Vegan nutrition 101.

Today I had an appointment with SFSU’s nutritionist Teresa Leu, R.D. Leu assured me that there are many health benefits to being vegan, which includes physical benefits and disease prevention. I asked her about the vegan diet and she gave me a list of important nutrients for vegans. The list is as follows:

  • Protein: Plant protein is just as nutritional as meat-based protein. The key to having a well-balanced diet is to have a variety of sources.  A combination of whole grains, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds are great ways to get protein. According to Leu, one should eat about 1 1/2 cups of legumes daily, and the servings should be spread out throughout the day (for example, half a cup for lunch and one cup for dinner).
  • Calcium: Calcium is important because it helps the body build and maintain strong bones and teeth. Dark green vegetables, such as kale (which I am a BIG fan of), spinach, turnip, collard greens and broccoli are all good sources of calcium. It is important to check how much calcium is in food so that one gets the right amount of calcium needs. For example, collard greens (1/2 cup cooked) have 15% of calcium, broccoli (1/2 cup cooked) has 5% of calcium, beans (1/2 cooked) have 5% of calcium, almonds (1/4 cup) have 10% of calcium and 1 medium orange has 5% of calcium. So how much calcium does one need? Men and women between 17-18 years need 130%. Men and women between 19-50 years need 100%. Men over 50 years need 100% and women over 50 years need 120%. Pregnant or lactating women need 100%. Basically in order to get the right amount of calcium one just needs to add up the percentages and make sure that it fits in with the calcium needs of your age group. Look out for calcium enriched tofu and fortified soy milk and fruit juices.
  • Vitamin B-12: Vitamin B-12 is used to produce red blood cells and to prevent anemia, which is caused from the lack of healthy red blood cells. However, this vitamin is found exclusively in animal products which includes milk, eggs and cheese. Vegans can get vitamin B-12 from enriched cereals, fortified soy products or by taking a B-12 supplement. According to Reed Mangels, Ph.D., R.D., you should take a daily vitamin B12 supplement of 5-10 micrograms or a weekly vitamin B12 supplement of 2000 micrograms.
  • Iron: Iron is important because it is a main part of hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in the blood. Good sources of iron include: dried beans, peas, lentils, enriched cereals, dark leafy greens, dried fruit and whole-grain products. Something interesting that I learned from Leu is that in order to help your body absorb iron, it is crucial for one to eat foods rich in vitamin C, such as strawberries, citrus fruits, cabbage, broccoli and tomatoes.
  • Zinc: Zinc plays an important role in cell division and in the formation of proteins.According to The Vegan R.D.’s blog, the recommended daily intakes of zinc would be 16.5 milligrams for men and 12 mg for women.  Whole grains, soy products, nuts and wheat gem are good sources of zinc.
  • Omega-3: Omega-3 fatty acids are important in preventing heart diseases. While fish oil supplements are often promoted, Omega-3 fatty acids are also found in canola oil, soy, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, hempseeds and flaxseeds. I am currently taking a daily flaxseed oil supplement however, Leu advised me to switch to algal oil supplements. Algal oil is made from ocean algae, and it is the one plant source of omega-3 fatty acids that contains pre-formed DHA. Here is some interesting research on it.
Leu also advised me to take multivitamins. While I want to stress how important it is to get your daily nutritional intake from whole foods rather than vitamins, it’s understandable and even essential for one to take vitamins while they are still learning how to balance a good diet. Here, Jack Norris, R.D. writes about how he balances a good diet while making sure that he gets all the nutrition that he needs.

Make sure to follow the vegan food pyramid!

Courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/glueandglitter/2406907445/
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