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Getting the Nutrients You Need

How vegans (and everyone else) can get vitamins and minerals from food, fortification, and fun in the sun.

By Tonya Abari, adapted from an article in the African American Vegan Starter Guide.

Eating plant-based is a fantastic way to improve your overall health. But you might be wondering how vegans get all the vitamins and minerals needed to thrive. Even with a diet composed of mostly whole foods – fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, and whole grains – deficiencies can leave you feeling tired and incomplete. 

Common nutrients of concern, especially for new vegans, are protein, B12, calcium, iron, and vitamin D. Here’s more info about these nutrients and how you can seamlessly include them in your diet:

Protein

One of the most common questions for new vegans is, “How do I get enough protein?” According to a study in The Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, vegans actually get 70% more protein than the recommended daily allowance. On average, most people need between 50-70 grams of protein daily. The Institute of Medicine recommends calculating protein intake based on multiplying your weight by 0.36 grams. So, if you’re 160 pounds, you need about 57 grams of protein each day. Or if you’re very physically active, you’ll need about 70 grams of protein per day. 

Some vegan sources that are high in protein include, but are not limited to: tempeh, tofu, lentils, pumpkin seeds, almonds, chickpeas, and quinoa. For more recommendations, read the “The Protein Question” in Ageless Vegan

Vitamin B12 

Vitamin B12 originates from bacteria, not plants or animals. It comes from tiny one-celled organisms or microbes that are in the air, earth, and water. In our bacteria-phobic, super hygienic world, neither meat-eaters or vegans typically get enough reliable vitamin B12 in their diets unless they’re eating ample B12-fortified food, such as plant-based milks, breakfast cereals, and nutritional yeast – or taking B12 supplements. 

That said, animals can harbor the bacteria, which can be ingested by meat-eaters. This is not the case with vegans. Based on the latest research findings for those eating plant-based foods, in Dr. Michael Greger’s How Not to Die, he recommends a B12 supplement (cyanocobalamin) of 2,500 mcg a week or 250 mcg a day for people under age 65. For people over age 65, the amount should be increased up to 1,000 mcg a day. 

Calcium 

We need about 1,000 mg of calcium each day. Just one cup of cooked collard greens or black-eyed peas has 350 mg each. The key is to eat a variety of plant-based food throughout the day and you’ll easily meet your daily calcium needs. 

Iron 

Plant-based sources of iron include beans, lentils, nuts, whole grains, dried fruits and dark leafy greens. Eating them with fruits and vegetables that are rich in vitamin C (such as strawberries and broccoli) will ensure that enough iron is obtained to meet the recommended daily allowance for women (18 mg for ages 19-50; 8 mg for ages 51 and older) and for men (8 mg for ages 19 and older). 

Vitamin D 

Vitamin D is made in skin that’s exposed to ultraviolet rays from the sun. To meet your daily vitamin D needs, you typically want to get at least 20 minutes of direct sunlight on your face, hands, arms or back two to three times a week. However, it does depend on where you live. Check out this infographic which displays the latest recommendations for vitamin D according to location.

If you’re indoors most of the time, some alternatives to sunlight include food fortified with vitamin D, like whole grain cereals and plant-based milks, including nut milks (almond, coconut, or macadamia), and  oat, rice or soy milks.

So that’s how vegans get those common vitamins and minerals — from food, fortification and fun in the sun.

Tonya Abari is a multigenre storyteller, editor, and reviewer. Her words have been published in USA Today, Publishers Weekly, ZORA, For the Culture, The Kitchn, Good Housekeeping, and many more! She enjoys discovering new vegan restaurants, collecting healing crystals, and unschooling with her inquisitive children. You can catch Tonya hanging out on Instagram @iamtabari.