Have a client who wants to go vegan? Great!
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, appropriately planned vegetarian and vegan diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits and prevent certain diseases. Plant-based diets are safe and appropriate for all stages of life, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, and older adulthood—and for athletes. But there are some nutrient considerations you need to review with clients to make sure their diets are appropriately planned so they can thrive on plants.
It’s important to balance a plant-based diet (and all diets actually) to ensure clients get enough of all the vital nutrients. Here are some nutrients to consider on a strict vegetarian or vegan diet:
• Vitamin B12: Any vegetarian or pescetarian who eats dairy, eggs, or fish regularly likely is getting enough B12 from their diet. Vegans, who avoid all animal-based foods, need to supplement with B12. If they don’t, they could experience megaloblastic anemia. Some foods such as nutritional yeast are fortified with B12, but the most reliable way to get it is through supplementing. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for B12 is 2.4 mcg daily, but higher doses are recommended for vegans when supplementing. Twenty-five to 100 mcg is recommended if taken each day or 1,000 mcg can be taken twice per week instead.
• Calcium: There are rich sources of calcium in plant foods including leafy greens such as bok choy, broccoli, kale, and collards, as well as beans. Many products are fortified as well; for example, plant-based nondairy beverages and some orange juice brands are fortified with calcium. Tofu is a good source if it’s made with calcium sulfate.
• Iron: Plant foods are packed with nonheme iron, so vegetarians and vegans do need to consume a bit more than the RDA (1.8 times more to be exact). Legumes, dried fruit, whole grains, and enriched products are great sources of plant-based iron. Remember that vitamin C-rich foods enhance absorption, so include vegetables and/or fruits such as broccoli, citrus fruits, berries, tomatoes, or bell peppers to iron-containing foods.
• Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Though walnuts and flax, chia and hemp seeds contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which can be converted in the body to essential fatty acids EPA and DHA, the rate of conversion is unknown in each person. If a vegetarian or vegan doesn’t consume omega-3-fortified eggs or seafood such as salmon, both of which are natural sources of essential fatty acids, supplements that contain EPA and/or DHA from algal oil may be best to meet needs.
• Protein: Plant foods are packed with protein, and vegans need to be sure to include them at each meal and snack. Include beans, lentils, tofu and other soyfoods, nuts, and seeds to easily meet needs. Whole grains and some veggies offer protein as well. Even athletes and people with higher protein needs can thrive on a vegan diet. And remember, there’s no need to combine different types of protein to meet requirements—that’s an old myth.
• Vitamin D: Did you know that most vitamin D3 supplements aren’t vegan because they’re lanolin derived? Clients can get vitamin D in the diet by drinking fortified nondairy milk alternatives or juice or choosing mushrooms that contain vitamin D (they will be marked as such). Vegans can supplement with vitamin D2, which is made from yeast, or purchase vitamin D3 supplements derived from lichen (suggest they read labels carefully).
• Zinc: Meat and seafood aren’t the only zinc-containing foods. Nuts, seeds, whole grains, soyfoods, and beans are all good sources of zinc as well, so clients can include these foods daily to meet their requirements. Bonus: Toasting nuts and seeds may improve the absorption of zinc from these foods.
The bottom line is your clients can experience improved health and wellness as well as a delicious and plentiful diet if they decide to choose a vegetarian or vegan eating pattern. Just as with a nonvegetarian diet, dietitians can help these clients plan and balance their meals to meet their needs and supplement when necessary.
Come visit me at Champagne Nutrition www.champagnenutrition.com, where I talk about a healthful on-the-go lifestyle and provide lots of easy vegetarian and vegan recipes.
— Ginger Hultin, MS, RDN, CSO, is a nutrition and health writer and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She’s a board-certified specialist in oncology nutrition and holds a bachelor’s degree in English and master’s degree in nutrition. She currently works at Arivale, a scientific wellness company, as an RD coach and as an adjunct clinical faculty member at Bastyr University. Ginger serves as past chair of the Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group and past president of the Chicago Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She has given lectures on nutrition for continuing education credits in Seattle and for Chicago-area dietetic associations and webinars for dietetic practice groups.