Here are some key nutrients vegans and plant-based eaters alike need to consider when planning smart healthy diets for themselves and their families. These nutrients are especially important if you are excluding all forms of animal-based protein from the foods that you eat. In Part 1, protein, calcium and vitamin D are highlighted. Knowing the roles these nutrients play in your body and ways to maintain adequate intake in your diet will help you (and your family) stay nourished optimally and thrive plantifully!
Some of the misconceptions regarding vegan and plant-based diets are that plant sources of foods are low in protein, that plant protein is incomplete (or inferior) and that plant foods need to be paired for completeness. In actuality this is not the case. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Position Paper on Vegetarian Diets, “Vegetarian, including vegan, diets typically meet or exceed recommended protein intakes, when caloric intakes are adequate” and that “protein from a variety of plant foods, eaten during the course of a day, supplies enough of all indispensable (essential) amino acids when caloric requirements are met.” There are plenty of high protein and nutrient rich plant foods sources readily available, and these just need to be consumed regularly. Examples are legumes such as soybeans and soy products, peanuts, dried beans, dried peas, chickpeas and lentils, as well as fresh peas and beans.
We all know calcium is important. It is a mineral used in the body to support the structure of bones and teeth, as well as a host of vital metabolic functions in the body. For example, calcium is used to help blood vessels function properly, in nerve and cell signaling, in muscle function and in hormone secretion. Have you heard of the mantra ‘3 glasses of milk’ a day growing up? Well, the same still holds true if you are on a plant-based or vegan diet. A good rule of thumb for children and adults is to aim for a daily minimum intake of 3 good servings of calcium rich plant-based or fortified foods. In doing so, ensure that at least two of these servings come from a calcium fortified plant-based milk to aid in meeting daily calcium and vitamin D needs. For toddlers and children, calcium and vitamin D fortified soy milk is recommended over the other plant-based milks (for reasons why, refer to these articles Can My 12 To 23-Month-Old Toddler Drink Plant-Based Milks? and Plant-Based Milk Recommendations For Vegan Children 2 Years & Older). Some examples of serving sizes would be half a cup of a calcium-fortified tofu (70 grams), half a cup of almonds (75 grams) or an 8 ounce cup (240 mL) of a calcium fortified plant-based milk. Other good sources include certain vegetables like bok choy, broccoli and kale, calcium fortified orange juice and edamame beans. One easy way to add in the calcium and vitamin D is to use calcium and vitamin D fortified plant-based milks in cold cereals, and when making hot items like oatmeal, cream of wheat, farina, and couscous. Don’t forget, regular weight-bearing physical activity is also just as important for building strong healthy bones!
As a fat-soluble vitamin, vitamin D is an important bone nutrient helping with calcium absorption from the gut and plays a role in bone growth and remodeling. However, vitamin D is also key in the body in terms of cell growth and gene activation, neuromuscular and immune function and in the reduction of inflammation. The good news is that our bodies can manufacture the vitamin D precursor needed through exposure to sunlight. The bad news? Well, many live in high latitudes and the current modern lifestyles of staying covered up with sun block and being mainly indoors negatively impact vitamin D synthesis. Worse still, not that many foods come naturally high in vitamin D.
Thankfully, nowadays there are many plant-based products available that are fortified in both calcium and vitamin D such as fortified plant-based milks like almond, soy, cashew, hemp, coconut and rice milks, calcium and vitamin D fortified juices, as well as some fortified breakfast cereals. Mushrooms contain vitamin D in varying amounts depending on their production. What about vitamin D supplements? The Institute of Medicine (IOM) and the American Academy of Pediatrics both encourage an Adequate Intake of 400 International Units (IU) for infants 12 months and under. This would mean a 400 IU daily vitamin supplement for breastfed and partially breastfed infants until the child is weaned to drinking at least one liter of vitamin D-fortified infant formula or cow milk a day (remember that most authorities only recommend cow’s milk to be given to children over a year old). For children over a year old until 18 years of age, 600 IU of vitamin D is the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA).
Canada’s Food Guide also recommends babies under a year old receive 400 IU of vitamin D daily from a supplement. For children between 1 and 18 years of age, the recommendations are also 600 IU of vitamin D daily (400 IU vitamin D from a supplement and 200 IU vitamin D from food). So overall, sources of vitamin D for children and adults would come from sunlight, natural dietary sources of vitamin D and fortified foods with vitamin D, as well as vitamin D supplements.
Alberta Health Services. Vitamin D for Babies and Children. June 2013. https://myhealth.alberta.ca/Alberta/AlbertaDocuments/vitamin-d-for-babies-and-children.pdf. Accessed May 1, 2018.
Golden NH, Abrams SA, Committee on Nutrition. Optimizing bone health in children and adolescents. Pediatrics Oct 2014, 134 (4) e1229-e1243; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2014-2173. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/134/4/e1229..info. Accessed May 1, 2018.
Government of Canada. Vitamin D and Calcium: Updated Dietary Reference Intakes. Modified March 22, 2012. https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/food-nutrition/healthy-eating/vitamins-minerals/vitamin-calcium-updated-dietary-reference-intakes-nutrition.html. Accessed May 1, 2018.)
Mangels, R. Strategies for working with vegetarian infants, children and adolescents. Building Block for Life. PNPG vol 28 (2), 2005.
Melina, V, Craig W, Levin S. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2016;116:1970-1980. Link to article. Accessed May 1, 2018.)