If you’re new to eating a plant-based diet, you may be concerned that you’re not getting the right nutrition. At the outset, you should know that a diet that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts, and seeds will, for the most part, contains more than enough nutrition to keep you healthy and the ONLY nutrient that is not available on a plant-based diet is Vitamin B12. Let’s look more closely at what constitutes a nutrient-rich plant-based diet... plant-based nutrition: getting it right!
While there are different schools of thought on how much protein an average person needs, we’re going to go by the recommended dietary allowance (RDA). According to their research, the average adult needs a minimum of 0.8 grams of protein for every kilogram of body weight (0.36 grams per pound). For example, a 150-pound person is going to want to get between 45-80 grams of protein a day, which is about 10-15% of their daily caloric intake (depending on weight goals and activity level). Use this handy online calculator if you'd like to customize it for yourself. See our more in-depth article, “Am I Getting Enough Protein on a Plant-Based Diet?” for complete details on plant-based protein needs.
Protein is made of amino acids. You’ll often hear people speaking about something called a “complete protein.” What this means is that the food contains all the essential amino acids, or the amino acids that the body cannot produce on its own, and therefore must be found in the diet.
The good news is that it is possible, and not that complicated, to get all the essential amino acids from a plant-based diet. And contrary to popular belief, you don’t need all of the essential amino acids in each meal, you simply want to make sure you’re getting all of them throughout the day in your various meals and snacks.
Best plant-based source of protein: seeds, nuts, soy (tofu, tempeh, edamame), other legumes. For more information on plant-based sources of protein, check out our very thorough article, “Am I Getting Enough Protein on a Plant-Based Diet?”
Even if you’re eating a low-fat diet, you still want to include some fats for several biological reasons:
- All cells have a layer of fat molecules that create a protective barrier around the cell
- Fats are needed for the body to make prostaglandins (anti-inflammatory compounds), reproductive and metabolic hormones, and cell receptors
- Fat fuels our mitochondria, which are our body’s energy factories
- … and several other crucial biological processes
There are healthy fats and unhealthy fats available in our foods. Unhealthy fats are saturated fats and some vegetable oils, including coconut which has some saturated fat. Of the liquid oils, olive oil is best, but you still want to use very sparingly because there are 120 calories in 1 tablespoon of any fat or oil. A great source of monounsaturated oil is in avocados.
Omega fatty acids are important for our health, namely DHA and EPA. While our bodies can synthesize DHA & EPA, we cannot do so without ingesting the essential fatty acids ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) and LA (linoleic acid).
LA is an omega-3 fatty acid, while ALA is an omega-6. Sadly, the average American often ingests way more omega-6 oils than omega-3. To balance your ratio, which is especially important for anyone on a plant-based diet, you can easily supplement with a good vegan source of Omega 3 fatty acids.
Best plant-based sources of fats: nuts, seeds, avocado and a small amount of olive oil, or you can supplement with algae oil.
Vitamins & Minerals
In addition to plenty of protein and healthy fats, there are other considerations. Certain vitamins and minerals can be less readily available. Below are a few of the most crucial to include in your diet.
Vitamin B12: Most people on a plant-based diet know that it’s important to get vitamin B12 by either supplementing, by eating foods fortified with it, such as breads or cereal, or through a combination of both because it’s not available in a plant-based/vegan diet. Even meat eaters can be deficient in Vitamin B12.
If you are going to rely on fortified foods, you might be considering nutritional yeast. While using nutritional yeast in recipes can add wonderful flavor, it’s not an adequate source on its own. The biggest reason for this is that B12 is light-sensitive, and it’s likely that the product you purchase has lost potency due to the way it’s stored. Even if you’re buying the best product on the market, you’re best off getting B12 from other sources as well.
As we age, our ability to absorb vitamin B12 may decline. For those over 65 who eat a plant-based diet, the supplementation should probably be increased to 1,000 mcg of cyanocobalamin each day, according to Dr. Michael Greger:
<65 = 250 mcg per day
>65 = 1,000 mcg per day
I feel it’s also important to touch on another common belief regarding B12. It’s widely accepted that animal products contain B12 because the animals are ingesting soil that contains the vitamin. The popular theory is that if we eat “dirty” produce, we will get enough B12. This is not sound advice - you are not only unlikely to consume an adequate amount of B12, but unless you know the exact farm your produce came from, you have no idea what else you may be eating.
While it’s not difficult to get this amount from fortified foods, it’s even easier to get it with a good Vitamin B-complex. B-complex supplements are relatively inexpensive and are a great way to make sure you’re getting all your B vitamins, not just B12. And most supplements contain much more than the daily recommended minimum of B12.
Best plant-based sources of Vitamin B12: fortified foods such as plant milk, soy products, and cereals and some nutritional yeast.
Calcium: The recommended intake of calcium per day for adults ranges from 1000 to 1200 milligrams. People usually THINK they’re getting enough calcium from dairy, but this is information is misleading. Be sure to read this article, "Is Milk Good for Our Bones?" about why dairy is NOT a good source of calcium.
There are great plant-based sources of calcium for people eating a plant-based diet. Not only are adequate calcium levels important for bone and teeth health, this mineral is also crucial for a number of other bodily functions, including blood clotting, the regulation of hormones and enzymes, the relaxation and contraction of blood vessels and muscles, and the transmission of nerve impulses.
Best plant-based sources of calcium: blackstrap molasses, leafy greens, fortified plant milk.
While there are several plant-based sources of calcium, you may want to consider supplementation as well. It’s recommended to take a close look at your diet, determine how much calcium you’re getting from foods, and supplement the rest.
When choosing a calcium supplement, there are some important factors to keep in mind. Calcium citrate is the most easily-absorbed form available, and it’s least likely to cause stomach upset. You won’t want to take more than 500 mg at a time, as your body won’t be able to absorb a higher amount at once anyway.
Magnesium: You’ll also want to make sure you’re getting enough magnesium if you decide to supplement with calcium. If your calcium intake isn’t balanced with magnesium, you could be contributing to problems such as kidney stones, arthritis, and calcification of the arteries to name a few. When supplementing with calcium, it’s best to get an equal amount of magnesium, and some even recommend a 1:2 ratio of calcium to magnesium.
Best plant-based sources of magnesium: oats, nuts, seeds, cacao.
Vitamin D: Also, don’t forget the importance of vitamin D! It is also crucial for bone health. If you’re not getting it through a minimum of 15 minutes of sun exposure per day directly on your skin (without sunscreen), you’ll want to also consider supplementation. A good baseline is 1000 IU of D3 in the summer and 4000 IU in the darker months, however, the best way to know is by having your Vitamin D levels check with your doctor. It’s important to note that you don’t want to supplement with D2 (the form that comes from plants) unless advised by your doctor. And no matter how much D2 you’re getting from plant-based foods, if you aren’t getting enough D3 from the sun, you will definitely want to supplement. Here’s a great video on finding the sweet spot for vitamin D from Dr. Rhonda Patrick. For more on the difference between D2 & D3, check out this article.
Best plant-based sources of Vitamin D2: mushrooms and fortified plant milk. Expose your skin to the sun 15 minutes/day or if you're very low, a supplement.
Iron: There are two types of iron, heme and non-heme. Non-heme is the kind of iron found in plant-based foods, and unfortunately, it’s much less readily absorbed by the body than the heme form. Because of the lower absorbability, the recommended iron intake for those on a plant-based diet may be as much as 1.8 times higher than for those who eat meat.
You can get enough iron from plant-based foods, which is why you’ll want to become familiar with the iron levels in your favorite foods and go from there. Whether you’re choosing foods naturally high in iron, or those fortified with it, getting enough on a plant-based diet is definitely achievable. Please keep in mind that too much iron can be quite dangerous, so you will want to have your blood levels tested prior to taking an iron supplement.
Best plant-based sources of iron: cacao, blackstrap molasses, dehydrated fruit, dark leafy greens.
For more on why adequate iron levels are important, check out this informational video, “Iron Rich Foods: The Essentials of Iron.”
Vitamin K2: Vitamin K2 is a lesser-known vitamin than the others we’ve gone over. Its main role is in the process of blood-clotting and some people argue that a K2 deficiency plays a role in tooth decay and chronic disease. One of the most compelling pieces of information coming to light is that a higher intake of K2 may help prevent arterial calcification. It may also help to lower the risk of osteoporosis and be a cancer-preventative.
While our bodies can convert vitamin K1 (which is 10 times more readily available from dietary sources) into K2, and a healthy microbiome can also produce some K2, it’s important to make an effort to make sure you’re getting enough of it. The RDA ranges from 10-25 micrograms, so it’s definitely possible to get enough through diet alone. Higher amounts may be recommended on a case-by-case basis by your doctor, and it’s not recommended to supplement with K2 unless advised to do so by your physician. This is especially important for anyone taking anticoagulant medications.
Best Plant-based sources of K2: Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, miso, and kombucha, leafy greens.
Antioxidants & Flavonoids
Antioxidants are molecules that counteract the damaging effects of free radicals. Our bodies make far more free-radicals naturally than they do antioxidants, so it’s important to eat plenty of foods that contain them. Preventing the oxidative damage of free-radicals benefits us in so many ways, including eye health, immune support, heart health, brain function and memory, and anti-aging.
A good practice is to include a lot of leafy greens in your diet and to “eat the rainbow” each week. This means you’re eating veggies and fruits of all the different color choices. Flavonoids are what color our fruits and veggies, so you want a wide color variety in order to get as many different flavonoids as possible.
Flavonoids are phytonutrients that can be found in nearly all fruits and vegetables. Flavonoids are powerful antioxidants that are incredibly anti-inflammatory and beneficial to the immune system. Eating a flavonoid-rich diet has been shown to be a preventative factor for many diseases and ailments.
Best Plant-based sources of antioxidants & flavonoids: berries, cacao, pretty much all brightly colored fruits and veggies
What’s your plan of action for adequate nutrition on a plant-based diet?
TAKEAWAY: The overall takeaway here is that it’s not necessary to stress and obsess about counting and tracking all your vitamin and minerals. As long as you are eating a wide variety of fresh veggies and fruits, you will be off to a good start. Just remember - eat the rainbow!
If you’re concerned about your macro and micronutrient levels, keep a 7-day diet diary using an app such as Cronometer or MyPlate, review your levels, and determine what needs adjusting. Do remember to review the information that’s preloaded in these apps as they may not be 100% accurate for every item.
If you have any tips or tricks for ensuring you’re getting all the macro and micronutrients you need on a plant-based diet, I’d love to hear about it! Share in the comments below or give me a shout on any of my social media channels (the links to all of them are found below). Thanks for reading!