Demystifying Vegan Nutrition
The original Demystifying Vegan Nutrition pamphlet can be downloaded as a 3MB PDF for printing (double-sided, 14″ x 8.5″).
Disclaimer: The information in this guide is intended only to provide a helpful overview of nutrition as it pertains to vegan diets. It cannot cover all vegan nutrition topics or address every individual need. If you would like to ensure that your diet is meeting all your nutritional needs, please consult a registered dietitian or nutritionist with expertise in vegan diets. Persons with medical conditions or who are taking medications should discuss diet and lifestyle changes with their healthcare professional.
What is a vegan diet?
A vegan diet is one that consists only of plant-derived foods. Like non-vegans, vegans eat soups, stews, stir-fries, salads, and casseroles. They consume a wide variety of foods from around the globe, as well as plant-only versions of traditional favorites such as pizza, tacos, burritos, lasagna, burgers, barbecues, loaves, chilis, pancakes, sandwiches, and desserts.
What is a healthful vegan diet?
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that an appropriately planned vegan diet is healthful for all stages of life. They further advise that plant-based diets may provide a variety of preventative health benefits. Of course, as with any diet, a poorly planned vegan diet could be dangerous or unhealthful.
“An appropriately planned vegan diet is healthful for all stages of life.”
A balanced vegan diet is made up of these four food groups: 1) legumes, nuts, and seeds; 2) grains; 3) vegetables; and 4) fruits.
Because individual nutrient needs and energy requirements vary due to age, activity level, and one’s state of health, this guide should only be considered a broad blueprint for a balanced vegan diet. You should consult a dietitian familiar with vegan nutrition for a personalized set of recommendations
LEGUMES, NUTS, AND SEEDS (4+ servings per day)
The legume-nut-seed group includes beans, split peas, lentils, nuts, seeds, and soy products. These nutrient-dense foods are packed with protein, fiber, minerals, B vitamins, protective antioxidants, and essential fatty acids(1). Sample serving sizes from this group include: 1/2 cup of cooked beans, 4 ounces of tofu or tempeh, 1 cup of soy milk, 1 ounce of nuts or seeds, or 2 tablespoons of nut or seed butter.
GRAINS (4-6+ servings per day)
Whole grains provide B vitamins, fiber, minerals, protein, and antioxidants. They are preferable to refined grains because the refining process removes the health-iest nutrients. Also, intact whole grains—such as brown rice, oats, wheat berries, millet, and quinoa—are nutritionally superior to whole grain flours and puffed or flaked whole grains(2). A serving is 1 slice of bread, 1/2 cup of cooked grain, or 1 ounce of ready-to-eat cereal. This group is fairly flexible with regard to servings per day. Vary your intake based on your individual energy needs.
VEGETABLES (4+ servings per day)
Eating a wide variety of colorful vegetables every day will ensure that you’re getting an assortment of protective nutrients in your diet(3). A vegetable serving is 1/2 cup cooked, 1 cup raw, or 1/2 cup of juice. For most vegetables, particularly calcium-rich leafy greens, it’s nearly impossible to eat “too much.”
FRUITS (2+ servings per day)
Most fruits, especially citrus fruits and berries, are a great source of vitamin C. All fruits provide antioxidants. Choose whole fruits over fruit juices to get the most benefit, particularly from dietary fiber. A serving size is 1 medium piece, 1 cup sliced, 1/4 cup dried, or 1/2 cup of juice.
REGARDING OILS AND SPREADS
Concentrated fats, such as oils and oil-based spreads, do not fall under a food group. They are not required for optimal health, as essential fats are found naturally in whole foods like avocados, olives, nuts, and seeds, and for that reason there is no serving recommendation. However, a small amount of concentrated fats may be included in a healthful vegan diet. Choose oils and spreads that are minimally processed and limit your intake.
“Choose oils and spreads that are minimal processed and limit your intake.”
Like non-vegans, vegans need to be mindful of consuming all the nutrients they need in order to be healthy. Four key nutrients that everyone needs to pay attention to are vitamin B12, vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids, and iodine. After discussing these four nutrients, we will also look at calcium, iron, and protein.
Vitamin B12 is necessary for proper red blood cell formation, neurological function, and DNA synthesis(5). It is manufactured by certain types of bacteria found in nature. Because plants vary widely in their levels of this bacteria (and most of us favor our food scrubbed squeaky clean), we cannot rely on plant foods to meet our B12 needs. We can ensure our dietary needs are met by consuming supplements or fortified foods.
Our suggestion for teens and adults into their early sixties is to supplement with a vegan source of B12, either 100 micrograms (mcg) per day or 1000 mcg twice a week. Due to decreased absorption, people over 65 are advised to supplement with 500-1000 mcg daily, while we suggest toddlers get 10-20 mcg per day and pre-teens get about 20-40 mcg or so daily(6). If you prefer not to use supplements, consume multiple servings of a variety of vitamin B12-fortified food throughout the day.
Be advised that some B12 vitamins labeled as “vegetarian” are not suitable for vegans. In general, it is worth keeping in mind that many vitamins and supplements contain animal products.
Vitamin D, the “sunshine vitamin,” is also a hormone; our skin manufactures it from the ultraviolet rays of the sun. It plays an important role in bone health and supports normal neuromuscular and immune function(7). Good vitamin D status is linked to a lowered risk of osteoporosis, certain cancers, and other chronic diseases(8). Getting enough of it is not as easy as we may think. Vitamin D blood levels are an international public health concern.
The body’s ability to produce vitamin D from sun exposure varies based on skin pigmentation, sunscreen, clothing, time of year(9)(10), latitude, air pollution, and other factors, and the vitamin is found naturally in only a handful of foods. This is why all people—not just vegans—need to be mindful about vitamin D.
The latest research suggests that even getting 100% of the current Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for vitamin D may be insufficient for many people. To ensure adequate vitamin D intake, take 1000-4000 International Units (IU) per day, depending upon your age and other individual needs(11).
“All people–not just vegans–need to be mindful about vitamin D.”
Supplemental vitamin D can be found as either D2 or D3. D2 (ergocalciferol) is derived from non-animal sources, while D3 (cholecalciferol) is commonly derived from lanolin, a protective waxy substance secreted by sheep(12). More recently, plant-based D3 has come to market.
If you can’t find vegan D3, D2 is just fine for supplementing daily. To determine your vitamin D status, schedule a 25(OH)D (25-hydroxyvitamin D) blood test at your next medical checkup. Your healthcare provider can offer supplement guidelines based on the results.
Omega-3 fatty acids. A proper balance of essential fats is important for optimal brain function, heart health, and infant/child development(13). Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is an omega-3 fatty acid that partly converts to DHA and EPA in the body. It is present in several plant foods, including flax products, hemp products, walnuts, and leafy green vegetables. Aim to consume 2 to 4 grams of ALA per day(14).
|Food, serving size||ALA (grams)|
|Flaxseed, whole, 2 Tbsp.||5.2|
|Flaxseed, ground, 2 Tbsp.||3.8|
|Flaxseed oil, 1 tsp.||2.7|
|Walnuts, 1 oz (1/4 cup)||2.6|
|Hempseed oil, 1 tsp.||0.9|
|Tofu, firm, ½ cup||0.7|
|Canola oil, 1 tsp.||0.5|
|Greens (mixed), 2 cups||0.2|
If you aren’t sure whether your intake is adequate, you may wish to take up to 300 milligrams of a vegan DHA or DHA-EPA blend per day.
IODINE is a trace element needed by the body to produce thyroid hormones. This makes iodine important to the metabolism and other vital bodily functions, including bone and brain development during pregnancy and infancy. Inadequate iodine intake causes insufficient thyroid hormone production, which can in turn cause a number of health problems, including an enlargement of the thyroid gland, called goiter, as well as issues with fetal and infant development and an autoimmune disease of the thyroid, among other potential serious health concerns.
The few small studies that have examined the iodine status of vegans have found that they may be at greater risk for low iodine intake than the general population. That being said, iodine deficiency is a global public health concern, affecting an estimated 2 billion people, a third of whom are children. So, while it is important for vegans to be mindful of their iodine intake, the advice here applies to everyone.
“Iodine deficiency is a global public health concern.”
How much do we need?
There is generally very little iodine in food. However, not much iodine is needed in the human diet, so the daily recommended amount is not difficult to get.
|Life Stage||Avg Recommended
Daily Iodine Intake
|Birth to 6 months||110 mcg|
|Infants 7–12 months||130 mcg|
|Children 1–8 years||90 mcg|
|Children 9–13 years||120 mcg|
|Teens 14–18 years||150 mcg|
|Pregnant teens and women*||220 mcg|
|Breastfeeding teens and women||290 mcg|
How do we get it?
The Selected Food Sources of Iodine table highlights the iodine content of some common foods. Note that most vegetables and, especially, fruits are not reliable sources of iodine to meet daily needs. The most potent food sources of iodine are sea vegetables, though the amount of iodine can vary widely depending on environmental conditions, species, season of harvest, and age of the plant. A serving of kelp or kombu can easily provide several times one’s daily requirement, while a gram of dulse may contain 100% of the recommended daily intake.
Apart from foods, iodized salt consumption is one of the most predictable ways to ensure one’s daily iodine intake. Note that consuming excess salt can contribute to other health problems, such as high blood pressure. Salt in processed foods is not usually iodized.
|Selected Food Sources of Iodine||Approximate micrograms (mcg) per serving||Percent DV*|
|Sea vegetables (In typical order of content, descending: Kelp, kombu, hiziki, arame, wakame)||16 to 2,984||11% to 1,989%|
|Cranberries (fresh), 1/4 cup (28 g)||100||67%|
|Navy beans with kombu, 1/2 cup (95 g)||71||47%|
|Iodized salt, 1.5 g (approx. 1/4 tsp)||71||47%|
|Baked potato with skin, 1 medium||60||40%|
|Bread, white, enriched, 2 slices||45||30%|
|Great Northern beans with kombu, 1/2 cup (95 g)||36||24%|
|Navy beans, 1/2 cup (91 g)||32||21%|
|Macaroni, enriched, boiled, 1 cup (140 g)||27||18%|
|Blackstrap molasses, 1 Tbsp (15g)||24||16%|
|Canned corn, 1/2 cup (80 g)||13||9%|
|Strawberries, 1 cup (144 g)||13||9%|
|Prunes, dried, 5 prunes||13||9%|
|Watercress, 2 cups (68 g)||10||7%|
|Apple juice, 1 cup (240mL)||7||5%|
*DV = Daily Value. The FDA does not require food labels to list iodine content unless a food has been fortified with this nutrient. Foods providing 20% or more of the DV are considered to be high sources of a nutrient.
Can Iodine Be Harmful?
Like many nutrients, it is possible to consume too much iodine, especially with excess consumption of high-iodine foods and supplements, such as those made from kelp. As with insufficient iodine, excess iodine can cause health problems, including goiter. The upper limits for iodine are listed below. They do not apply to people taking iodine for medical reasons under a doctor’s supervision. See your doctor for potential interactions with medications you are taking, including those for an overactive thyroid and high blood pressure, as well as lithium, which itself can reduce thyroid function.
|Life Stage||Upper Limit|
|Birth to 12 months||Not established|
|Children 1–3 years||200 mcg|
|Children 4–8 years||300 mcg|
|Children 9–13 years||600 mcg|
|Teens 14–18 years||900 mcg|
Note that footnotes for this new section are not provided. Sources are instead linked from the text.
CALCIUM is naturally widespread in the plant kingdom, and so our calcium needs can be met with whole plant foods (and, optionally, calcium-fortified foods). Adults need about 1,000 milligrams per day, though the amount depends on one’s stage in the lifecycle(15). We recommend choosing several calcium-rich foods in each food group each day. Plants rich with calcium include leafy green vegetables, beans, sesame seeds, figs, beans, and almonds.
|Food, serving size(16)||Calcium (mg)|
|Calcium-set tofu, ½ cup||140-420|
|Fortified soy milk, 1 cup||200-370|
|Collard greens, 1 cup cooked||270-360|
|Fortified orange juice||300-350|
|Soy yogurt, 1 cup||150-350|
|Amaranth, 1 cup (cooked)||275|
|Broccoli rabe/Rapini, ½ bunch (cooked)||260|
|Sesame seeds (unhulled), 2 Tbsp.||175|
|Blackstrap molasses, 1 Tbsp.||80-170|
|Navy beans, 1 cup (cooked)||160|
|Bok choy, 1 cup (cooked)||160|
|Figs, 5 large (raw)||110|
|Almonds, 1 oz||70|
Note: Calcium content varies depending on variety, brand, and origin.
IRON is a mineral used by the body to carry oxygen from our lungs to the rest of the body, among other functions. When one does not get enough iron, it can lead to fatigue, cognitive impairment, and other health problems. While the NIH does not list vegans as one of the groups at risk for iron deficiency in its dietary supplement fact sheet on iron, many vegans may naturally fall into one of the groups that are at risk, including pregnant women, infants and children. It’s a good idea to be aware of maintaining an iron intake generally suited to your age and activity level.
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for iron is as follows(17):
|19 and up||8|
|Pregnant Women||14-50 years||27|
|Lactating Women||14-18 years||10|
*This value is an Adequate Intake (AI) value. AI is used when there is not enough information known to set a Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA).
Iron can be found in many plant foods, particularly beans, including:
|Food, standard amount(16)(17)||Iron (mg)|
|Soybeans, mature, 1/2 cup (cooked)||4.4|
|White beans, 1/2 cup (cooked)||3.3|
|Lentils, 1/2 cup (cooked)||3.3|
|Spinach, 1/2 cup (cooked from fresh)||3.2|
|Amaranth, 1/2 cup (cooked)||2.6|
|Chickpeas, 1/2 cup (cooked)||2.4|
|Dark chocolate, 45%-59% cacao solids, 1 oz||2.3|
|Soybeans, green, 1/2 cup (cooked)||2.3|
|Pumpkin and squash seed kernels, 1 oz (roasted)||2.3|
|Navy beans, 1/2 cup (cooked)||2.2|
|Refried beans, canned, 1/2 cup||2.1|
|Kidney beans, 1/2 cup (cooked)||2.0|
|Cashew nuts, 1 oz (raw)||1.9|
|Black beans, 1/2 cup (cooked)||1.8|
|Blackstrap molasses, 1 tbsp||0.9|
Final notes on iron
While the form of iron found in plants (non-heme) is absorbed differently than the majority of iron occurring in animal tissues (heme), vegans’ intakes can be as high or higher than non-vegans. That said, though a separate Recommended Daily Allowance has not been set for vegans and no long term studies to date have concluded that vegans may require a higher RDA for iron than non-vegans, a variety of studies have suggested that, to compensate for absorption differences, vegans may want to double the RDA for iron intake while still being careful to avoid the upper limit of 45mg/day for males and females 14 and older (40mg for ages 13 and under). It is widely recommended that athletes increase their iron intake to counter the effects of increased activity(18), still being mindful of the upper limit, as too much iron consumption can also be unhealthy.
Statements regarding a possible higher iron requirement for vegans tend to focus on increasing iron-rich food intake. However, iron intake can also be improved by avoiding foods that inhibit iron absorption and through thoughtful food preparation. For example, iron absorption is inhibited when calcium supplements, coffee, and black and green tea are consumed along with foods containing iron. To increase non-heme iron absorption at meals, prepare high-iron foods like beans with foods high in vitamin C, such as citrus fruits, bell peppers, and green leafy vegetables(17). Cooking meals containing more acidic foods (e.g., tomatoes) in a cast iron skillet can also improve the iron content of that meal(19).
PROTEIN contributes to healthy muscles and bones, tissue repair, a healthy immune system, and more(20). Because 10-20% of calories in most plant foods (legumes, vegetables, and grains especially) are from protein(21), and humans need only about 10-15% of their calories from protein, requirements are easily met with a diet consisting of a variety of whole plant foods. Despite a common myth, it is not necessary to “complement” plant proteins at a meal. The human body stores amino acids, the building blocks of protein, so that complete proteins can be manufactured in the body over time(22).
“It is not necessary to ‘complement’ plant proteins at a meal.”
The RDA for protein is dependent upon a person’s age and sex. Pregnancy, activity level, and health status also affect your needs(23). However, to get a general sense of what your daily protein intake should be in grams, take your weight in pounds and multiply it by 0.36. For example, a 150-pound (68kg) adult would want to consume about 55 grams of protein per day.
The following sample meal plan easily surpasses that target, at 77 grams of protein:
1 1/2 cups oatmeal (9g) topped with cinnamon and
1 oz walnuts (4g)
1 small banana (1g)
1 1/2 cups of three-bean chili (16g)
1 piece jalapeño cornbread with maple “butter” spread (2g)
2 cups southwestern vegetable salad (4g)
2 cups stir-fried sweet potato, onion, bok choy, and broccoli (5g)
4 oz sesame orange baked tofu (7g)
2 cups brown rice (9g)
2 tbsp peanut butter (8g) on whole grain crackers (3g) and fruit (1g)
2 oz trail mix (8g)
A Few Lingering Questions
Don’t I need some cholesterol?
Vegan diets are 100% cholesterol-free and this is 100% fine. There is no RDA for cholesterol because it is not an essential nutrient. The body (specifically the liver) manufactures all the cholesterol a person needs to be healthy(25).
What about my food allergies?
There are numerous healthy grain alternatives for vegans with a wheat allergy or gluten intolerance. In fact, many grains are nutritionally superior to wheat, including millet. Quinoa, a seed, is also an excellent grain alternative. Products that were once only available in wheat varieties (e.g., bread and crackers) are now available wheat- and gluten-free. A soy allergy is very workable, as soybeans are just one food. Soy-based meat analogs can be replaced with nut- or wheat-based varieties (such as seitan). Nut allergies are usually isolated; few people are allergic to all nuts and seeds. Testing can determine which nuts and seeds are safe. Substitutions usually work well in recipes and in foods such as granola, trail mix, and nut/seed “butters.”
Soy: too much of a good thing?
Many new vegans enjoy soy products that mimic the flavors and textures of meat and dairy products. Is it possible to consume too much soy? Yes, it is, just as it’s possible to eat too much of many kinds of foods.
Eating too many processed soy products means that other foods are being displaced, which throws off a healthful balance of foods. A reasonable daily limit of processed soy products is two servings per day. Soy products are healthiest when they are fermented or otherwise minimally processed. Examples include edamame, miso, tempeh, tofu, and fortified soymilk made from whole organic soybeans.
I tried a vegan diet and felt unhealthy. What did I do wrong?
Sometimes when we make positive changes to our diet—such as eliminating animal products or replacing processed junk food with whole plant foods—we may encounter some temporary bodily complaints, including cravings, fatigue, or digestive discomfort. These are not uncommon during a major dietary transition, especially if fiber intake increases dramatically in a short period of time. If symptoms continue for more than two to three days, you may want to see a doctor to rule out coincidental health conditions.
“Healthful vegan diets tend to be big on volume.”
Sometimes a well-intentioned change to eating vegan can backfire when the diet is not properly balanced. One common mistake when transitioning to a vegan diet is eating too few calories. Healthful vegan diets tend to be big on volume—your plate should be overflowing with fresh food, especially when you include lots of raw vegetables. If you continue eating only the same volume of food as before, you might not get enough calories, leaving you tired, hungry, and irritable.
Another common mistake is simply replacing meat with meat analogs, dairy products with soy-based alternatives, and regular sweets with vegan sweets. Going heavy on these items and light on the vegetables, fruits, and whole grains is not a healthful approach. To learn how to best reap the benefits of a healthful vegan diet, sign up for a vegan nutrition or cooking class, or pick up a reliable book on vegan nutrition, such as Becoming Vegan, by Brenda Davis and Vesanto Melina.
Demystifying Vegan Nutrition: A Starter Guide was produced in consultation with Dina Aronson, MS, RD. Subject to revision by the International Vegan Association without notice. The content belongs to the International Vegan Association and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. You may link to this page freely, print for sharing with others, and otherwise reproduce for public education, but you must provide proper accreditation and a link to this page, you may only provide this document to the public free of charge, and you may not modify the contents in any way.