Dear Dietitian – What is included in a healthy vegan diet?

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Published Thursday, February 11, 2021
PICT Leanne McCrate Dear Dietitian
by Leanne McCrate, RDN, LD, CNSC

Dear Dietitian,

My daughter, who is 18, recently changed from a vegetarian to a vegan diet. When she was eating mostly vegetarian, she did eat chicken for protein.  But everything else she ate was considered junk food - chips, candy, sodas. Now that she is vegan, she is still not eating nearly enough vegetables or protein to maintain good health. I have tried to help with this by giving her a daily multivitamin, and she has been taking iron supplements because she was told she was low in iron. 

I would like to know what is considered a healthy vegan diet and what a vegan should be eating on a daily basis to remain healthy and not become malnourished.  

Renee

Dear Renee, 

With a little extra planning, a vegan diet can easily provide adequate protein and calories to maintain health. The requirements for a healthy vegan diet are the same as a regular diet, but of course, the meat is replaced with plant proteins. For those who aren't familiar with a vegan diet, it is comprised entirely of plant foods. There are no meats, fish, or animal products, such as milk or eggs. 

Our bodies need about 1 gram of protein per kilogram body weight. For a 150-pound woman, that amounts to about 70 grams of protein per day. Some vegan sources of protein are peanut or almond butter, beans, legumes, and soy. There are even burgers made with plant protein in today's market, but pay close attention to the saturated fat content.

There are some vitamins and minerals to be concerned about on a strict vegan diet. The first is calcium. An eighteen-year-old woman needs 1000 mg of calcium per day. This amount can be easily obtained in fortified almond, soy, or rice milk.  Most of these products are also fortified with vitamin D, which helps the body absorb calcium. Vegetable sources of calcium include broccoli, kale, and tofu. Still, it is not advised to rely only on vegetables, as the volume needed to attain calcium goals is difficult to reach. Go with a supplement or fortified plant milk.

Vitamin B12 is only found naturally in animal products. The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) is 2.4 micrograms per day. A B12 deficiency may lead to neurological problems. Some cereals are fortified with this vitamin, and the multivitamin should contain it, too. 

Another mineral of importance is iron. There are two types of iron, heme and non-heme. Heme iron is found in red meat and pork, whereas non-heme is found in plants. Heme iron is better absorbed by the body. Plant sources of iron include spinach, nuts and seeds, and beans. Premenopausal women need 18 mg of iron each day, and as you stated, your daughter is taking an iron supplement. Vitamin C aids in iron absorption.

You mention your concern about your daughter's consumption of junk food. At this age, she has to choose to eat healthfully. There are some things you can do to help, but you may need to tread lightly. Prepare healthy snacks and be sure they are readily available. A fruit bowl in the kitchen, nuts, and hummus with pita chips are healthy, satisfying snacks. Prepare a tasty vegan meal: pasta with sauteed vegetables and roasted pine nuts, bread, and sorbet for dessert. You may add cheese for the non-vegans at the table.

The bottom line is your little girl is now a grown-up (almost), and she has to learn to make healthy choices for herself.

Until next time, be healthy!

Dear Dietitian

Leanne McCrate, RDN, LD, CNSC, is an award-winning dietitian based in St. Louis, Missouri. Her mission is to educate consumers on sound, scientifically-based nutrition. Do you have a nutrition question? Email her today at deardietitian411@gmail.com. Dear Dietitian does not endorse any products, health programs, or diet plans.

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