Jul. 18. 2018
Written By:
McKel (Hill) Kooienga
McKel Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN

McKel Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN

Founder of NS and Creator of The Method

When you’re eating a plant-based diet, it’s important to pay attention to certain nutrients in your meals.

Our core food philosophy is to eat a plant-centric diet, which to us, means focusing on whole foods and mostly (you guessed it!) plants. It’s important to choose the foods you enjoy eating and that fuel your body for a happy, healthy life. If that means going completely animal product-free, that’s great — it’s really a matter of what works best for your body and eating in a way that’s smart, nourishes you, and covers all your nutrient needs.

When switching to a plant-based lifestyle (or even if you’ve been following it for awhile), you’ll want to pay extra attention to a few key nutrients you could potentially miss and ones that I see most often lacking in my clients’ diets. Here, I explain what those nutrients are, why they’re important, and where you can get them.

Must-Have Nutrients for Plant-Based Eating

1. Protein In Plant-based Diets

You need protein for everyday living — it helps maintain bone, skin, and muscles. It’s also especially important for people looking to build muscle or plant-based eaters who are also very active. While you don’t need meat to get enough protein since there are great sources of plant-based proteins available to you, you do have to make sure you’re aiming for quality sources and enough of them.

There used to be a push toward combining foods to make sure you get all the essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein) in one meal, but research has shown us that’s old news and it’s more important to eat a variety of foods with different amino acids which our body will use. Just keep in mind to eat a diverse range of protein-rich (and still plant-based) foods. If you do that, you’ll likely meet your needs. (1)

Some of the top and most popular protein foods include beans, lentils, seeds, and nuts. Check out a full list of the top 10 plant-based protein sources, and just make sure you mix it up. You can also find protein-rich recipes here and here.

2. Iron In Plant-based Diets

We all need iron, regardless if you eat a plant-based diet or not! Your body needs iron to make hemoglobin, which carries oxygen throughout the body. The tricky thing about this nutrient in plant-based eating is that it’s sometimes hard to absorb, and some foods can actually block your body’s absorption. These foods include polyphenols tannin, found in coffee or tea, and phytates, which are found in whole grains and legumes.

The trick is to eat iron-rich foods — like whole grains, nuts, seeds, fortified foods, and green veggies — along with some vitamin C, found in things like red bell peppers, oranges, or grapefruit. Because of the possibility for malabsorption, it’s best to get lots of iron from many sources and do not take any calcium supplements around the time of an iron-rich meal, calcium competes with iron and may hinder its absorption.

For example, a cup of cooked spinach yields 245 milligrams of calcium and about six milligrams of iron. Try it in a dish like this one bowl skillet meal and add a cup of cooked black beans to add another nearly four milligrams of iron to the dish, with a squeeze of fresh lemon (hello vitamin C), and even better if you sprinkle some nutritional yeast on it which is loaded with B vitamins and protein!

For your daily goal, aim for a total of 14 milligrams of iron if you’re a male and 33 milligrams if you’re a female, as women are at higher risk for low iron levels (1). Of course, these are just general recommendations, my clients sometimes have higher or lower needs depending on their unique body and health goals — always chat with your dietitian about what you need!

3. Zinc In Plant-based Diets

Zinc helps your cells grow and repair, plays a role in thyroid health, skin health, and aids in protein metabolism, so basically you need it for everyday function. It also helps with immune function, wound healing, and DNA synthesis (6). Like iron, the body can have trouble absorbing zinc, particularly in a plant-based diet or if you have unique digestive issues that make it more difficult for your body to absorb zinc. This is especially true when eating certain legumes and whole grains, which contain phytates that block absorption.

When going fully plant-based, try to get about 17 milligrams of zinc for males and 12 milligrams for females (1) — as you need more when you’re not eating meat. The highest plant sources include (6):

  • baked beans (2.9 milligrams per serving)
  • cashews (1.6 milligrams per serving)
  • chickpeas (1.3 milligrams per serving)
  • oatmeal (1.1 milligrams per serving)
  • hemp seeds (3 milligrams per serving)
  • pumpkin seeds (2 milligrams per serving)

I personally love adding hemp seeds to cereal and smoothies, as well as soups or dips. A few cooking techniques will help improve the absorption of zinc, including soaking beans in water for a few hours and letting them sit until sprouts form. Also, if pairing with grains, opt for leavened ones, like whole grain bread rather than something like crackers (6).

4. Vitamin D In Plant-based Diets

You need vitamin D to absorb calcium and therefore, promote bone health. It also plays a role in intestinal, immune, and cardiovascular systems, as well as the health of the pancreas, muscles, brain, and cell cycles (3).

About 50% of the population has a vitamin D deficiency (3), so it’s crucial to pay attention to how much you’re getting. Spending plenty of time in the great outdoors will likely help you get your fill of vitamin D. Research says to aim for about 10 to 20 minutes in the spring and summer, but in the winter you’d need about two hours (4). That can be difficult to get, which means turning to foods or a supplement is necessary. If the sunshine isn’t working in your favor, add vitamin D to your meals. Most vitamin D sources come from animals (namely, fish), but you can also find it in fortified cereals and plant-based milk.

Talk to your dietitian or doctor if you think you might lack vitamin D, as many people do require a supplement during the winter seasons or throughout the year. The recommended daily dosage is 600 IU for people ages 1 to 70, with people over that age requiring 800 and younger, 400 (5).

5. Calcium In Plant-based Diets

You might already know that calcium helps protect your bones, but it also helps with nerve and cell signaling, the dilation of blood vessels, and muscle function (7). Adults need 1,000 to 1,200 milligrams per day, in general.

You probably also remember hearing that you need to drink your (dairy) milk to protect your bones, which is partially true. However, you can still get calcium from veggie-forward foods — you just need some vitamin D for your body to absorb it, as I mentioned above. That’s why you’ll sometimes find low levels in people that eat mostly plants and get limited sun exposure.

Keep in mind many veggies come high in calcium, including collard greens, bok choy, and kale. In other words: make sure you are incorporating greens into your meals. One of my favorite kale recipes is this caesar nori wrap. Another good calcium-rich source is tofu (when made with calcium sulfate, it can contain up to 253 milligrams of calcium in one serving). Try this tofu scramble to get your fill.

6. Vitamin B12 In Plant-based Diets

Vitamin B12 is important for producing DNA, and is essential for red blood cell formation and cell metabolism. However, this can be a tricky micronutrient to consume on an animal-free diet. In fact, one study found that about half of vegans are B12 deficient (2). That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to get enough of the nutrient, though. The goal intake amount for adults: 2.4 micrograms (8).

You can still get B12 from fortified foods — in fact, the National Institutes for Health recommend having fortified cereal to hit the right dosage — but one of my favorite ingredients featuring calcium is nutritional yeast. Nutritional yeast has a powder or flake-like consistency, a cheesy flavor, and contains 40 milligrams of calcium in a 1/4 cup. I love sprinkling it on top of salads or beans. Check out this cashew cheese recipe that also features the ingredient.

Also, most almond milk or non-dairy food items like milk, yogurt, cereal, etc. are fortified to include vitamin B12. Most of the time when I have a client who is practicing a vegan lifestyle, I recommend a dedicated B12 supplement to ensure maintenance and high-quality source, since it’s difficult to get enough being fully vegan. It is important to check your B12 levels and ask your doctor if you need a supplement because so many people are deficient. A simple blood test will tell you if you need more.

Let’s Chat!

Do you follow a plant-based diet? What are your favorite things to eat? I’d love to keep the conversation going on your go-to meals, especially ones with these nutrients, so share below. You can also post on social using #nutritionstripped.

  1. David Rogerson. (2017.) Vegan diets: practical advice for athletes and exercisers.
  2. Gilsing AM, Crowe FL, Lloyd-Wright Z, Sanders TA, Appleby PN, Allen NE, Key TJ. (2010, September.) Serum concentrations of vitamin B12 and folate in British male omnivores, vegetarians and vegans: results from a cross-sectional analysis of the EPIC-Oxford cohort study.
  3. Nair, R., & Maseeh, A. (2012). Vitamin d: the sunshine vitamin.
  4. Maria-Antonia Serrano, Javier Cañada, Juan Carlos Moreno, Gonzalo Gurrea. (2017, March.) Solar ultraviolet doses and vitamin D in a northern mid-latitude.
  5. Vitamin D Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. National Institutes of Health.
  6. Zinc Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. National Institutes of Health.
  7. Calcium Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. National Institutes of Health.
  8. Vitamin B12 Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. National Institutes of Health.