Vegan diets have become popular recently for a variety of reasons. Some people view them as healthier than omnivorous diets, but most people adopt them for ethical or environmental reasons (while others struggle with how to stay healthy on a vegan diet at all).
It’s pretty well-known that vegans are prone to certain nutritional deficiencies — calcium in particular, a mineral that is most commonly associated with dairy intake and strong bones. Other minerals such as potassium and magnesium are also common concerns, as is total protein intake.
But what do vegans really need to watch out for when designing their meal plans? These are the six lesser-known nutritional concerns that you should keep in mind when trying to stay healthy on a vegan diet, along with three common concerns that are actually overblown.
How to Stay Healthy on a Vegan Diet
1. Eat a Variety of Complete Protein Sources
No matter what diet you’re on, you need to be eating complete protein sources that contain a mix of all essential amino acids.
Soy is a complete source of protein, and has traditionally been the go-to for vegans. It has all of the essential amino acids in high amounts, and in a pretty good ratio.
But pea protein has become more popular mainly because companies have learned how to craft it into more appetizing meat substitutes, like the popular Impossible Burger. Thankfully, it’s easier than ever to find good vegan protein sources. (And that’s good, because you need to eat at least 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day — maybe even more as a vegan.)
Other vegan protein sources aren’t complete on their own, but can provide a complete protein blend to help you stay healthy when mixed: a blend of rice, beans, peas, and potatoes will work.
2. Make Sure to Consume Fat, Including Saturated Fat
Abundant evidence supports the conclusion that people need fat in their diets to produce adequate levels of sex hormones.
While usually considered the “bad” fat, saturated fat is actually healthy in moderation. In fact, quite a few studies have found that sex hormone levels are positively correlated with saturated fat intake.
As a very general guideline, most adults need 50–80 grams of fat per day, and should aim to get at least one quarter of that intake in the form of saturated fat.
3. You Also Need Omega-3s
You’ve probably heard that omega-3 fatty acids have a wide array of proven benefits. In addition to their physical health benefits, the role of omega-3s in fighting depression has also recently been in the news.
Now the bad news: Omega-3 fatty acids mostly come from animal products, particularly seafood. To stay healthy on a vegan diet, your main source for them will be algae. And since you probably aren’t interested in eating algae, that means you need omega-3 supplements that are derived from algae. These supplements are, unfortunately, still rare and generally expensive. Nonetheless, vegans need to get their omega-3s.
4. Monitor Your Zinc Status
While not exclusive to animal products, zinc tends to be lacking in vegan diets, and it’s a crucial mineral that your body needs to produce sex hormones, build bone and muscle, and regulate brain and immune function. In fact, you’re probably familiar with its role in preventing colds.
The most obvious sign of zinc deficiency, however, is a loss of taste. That means there’s an easy way to test for zinc deficiency: zinc sulfate, in liquid form.
You see, zinc sulfate tastes terrible — or it should. If it tastes like water, you’re severely zinc-deficient. If there’s a delayed bad taste (like hydrogen peroxide), you’re mildly zinc deficient. And if it immediately tastes horrible, you’re getting plenty of zinc.
If you do have a zinc deficiency, supplementing 10–15 milligrams of zinc a day (regular zinc — you only need to do the zinc sulfate test once a week or so) is all that it takes to fix it.
5. You Likely Need to Supplement B Vitamins
B vitamins tend to be sorely lacking in vegan diets, and some (like B12) are pretty much exclusive to animal products. In fact, the overwhelming majority of vegans will be B12 deficient without supplementation.
There’s not really a dietary work-around here, you just need to take daily B vitamin supplements, and B12 in particular.
6. Limit Lectins, Gluten, and Phytic Acid
Many plant products contain anti-nutrients that damage the gut lining and reduce absorption of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. In some cases, these can lead to autoimmune disorders.
Lectins are found in legumes such as beans, lentils, and peanuts, and have been linked to athleroclerosis, autoimmune disorders, and leaky gut, and they're also the culprit behind why beans cause gas. However, you can remove almost all lectins from beans by soaking and rinsing them.
Gluten can cause Crohn’s and Celiac diseases, may contribute to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and is found in wheat and barley. Its role in gut health for people who don’t have those disorders is controversial.
Phytic acid, however, is less controversial: It binds to vitamins and minerals — particularly zinc — and prevents them from being absorbed. It is found in legumes, grains, nuts, and seed oils.
That said, some grain products, such as sprouted and sourdough breads, effectively reduce the gluten and phytic acid content to almost nothing, improving digestibility.
Ultimately, you don’t need to completely avoid these anti-nutrients. Just be aware that vegan diets contain a lot of them, so you need to take steps to manage how much you ingest.
Vegans: Stop Worrying About These 3 Things
1. Vitamin D Is Actually Easy to Get
Many articles about the dangers of vegan diets will warn you that you’re in danger of vitamin D deficiency. After all, a few fatty animal foods like eggs and some fish contain vitamin D, while plant foods don’t.
Except … animal foods don’t contain that much vitamin D. (At least, not as much as you’d get from the sun, or — better yet — from supplementation.)
Vitamin D supplementation has a wide variety of health benefits, and you need thousands of i.u. a day to optimize vitamin D levels. Supplementation is also safe up to at least 10,000 i.u. a day. That said, 5,000 i.u. is enough for most people, and if you spend a lot of time in the sun you should be fine with 2,000 i.u. per day.
2. Bone Loss Is a Serious Concern, but It’s Not Irreversible
Vegan diets put you at significant risk of bone loss due to lack of mineral content, particularly calcium and potassium. And this is a serious concern: On average, vegans have weaker bones and a higher fracture risk than omnivores, so the former should absolutely take mineral supplements with calcium, potassium, and other minerals.
That said, I’ve read several articles that claim that bone density loss while following a vegan diet is irreversible. I don’t know how people are getting this idea, and can only conclude that the authors are lazily copying each other, as a quick review of the research will find plenty of studies in which bone density was shown to increase in adults.
In fact, numerous studies show that mineral supplementation can prevent bone density loss in adults, and sometimes even reverse it. Calcium seems particularly important, but each mineral matters. Taking any mineral — including calcium — in isolation without other minerals doesn’t produce a big effect.
On the other hand, many studies have shown that weight training can raise bone density in adults, even post-menopausal women. Few of these studies try to combine exercise with dietary intervention, but it stands to reason that weight training combined with a high-protein diet and mineral supplements would produce an even greater effect.
That said, you should be preventing bone loss in the first place by lifting weights for 30 minutes at least twice a week, and taking a daily multivitamin designed for vegans. Prevention is much easier than a cure.
3. Phytoestrogens Are Mostly Overrated
Popular belief holds that soy is dangerous because it contains phytoestrogens, or natural compounds that mimic estrogen and throw off the body’s hormonal system.
In fact, research suggests that phytoestrogens may play a variety of both positive and negative roles in the human body: protecting the body from cancer and other disorders but impairing reproductive and sexual function at the same time.
That said, you have to eat a LOT of soy for phytoestrogens to have that much of an effect on you. In the past that may have been likely, but with the rise of vegan proteins made from non-soy sources — particularly pea protein — even vegans don’t need to worry that much about phytoestrogens from food.