The Ultimate Overview of Vegan Nutrition
Having had a merry old Veganuary and nearly being at the end of Vegruary, I have been giving some thought to the things I eat and the quantities in which I eat them.
I renewed my pledge to eat vegan at the beginning of this year after doing some very in-depth research into food sources for all the different nutrients and making sure that I knew a) How much of each nutrient I needed and b) Where I could reasonably be expected to get this from on a day to day basis. I do still struggle to get enough fat, but I generally get a lot of fruit sugar which converts to fat which should help me with the chronic underweight problem I have been struggling with for the last five years. Two months in it feels like its helping.
As a female, I need the following nutrients every day (some of these vary from time to time depending on my needs and activity levels, and the US and UK figures didn’t match most of the time either so I’ve generally gone with the US figures as they’ve sounded more reasonable for a lot of things, but in some places I either used the UK figures or went with what I know has been working for me – eg protein is 5g more than the UK Recommended Daily Allowance because that’s what I need):
50 grams of protein. This should proportionally come from specific amino acids which I’ve listed in the chart accompanying this article. I get mine from lots of lentils (which also count towards your five a day – yay, but are totally lacking in essential amino acid methionine – boo), nuts, seeds and tofu (which is actually more of a treat than a dietary staple these days). When I’m training for outdoor pursuits, I need more protein as protein = muscle. When I’m growing my hair I also need more protein as protein = hair. Protein in fact makes most of the things in the human body so you need loads of it to fix stuff and grow stuff. Protein is made of lots of amino acids, which are the things in protein that your body needs in different amounts, so it’s not enough to eat protein – it’s got to be the right sort.
70 grams of fat. This comes from oils such as coconut oil, sunflower oil and vegetable oil in the vegan diet. It can come from olive oil as well, although you shouldn’t fry with it as it requires a fairly low temperature before the molecules break down and release free radicals. Fat is where you get your essential fatty acids, however, so you do need some in order to get those, which are also called Omega 3 and 6, although you can supplement with linseed oil or flaxseed oil. UPDATE: Also nuts are good sources of fat (sorry for omission)!
90 grams of sugar (aka carbohydrates). This should mostly come from complex carbohydrates such as starchy foods like pasta, rice (GF), potatoes (GF), with extra healthy points if it’s wholegrain rice/pasta. I also like amaranth (GF), quinoa (GF), pearl barley and noodles.
18g of fibre (fiber, in American). This is easy peasy as a vegan you don’t really need to think about it (unless you’re a juicearian but I’ve made my thoughts on that very clear). All fruits and vegetables count towards this and you don’t need to faff around with All Bran or other nonsense because it’s in the plants. In fact, my dentist could tell I was vegan a few years back by the wear on my back teeth because of having such a high-fibre diet. I don’t worry at all about this one because I did track it for a while but almost everything I eat counts towards my fibre intake.
I also need the following vitamins:
Vitamin A: 700 micrograms (with an upper limit of 300 micrograms because vitamin A can cause cancer in long-term high doses).
Vitamin B complex: B1 (thiamine) 1.4 milligrams (upper limit 50 milligrams); B2 (riboflavin) 0.9 milligrams; B3 (niacin) 14 milligrams; B5 (pantothenic acid) 5 milligrams; B6 1.3 mg per day; B7 (Biotin) RDA/DV currently undecided by health organizations, should be sufficient in the average vegan diet, excessive supplements can cause unpleasant side effects such as acne, greasy hair, mood swings and water retention; B9 (folic acid) 1 milligram, although when I start trying for a baby I will need more and will supplement; B12 (cyanocobalamin) (no Daily Value or Recommended Daily Allowance established).
Vitamin C: 40 milligrams per day, no upper limit.
Vitamin D: This utterly depends, see my article on Vitamin D. I aim for 10 micrograms which is what the US dietary guidelines state, even though the UK ones say 5 micrograms is sufficient. Since I’ve increased my vitamin D intake, I have noticed a whole raft of problems such as fatigue and irritability have gone away and I’m more cheerful, energetic, and getting things done.
Vitamin E: 15 milligrams per day. I don’t worry too much about Vitamin E because my skin tells me when I need to eat more Vitamin E, by drying out. Then I crack out the avocados.
Vitamin K: 90 micrograms per day. I regularly exceed this though, and I make sure to never take Vitamin K and Vitamin E at the same time of day (I usually wait at least four hours between eating a meal with one and the other), because they fight each other for absorption and your body will preferentially absorb the Vitamin E, making you think you’ve got enough K when you haven’t.
And the following minerals:
Calcium: 700 milligrams per day. Soymilk is fortified and tofu often is too.
Copper: 2 milligrams per day. Should be easily available in the food I eat.
Iron: 18 milligrams per day because I’m female. Men only need 8 milligrams. Don’t ask me why. The NHS also says women un the UK only need 14.8mg but that just goes to explain this anaemia epidemic they keep pretending isn’t happening, so they can sell you iron supplements which are pressed with pig gelatin (EWWWW. Sidenote – the two supplements are ferrous fumarate and ferrous sulphate; ferrous fumarate are gelatinous and very non vegan and non halal and non kosher, ferrous sulphate are vegan, both can be bought over the counter at pharmacies without a prescription in the UK, they both provide the same amount of ABSORBABLE iron).
Magnesium: (this is a DIFFERENT mineral to manganese – look them up on the periodic table if you don’t believe me, Manganese is Mn in the transition metals and magnesium is Mg in group 2): 270 milligrams per day (UK) or 310 milligrams per day (US). I go for the US figure. This is easily acquired through vegan food.
Manganese: (this is a DIFFERENT mineral to magnesium – look them up on the periodic table if you don’t believe me, Manganese is Mn in the transition metals and magnesium is Mg in group 2). This is very easily acquired through vegan foods so be careful not to overdo it. I need 2 milligrams per day, but am safe up to 11 milligrams. I did look into this and found that, in spite of what the NHS website says (it says the upper limit is 4mg), there are apparently no adverse effects shown from excessive manganese and the tolerable upper limit was set artificially on flawed data from a narrow demographic and small sample size anyway, and also it’s impossible to get less than about 6mg from the vegan diet because it’s in nearly everything we eat.
Potassium: 3500 milligrams per day. Don’t overdo it. It’s the same potassium that they drop into water and that burns with a lilac flame (remember high school science??), and turns the water alkaline, so be careful. I will get an article written on the whole pH alkaline diet fad that has been circulating, but I need to look into a few more things before it will be ready.
Phosphorous: 550 milligrams per day (UK) or 1000mg (US).
There are other minerals but generally even most of the ones I’ve mentioned here will take care of themselves.
Here is my table of all the sources of these nutrients. I tried to get up to 10 sources, but where there are less, it’s usually because there are poorer sources but you’d have to eat a lot of them. For Vitamin D, the sources listed are all there are (unless you want to waste huge amounts of money on algae, which hasn’t been proven to have absorbable Vitamin D in it anyway). Remember D2 is abundant in the vegan diet, but D3 is not, the daily value doesn’t distinguish between the two.
Obviously this isn’t a complete essay on the entirety of vegan nutrition, and your mileage may vary based on age and gender, but this table is the culmination of my research in this area so far, and I thought it might provide a helpful starting point for people who are struggling or who are wondering why they are craving chocolate all the time (see the amount of nutrients in cocoa powder to find out). I will continue to research this area and write more articles on it. Happy Vegebruary!