is that many of these vegan protein sources also help to meet other, less renowned needs.
So if you take a mental snapshot of this list, you’ll quickly begin to notice a pattern.
It’s important for thyroid metabolism and reproductive health2 and most meats have about 30-45% DV per serving. However, there are also many vegan sources including the most selenium-rich food known to man—the brazil nut (order here) with more than 100% of daily value in just one nut3 . The next closest food is Tuna, with about 1/6th as much per serving.
Common vegan sources of selenium include:
It’s deficiency causes tiredness, headaches and a debilitating disease called pellagra. Niacin is generally plentiful in seafood, poultry and other animal-based foods, but it can also be acquired from several plant-based sources.
If you’re beginning to see a pattern, you’re not crazy. But let’s move on and see if it holds across other nutrients. Next we have:
Iron deficiency can negatively effect cognitive development, cause fatigue, weakness and even anemia5. There are two forms of iron. Non-heme iron is found in both animal-based foods and plant-based foods, while heme iron is exclusively found in animal-based foods and is usually easier to absorb. This is why iron is often considered a sticking point among would be vegetarians or vegans. Nonetheless, western vegetarians are no more likely than omnivores to have iron deficiency or anemia6.
This is because iron absorption increases in inverse logarithmic proportion to body stores7. This simply means that when your body’s iron levels are low it absorbs more, just as a dry sponge soaks up more water than a wet sponge. Moreover, non-heme (vegetarian) iron absorption is especially responsive to changes in iron stores.
Only when iron levels are already sufficient, does heme iron have meaningfully higher bioavailability. Also, less than 40% of the iron content in meat is the heme kind8. Thus, iron is less of a sticking point than it has historically been made out to be. With that said, one study found that Chinese vegetarians are twice as likely as their non-vegetarian counterparts to have anemia due to insufficient iron9. This problem is fairly easy to solve by eating a variety of foods rich in iron and taking an iron supplement for good measure.
Several other foods such as tomatoes, bread, potatos, rice, spaghetti, broccoli and nuts all contain about 5-10% daily value per serving.
By comparison, beef contains 11% and chicken, 6% of daily value, per serving.
It may also be adviseable to limit soy or tofu consumption, to one or two servings per day, as it can hinder iron absorption—However, I personally ate way more than two servings of tofu per day while vegan bodybuilding in China, and my blood tests showed normal iron levels after two years.
Next, we move on to a few nutrients which are a bit more challenging for vegans to acquire. They include:
Zinc, Calcium, Iodine and Vitamin B12
I place particular emphasis on these nutrients because a large cohort study recently showed that vegans have higher prevalence of inadequate calcium, iodine and Vitamin B12 than meat-eaters11, while zinc is complicated for its own reasons. Again, these problems aren’t insurmountable, they just require you to be a little more conscientious of building habits that satisfy these needs.
Iodine is easy. Most salt in the United States is iodized because iodine deficiency used to be a common public health problem. Apparently vegans don’t put quite as much salt on their food because it’s already delicious. The solution is to buy iodized salt and use a little when cooking or seasoning.
The others are fairly simple as well—take a multivitamin which contains zinc, vitamin B12 and calcium and you’re almost sure to hit these targets, but we’ll go into just a little more detail.
Zinc is important for immune function, growth, development and healthy pregnancy outcomes12. Animal products provide more than half of the zinc consumed in the US13 and many vegetarian protein sources contain phytic acid, which inhibits zinc absorption14. As a result, studies have shown that vegetarians absorb zinc less efficiently than non-vegetarians and that zinc levels usually fall in subjects who adopt a vegetarian diet.
The good news is that zinc deficiency does not appear common among vegetarians or vegans in the developed world as zinc levels tend to stabilize after the initial dip15. A year-long study found that subjects who adopted a vegetarian diet saw no further reductions in zinc levels after the first 3 months. After the early decline, plasma zinc appeared to find a new equillibrium, at a lower but still normal zinc range16.
Again we see that there is a lot in common between the best vegan sources of protein, iron, zinc, selenium and Niacin. Thus, it is generally true that if you follow the protein, you’re almost certain to acquire almost all of your other needs. But there are 2 more nutrients that require a little additional attention.
Calcium intake among vegans is often below national dietary recommendations, which can be especially important among children, post-menopausal women and senior men17.
The recommended daily calcium intake is 1000 mg for adults and 1200 for women over 51 and men over age 70. As you’ll see it could be difficult for vegans to reach these levels of calcium intake exclusively from food, which is why many foods are fortified with calcium. The good news is that we know that calcium supplements are just as well absorbed as dietary calcium18, which can help to bridge the gap.
Vegan sources of calcium based on a 1000mg recommended daily value:
As you can see, many of the top sources of vegan calcium are fortified foods, which is fine, if you eat a lot of these foods. But I emphasize calcium because of the empirical evidence showing that many vegans don’t get enough of it, and because it’s the only nutrient which somewhat breaks the pattern we’ve seen above. It is not necessarily plentiful in the most common sources of vegan protein which is why it is adviseable to keep an eye out for calcium fortified foods, such as milk substitutes and most brands of tofu. If you don’t eat many of these fortified calcium sources then be advised to take a calcium supplement, which as we’ve noted, can be absorbed as effectively as calcium found in food.
Finally we arrive at:
Vitamin B12 can be a real problem for vegans who don”t take a supplement or eat fortified foods. It is required for brain development and cognitive function and deficiency can delay childhood development. One study has shown that infants breastfed by vegans are more likely to suffer vitamin B12 deficiency19.
Thus it is my advice that every vegan take a daily “Vitamin B Complex” supplement or simply a multivitamin containing Vitamin B12. Many vegans are able to remain in the recommended range without taking supplements, by consuming fortified foods20. But those who take a multivitamin containing B12 are essentially guaranteed to satisfy this requirement.
Vitamin B12 deficiency can have real health consequences, so if you act on nothing else, get a vitamin supplement containing B12. Finally, if you were not aware of this, chances are there are others who didn’t know either so please share this article with any friends who are vegetarian, vegan or are considering a plant-based diet.
The key principle of plant-based nutrition is to follow the protein. The major nutrients of concern for vegans are protein, selenium, niacin, iron, zinc, calcium, iodine and vitamin B12. If you cover these bases, you’re likely to feel good and be internally healthy.
To do this, eat a variety of protein sources. Throughout this article we’ve seen a strong pattern in which the foods with the most vegan protein also tend to cover several other requirements with the exception of calcium and vitamin B12. Finally, it is adviseable to take a daily multivitamin and choose foods fortified with calcium and other nutrients.
That’s it, folks. If you have found this to be helpful, please share it on social media and send it to any of your friends who are interested in plant-based nutrition.
Additional Items of Interest
If you’re interested in the social, environmental and economic benefits of a plant-based diet, this article is required reading.
If you’re looking for additional cooking tips, or you want to continue to build your knowledge of plant-based nutrition as well as its social impact, subscribe and you’ll receive a non-annoying email twice a month with updates on my latest content.
If you want to follow the next two years of my vegan bodybuilding experiment, follow me on instagram @tofuboy_watts.
I hope this has been helpful for navigating to plant-based nutrition.
[Jaras Watts is a vegan bodybuilder and writer living in Southern China. He is fluent and literate in Mandarin and Spanish, enjoys playing ping pong and suspects he could qualify for a Guinness world record for most tofu eaten in a 1 year period. He advocates for reduced meat consumption with a focus on China and the US which are the number 1 and 2 consumers of meat on earth. He is an aspiring writer and really appreciates when people sign up for his email list and share his work.]
1Sobiecki, Jacob G., Appleby, Paul N., Bradbury, Kathryn E., Key, Timothy J. High Compliance with Dietary Recommendations in a cohort of meat eaters, fish eaters, vegetarians, and vegans: results from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition—Oxford Study. May 2016 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4844163/ Accessed Nov 4 2016.
4National Institutes of Health, Office of dietary supplements. Selenium: Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Selenium-HealthProfessional/#en10 (Accessed 10/30/2016)
6Ibid, citing “Food and Nutrition Board: National Research Council. Diet and health: implications for reducing chronic disease risk. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1989.” and “Nathan I, Hackett AF, Kirby S. The dietary intake of a group of vegetarian children aged 7–11 years compared with matched omnivores. Br J Nutr 1996;75:533–44.”
7Hunt, Janet R. Bioavailability of iron, zinc and other trace minerals from vegetarian diets. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2003.
8Hunt, Janet R. Bioavailability of iron, zinc and other trace minerals from vegetarian diets. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2003.
9Ibid. http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/78/3/633S.full#ref-43, Citing Shaw NS, Chin CJ, Pan WH. A vegetarian diet rich in soybean products compromises iron status in young students. J Nutr 1995;125:212–9.
11Sobiecki, Jacob G., Appleby, Paul N., Bradbury, Kathryn E., Key, Timothy J. High Compliance with Dietary Recommendations in a cohort of meat eaters, fish eaters, vegetarians, and vegans: results from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition—Oxford Study. May 2016 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4844163/ Accessed Nov 4 2016.
16Srikumar TS, Johansson GK, Öckerman P, Gustafsson J, Åkesson B. Trace element status in healthy subjects switching from a mixed to a lactovegetarian diet for 12 mo. Am J Clin Nutr 1992;55:885–90.
18Burckhardt, Peter. Calcium Revisted, part III: Effect of dietary calcium on BMD and Fracture Risk. Bonekey Reports: Official Journal of the International Bone and Mineral Society. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4549924/ 2015. Accessed Nov 5 2016.