There has never been a better time to explore plant-based eating. Once a lifestyle choice embraced by only a very few people, plant-based eating has recently hit the mainstream in a big way. Leading chefs and restaurants all around the world are creating trendy, tasty, plant-forward dishes. All kinds of plant-based food products are readily available at major grocery stores, rather than just specialty shops. Meanwhile, a growing body of research is suggesting that plant-based eating is connected to a host of benefits, from helping fight climate change to improving your overall health.
If you are thinking about adopting a plant-based diet, however, it’s important to be smart about it, particularly when it comes to nutrition. Plant-based eating can indeed have health benefits, but if you’re not careful, it can also cause you to miss out on some vital nutrients.
To avoid this problem, you’ll need to do some planning, especially at the beginning, to make sure your new diet is properly balanced. It might be easy to assume that plant-based eating simply means cutting out meat and other animal products, but to make up for the lost nutritional value from those foods, you’ll need to think just as much about what you should add to your diet as what you’re taking away.
Some nutrients that you might find yourself short of as a new plant-based eater include:
Also known as cyanocobalamin, vitamin B12 plays a vitally important role in the healthy functioning of the nervous system and the formation of red blood cells. It also helps your body manufacture DNA and is involved in heart and muscle health.
Not surprisingly, a vitamin B12 deficiency can lead to serious issues, which is something that plant-based eaters should be aware of because this critical nutrient is only found naturally in animal-based foods. People who follow a diet that includes animal protein are able to get vitamin B12 from meats (such as liver), shellfish, and finfish (including herring and sardines). If your diet is plant-based, however, you’ll need to rely on fortified products such as soy milk or breakfast cereals. You may also want to ask your doctor about boosting your vitamin B12 intake with a supplement.
Thanks to hugely successful marketing efforts like the “Got Milk?” campaign, the foods that first come to your mind when thinking about calcium are probably dairy products. But there’s no need for plant-based eaters to worry. There are plenty of ways to get all the calcium you need, and therefore to keep your bones and teeth strong and your muscles healthy, without having to drink a glass of milk or reach for a slice of cheese.
Leafy greens and other dark green vegetables—for example, kale, collard greens, broccoli, and bok choy—are rich in calcium. So are tahini (a spread made from sesame seeds), almonds and almond butter, and tofu.
It’s one thing to consume enough calcium, it’s another thing to make sure your body can actually absorb and make use of that calcium. You might not realize that most of the calcium you get from food is in an inactive form. To be converted to its active form, calcium requires the help of another nutrient: vitamin D.
Vitamin D is the secret ingredient that activates calcium, helps your body absorb it, and thus delivers all the great health outcomes associated with calcium intake. Once again, however, there aren’t too many non-animal, natural sources of vitamin D—it’s most often found in foods like eggs and fatty fish. You may need to reach for fortified products like breakfast cereals, soy milk, and fruit juices to get enough of this vitamin as a plant-based eater. You can also increase the amount of time you spend outdoors: exposure to sunlight, particularly during the summer, can often give the body all the vitamin D it needs.
Iron deficiencies are common enough even among people who eat animal proteins, so if you’re following a plant-based diet, you’ll need to be especially vigilant about your iron intake. An essential element in blood production, metabolic function, and heart health, iron is found in its most easily absorbed forms in red meat and dark poultry meat. As these foods are off the table for plant-based eaters, however, you’ll need to look elsewhere for plant-based sources of iron. Fortunately, they’re not hard to find.
Legumes (such as beans, lentils, and chickpeas), dark leafy greens, nuts and seeds, and some whole grains like quinoa and oats contain good amounts of iron. At the same time, don’t forget that your body can’t absorb the iron from these plant-based foods as easily as the iron from animal proteins. To help with plant-based iron absorption, vitamin C will do the trick, just as vitamin D does with calcium absorption. Eating good sources of vitamin C like broccoli, cabbage, spinach, or citrus fruits alongside iron-containing foods allows your body to access plant-based iron more readily.