Essential Plant Based Nutrition
Sometimes people are wary of adopting a plant based, or vegan diet for fear of missing some of the nutrients found in animal products, but balanced plant based nutrition can easily provide everything needed for human health.
Most often the concern is about protein, calcium, iron, zinc, Omega 3 fatty acids, and vitamins A, B-12, and D. Ask your doctor for a blood test, if you have any doubts. Then you will know if there are any nutrients you need to increase. If you already have deficiencies, be sure to focus on foods or supplements that contain whatever you are missing.
Let’s look at each of these concerns:
Vitamins B-12 and D
Though it is possible to get some vitamin B-12 and vitamin D from animal products, most people (even meat, egg, and dairy eaters) are deficient in both of these vitamins. B-12 deficiencies are particularly common in older people who have a harder time absorbing B-12 from food. Why take a chance? These are nutrients that I would recommend for almost everyone to take in supplemental form. Also recommended: an algae-based EPA and DHA (plus zinc, vitamin C, and probiotics for those who need more support for their immune system). See more under the individual nutrients below.
Formed from beta carotene in deeply-colored fruits and vegetables, but it can be hard to absorb. When these fruits or vegetables are cooked, masticated, and/or consumed with fats, your body can create a lot more vitamin A from them. Foods with high zinc content can also help in beta carotene conversion to Vitamin A, or retinol.
Protein is so widely available in whole foods that it is almost impossible to become deficient. Unless you include lots of fractured foods in your diet, you will easily meet your protein needs on a plant based diet – even if you eat mostly fruit.
If you are concerned about protein, just include a variety of beans, whole grains, raw seeds and nuts, and leafy greens. All whole foods supply adequate amino acids. You can improve the balance by including beans with grains, nuts or seeds in your diet. (See section on amino acids below.) For more information on protein, see The Myth of Complementary Protein and Plant-Based Protein Chart.
Calcium is often less of an issue than magnesium, since so many of our foods are now fortified with calcium. There is also plenty of calcium in whole plant foods. Cows get it from leafy greens, and so can we, so there is no need to eat dairy products. In fact, dairy products contain too much phosphorus, which can actually cause calcium loss.
Too much calcium increases the need for magnesium. These two minerals must be kept in balance. Eat plenty of dark leafy greens, beans, grains, nuts, and seeds, seaweeds, and avoid calcium fortified foods, to insure that you have a good balance of these important nutrients.
Eating calcium-rich foods with acids like citrus or vinegar helps absorption. It is also important to have adequate Vitamin D to utilize calcium, as well as vitamins A and K. Caffeine, salt, and excess phosphorus can cause calcium loss. (See best sources of calcium below.)
Widely available in leafy greens, beans, lentils, whole grains, and fruit. A bit harder to absorb from plant sources, but that doesn’t mean you won’t get enough. For best absorption, combine iron-rich foods with foods high in vitamin C, acids (lemon, lime, grapefruit, vinegar), and/or fermented foods like sauerkraut. If deficient, organic Blackstrap Molasses can be a helpful supplement.
Available in beans, nuts, seeds and gluten-free oatmeal. Best absorbed from foods that have been cooked. Also when eaten with fermented foods. Soak and drain beans and grains before cooking in a fresh pot of water to help to remove the phytates that can interfere with zinc absorption. If your zinc levels are low, take an ionic zinc supplement to maintain your immune system functions.
Omega 3 fatty acids
Found in cold water ocean fish, hence the fish oil craze. However, there are good vegan sources in ground flaxseed, hempseed, and chia seeds. If you are deficient, it may be helpful to take flaxseed oil – make sure it is very fresh and use it up as fast as possible, because it quickly goes rancid. I also recommend taking an EPA, DHA supplement from algae.
Macronutrients in Whole Plant Foods
Carbohydrates, AKA Carbs – all fruits, starchy vegetables, grains, and beans provide this important fuel for energy, brain function, and building muscles. Complex, unrefined carbs should be the most abundant macronutrient in your diet.
Protein – is made from the amino acids (see bottom of this page) found in all whole foods. Eating a variety of beans, grains, seeds, nuts, and leafy greens will provide the all the amino acids you need. Raw foods can provide more amino acids than cooked foods, because some amino acids may be destroyed by heat. If you eat a variety of whole plant foods, you will easily get all the protein you need.
Fats – Omega 3 and Omega 6, from linoleic and alpha-linolenic acids, are the only fats we need to stay healthy. That is why they are called essential fatty acids. Ideally, they will be in a 1 to 1 balance, but most people get far more Omega 6 from vegetable oils, seeds, grains, and nuts.
It is important to get Omega 3 from foods like ground flaxseed, flaxseed oil, hemp seeds, and/or chia seeds to keep these two essential fats in balance. Supplementing with algae-based EPA and DHA, (forms of Omega 3) is also recommended. That is because we may not efficiently convert Omega 3 to these important forms, though adding a little coconut to flax seeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds, or flax oil can help.
Other healthy sources of non-essential fats are avocado, nuts, and seeds. For more information see Good Fats – Bad Fats.
Fiber – all whole plant foods contain plenty of fiber. As long as you stick to a whole foods plant based diet, you will get all the fiber you need. Beans, vegetables, berries, and whole grains are the best sources.
Micronutrients in Whole Plant Foods
Fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, nuts, seeds, and sprouts contain more vitamins than you could ever need, unless you are already deficient. In cases of deficiency, I highly recommend eating Hawaiian Spirulina, barley grass juice powder, sprouts (avoid alfalfa because it tends to grow molds), deeply colored vegetables, raw fruits, and/or an organic food-based vitamin supplement.
The only vitamins not found in plant foods are vitamin B-12, which is created by bacteria that we usually wash off our foods, and vitamin D, which is created by exposing skin to sunlight. Though B-12 is contained in animal products, because animals don’t wash their food, it is not easily absorbed, and even people who eat a lot of meat, eggs, and dairy can be severely deficient.
B-12 is the only supplement that I strongly recommend to everyone, because a deficiency can be so debilitating. There is no danger of overdose or negative side effects from taking more than you need. So give yourself the benefit of the doubt and take a supplement. Most people also need to take a vitamin D supplement, since few of us spend enough time with our skin exposed to the sun to create adequate levels.
Sources of Vitamins in Plant Based Nutrition
Vitamin A is made from the beta-carotene in dark leafy greens, carrots, yams, and other deeply colored fruits and vegetables – best absorbed when cooked, or blended, and eaten with a small amount of fat.
B Complex Vitamins
Vitamin B complex is abundant in all seeds, grains, beans, and especially in their sprouts. The one exception is B-12 – see list below. Here are some of the best sources of individual B vitamins. Remember, they are part of a complex, so you will never find them separately in whole foods:
- Thiamin, B-1 – brown rice, whole grains, oatmeal, beans, sunflower seeds, nuts, watermelon
- Riboflavin, B-2 – beans, whole grains, spinach, broccoli, wheat germ, mushrooms
- Niacin, B-3 – beans, brown rice, green vegetables, potatoes, tomatoes, broccoli
- Pantothenic Acid, B-5 – whole grains, legumes, mushrooms, peanuts, avocados, sunflower seeds, bananas, oranges, collard greens, potato, broccoli
- Pyridoxine, B-6 – whole grains, peanuts, nuts, beans, bananas, watermelon
- Biotin, B-7 – whole grains, breads, almonds, peanuts, molasses, legumes
- Folic Acid, B-9 – dark leafy greens, legumes, lentils, oranges, whole grains, asparagus, spinach, romaine lettuce
- Biotin – swiss chard, carrots, nuts, berries, onions, cucumbers, cauliflower
- Choline – chickpeas, lentils, broccoli, brussels sprouts, quinoa, oatmeal, bananas, oranges
- Cobalamin, B-12 – must be supplied by a supplement – VeganSafe is the one I recommend. Important Note – even heavy meat eaters are often deficient in B-12. Ideally, everyone should take a supplement. Deficiency can cause very serious health problems! Don’t worry about getting an overdose. B-12 is a water-soluble vitamin and any excess will simply be washed out of the system.
When taking B-12, hold it in your mouth, ideally under your tongue, for as long as you can. B-12 can best be absorbed directly through the sublingual (under the tongue) method.
At one time, we ate most of our produce directly from our farms or gardens without washing off the beneficial organisms responsible for creating B-12 in our gut. Now that we have modern sanitation in our food production, we are less likely to pick up salmonella or E. coli, but that also means we need another source of vitamin B-12. Take a B-12 supplement!
Abundant in all raw fruits and vegetables, and particularly high in raw sprouts.
Supplied by exposing skin to sunshine. According to statistics, most people are deficient in this vitamin. I highly recommend that you supplement with vitamin D-3, unless you spend a lot of time outdoors south of the latitude of San Francisco, CA, in the northern hemisphere. Most D-3 supplements are made from lanolin from the wool of sheep. If you prefer a vegan source try MaryRuth Organics, Gummy Vegan D-3. They are yummy!
Note – If taking a vitamin D supplement, it is recommended to also take a small amount of vitamin A, plus a K-2 supplement at the recommended dose on the bottle. Vitamin D is best absorbed when eaten with a little fat, like avocado, nuts, or seeds.
E vitamin is abundant in all seeds – i.e. nuts, seeds, grains, beans, and also in their sprouts.
Vitamin F is fat. See Fat above.
Found in green leafy vegetables, spinach, turnip greens, kale, parsley, brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, green tea, tomatoes. Vitamin K is best absorbed from foods that have been blended, juiced, cooked, or fermented, and when eaten with fats. If you take a vitamin D supplement, you should also include a vitamin K-2 and vitamin-A supplement.
Sources of Minerals in Plant Based Nutrition
Atlantic seaweeds are an excellent and balanced source of minerals. According to Anthony William, you don’t have to worry about toxins from the Atlantic ocean. Seaweeds only absorb and remove toxins from your body and do not release them. Even so, he recommends avoiding those from Pacific Ocean waters that have been affected by radiation from the Fukushima disaster.
Eating a wide variety of whole, organic, plant foods provides all the minerals you need. Here are some recommended sources for specific minerals:
- Calcium – dark green leafy vegetables, beans, sesame seeds, almonds, flax seeds, blackstrap molasses – best absorbed when eaten with acidic foods (i.e. dark leafy greens with lemon juice)
- Iron – dark green leafy vegetables, seaweeds, beans, nuts, seeds, organic blackstrap molasses, prunes and prune juice, spinach, whole grains – best absorbed when eaten with acids, fermented foods, and foods high in vitamin C
- Magnesium – green leafy vegetables, brown rice, spinach, beans, almonds, figs, broccoli, oatmeal, whole grains, bananas, peanuts, dark chocolate
- Phosphorus – beans, grains, nuts, seeds, peanuts, brown rice, avocados, spinach, most vegetables
- Potassium – raisins, spinach, potatoes, sweet potatoes, winter squash, cauliflower, avocados, kiwifruit, tomatoes, oranges, grapefruit, strawberries, melons, apricots, bananas
- Zinc – beans, pumpkin seeds, whole grains, nuts, sunflower seeds, beets and beet greens, cooked dark leafy greens, cooked onions – best absorbed when cooked and eaten with fermented foods
- Selenium – brazil nuts (no more than 4 a day or you can get too much selenium), some mushrooms (crimini & shiitake), whole grains, seeds (especially chia, sunflower, sesame & flax), asparagus, mustard seeds
- Manganese – whole grains, oatmeal, nuts, seeds, spinach, kale, black beans, almonds, avocados, pineapples, strawberries, brown rice (in moderation because of arsenic levels)
- Molybdenum – beans, grains, spinach, strawberries
- Chromium – whole grains, nuts, broccoli, apples, peanuts, spinach, mushrooms
- Copper – nuts and seeds, whole grains, dried beans, mushrooms
- Iodine – iodine-rich seaweeds, kelp, vegetables grown in iodine-rich soil
Sources of Amino Acids and Protein in Plant Based Nutrition
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Those listed below are called essential amino acids, because we have to get them from food. Your body can create all the others.
- Lysine – beans (lentils, black beans, and chickpeas are best), quinoa, amaranth, pistachios, pumpkin seeds, watercress, spirulina, parsley, avocados, almonds, cashews – Lysine is one of the least available amino acids in plant foods, so be sure to include some of the foods on this list every day!
- Tryptophan – pumpkin, potato, walnuts, cauliflower, cucumber, mushrooms, leafy greens, tomato, oats, seaweeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds, spinach, watercress, sweet potatoes, parsley, beans, beets, asparagus, mushrooms, lettuce, avocado, figs, winter squash, celery, peppers, carrots, chickpeas, onions, apples, oranges, bananas, quinoa, lentils, peas
- Isoleucine – cashews, almonds, oats, lentils, beans, brown rice, cabbage, hemp seeds, chia seeds, spinach, pumpkin, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, cranberries, quinoa, blueberries, apples, kiwis
- Leucine – seaweeds, pumpkin, peas, brown rice, sesame seeds, watercress, turnip greens, sunflower seeds, kidney beans, figs, avocados, raisins, dates, apples, blueberries, olives, bananas
- Methionine – sunflower seeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds, Brazil nuts, oats, seaweeds, figs, brown rice, beans, legumes, onions, cacao, raisins (Avoid too much methionine if fighting cancer.)
- Phenylalanine – spirulina, seaweeds, pumpkin, beans, rice, avocado, almonds, peanuts, quinoa, figs, raisins, leafy greens, most berries, olives, seeds
- Threonine – watercress, spirulina, pumpkin, leafy greens, hemp seeds, chia seeds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, almonds, avocados, figs, raisins, quinoa, sprouted grains
- Valine – beans, spinach, legumes, broccoli, sesame seeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds, peanuts, whole grains, figs, avocado, apples, sprouted grains and seeds, blueberries, cranberries, oranges, apricots
- Histidine – rice, seaweed, beans, legumes, cantaloupe, hemp seeds, chia seeds, buckwheat, potatoes, cauliflower
Three more amino acids are essential for young children:
- Arginine – pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, peanuts and walnuts, spirulina, quinoa, oats
- Cystine – seeds, nuts, oats, legumes (beans, lentils), quinoa
- Tyrosine – carob, spirulina, legumes, oats, peanuts, spinach, watercress
Glutathione – is an anti-aging antioxidant compound containing three amino acids, glutamate, cysteine and glycine. Found in asparagus, potatoes, peppers, carrots, onion, broccoli, avocados, squash, spinach, garlic, tomatoes, grapefruit, apples, oranges, peaches, bananas, and melon. Include these foods to boost your plant based nutrition even more!
More information on protein and amino acids in a vegan diet – http://www.veganrecipes.com/blog/vegan/how-vegans-can-absorb-more-protein-from-beans-grains-nuts-and-seeds/
Sceintific overview of amino acids in plant foods – http://veganhealth.org/articles/protein#lys
Now Let’s Take a Look at Recommended Vegan Nutritional Supplements
You may also want to visit:
http://veganhealth.org for more information on plant based nutrition.
https://selfhacked.com/blog/the-truth-about-igf-1-top-10-benefits-and-potential-drawbacks/ – Weight control information
Need a Plant Based Doctor?
If you are seriously ill, or you just want to get your blood tested by someone who knows what to look for, check out this list of doctors. They understand plant based nutrition, so they are more likely to find a way to help you heal – https://www.plantbaseddoctors.org/find