I have followed a plant-based diet since 2009. As a result of my daily green smoothie habit, and switching to a plant-based, whole foods diet, I have lost 40 pounds and lowered my cholesterol by 45 points. My skin in clearer and my energy levels are through the roof.
For many people, a plant-based diet has saved their lives. This diet is associated with a lower risk of developing cancer, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and many other chronic health conditions.
The health benefits are numerous, and a lot of that has to do with the high levels of nutrients and fiber in the diet, along with low calorie-density of plant-based whole foods.
However, people often raise their eyebrow when I tell them that I don’t eat meat at every meal, or that I can get plenty of calcium without milk.
If you are new to plant-based eating, or you just want to better understand how the diet works nutritionally, then read on! I’ll talk about what nutrients you don’t need to worry about, which ones sometimes trip people up, and how to avoid nutritional deficiencies.
If you are looking for something specific, feel free to skip right to the appropriate section by clicking on one of the links below:
1 – Protein & Essential Amino Acids
2 – Calcium
3 – Iron
4 – Vitamin B12
5 – Vitamin D
6 – Zinc, Selenium, Iodine
7 – EPA/DHA Omega 3’s
8 – How To Avoid Nutrient Deficiencies on a Plant-Based Diet
9 – Is A Multivitamin Necessary?
What Is A Plant-Based Diet?
A plant-based diet is simply a way of eating that emphasizes foods sourced from plants. Plant-based may refer to a vegan or vegetarian diet, but not necessarily. I consider any diet that is largely based on plants to be plant-based.
It doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. It’s okay to supplement your diet with lean animal protein if that is what makes you feel healthier and more balanced.
“Plant-based” shouldn’t be an exclusive club. It’s open to anybody who is willing to increase healthy, whole foods in their diet.
For a comprehensive overview of what a plant-based diet is, read my beginners guide.
If you’re ready to jump into a plant-based diet, then check out my Reset 28 program that takes all the guesswork out of it.
Nutrients You Don’t Need To Worry About On A Plant-Based Diet
A whole foods, plant-based diet that meets your daily calorie requirements will provide ample amounts of vitamins A (as beta-carotene), B-complex (except for B12), C, E and K. You will also not likely need to worry about most minerals. That includes calcium, iron (for men), copper, magnesium, manganese, etc…
However, there are some common nutritional concerns that many people have in regards to a plant-based diet. So I will address them below, starting with…
Protein & Amino Acids
This is the #1 question that plant-based eaters get: “WHERE do you get your protein?”
My answer often surprises them. EVERYTHING has protein. Fruits, vegetables, brown rice, legumes, nuts, seeds – they ALL have protein. Yes, fruit has protein!
Not only that, but all whole foods contain all 9 of the essential amino acids that make up a “complete protein”. There really isn’t any such thing as an “incomplete protein”.
Sure, foods have varying amounts of amino acids. Animal sourced foods have higher amounts of certain amino acids like methionine and lysine than plant-based foods, but in a calorie-sufficient, plant-based diet, getting adequate levels of all essential amino acids isn’t hard to do.
As for “protein combining” (eating rice with beans in order to approximate the amino acid profile of meat), that is a myth that has been debunked for over 30 years.
In the 1971 book Diet For A Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé, she claimed that certain plant foods would need to be combined to make up a complete protein. By 1981, she had relaxed her position on protein combining, stating that: “In combating the myth that meat is the only way to get high-quality protein, I reinforced another myth…” 1
A 1988 position paper on vegetarian diets published by the American Dietetic Association found that there was “no basis” for protein combining, and that “complementing proteins at meals was totally unnecessary.” 2
Unfortunately, the protein combining myth just will not die, despite being publicly dismissed as unnecessary by the original proponent of the idea way back in 1981, as well as numerous medical and dietary experts since then.
How Much Protein Do You Really Need?
The average adult man needs about 56 grams per day, while the average adult female needs about 46 grams (71 grams per day if pregnant or breastfeeding). 3 These amounts will vary based on activity levels. If you are active or play sports, you may need more than the base recommendations.
The standard calculation for protein intake recommendation for sedentary adults is: 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, or 0.36 grams per pound. Active people and athletes may require twice this amount. 4
It’s pretty easy to get sufficient protein from a plant based diet. It’s not a concern for those who supplement their diet with animal-sourced foods. It’s not a concern for lacto-ovo vegetarians (vegetarians who consume milk and eggs). It’s not much of a concern for vegans who follow a whole foods diet.
Problems with protein intake occur in plant-based diets when the diet is pushed to an extreme such as in strict fruitarian diets, extremely low-calorie weight loss diets (anything under 1500 calories per day for most people), or vegan diets that are based largely on processed foods. In these circumstances, it is possible to get insufficient protein that may result in inadequate levels of the essential amino acids lysine and methionine.
Protein Sources On A Plant-Based Diet Include: Nuts, seeds, legumes, beans, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Everything has protein.
Okay, I’ve tackled protein. Let’s move on to calcium.
I haven’t had a glass of milk in well over a decade. I am not the least bit concerned about the health of my bones. The reason is that dairy is not the only source of calcium in the diet. It’s not necessarily the healthiest. In my experience, people who go dairy-free have a much easier time losing weight and keeping that weight off long term.
According to established dietary calcium intake guidelines, adults and children aged 4 and older should get 1000 milligrams of calcium each day.
There is no evidence that strictly plant-based diets require lower levels of dietary calcium (or other nutrients). While some prominent adherents to alternative diets claim that scientifically established nutrient intake guidelines are inflated, or that a cleaner diet requires lower amounts of certain nutrients, it is dangerous to reduce nutrient intake to below recommended levels over the long term.
It’s actually pretty easy to get sufficient calcium from calcium-rich fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes. Calcium fortified plant milks (such as almond milk) makes it even easier.
Coconuts for Calcium: Young Thai coconuts are rich sources of calcium with the average coconut providing 10-17% RDA (recommended daily allowance) of calcium.
Crack one open and drink the sweet, refreshing coconut water and relish the soft, crunchy coconut meat! I add coconuts to smoothies, eat them on their own or slice the coconut meat into noodles and make interesting coconut noodle dishes! The meat of young coconuts is the consistency of hard boiled egg white.
Dark leafy green vegetables are an excellent source of calcium. The most mineral-rich leafy greens are dandelion greens and kale.
- Dandelion Greens (per 2 cups – 110 grams – chopped): 206 mg (20% RDA)
- Kale (per two cups – 134 grams- chopped): 181 mg (18% RDA)
- Bok Choy/Pak Choi (per two cups – 140 grams – shredded): 147 mg (14% RDA)
- Italian Parsley (per one cup – 60 grams – chopped): 83 mg (8% RDA)
- Spinach (per two cups – 60 grams – chopped): 60 mg (6% RDA)
I make a green smoothie every morning and usually add 3 cups of these greens. A smoothie with just two cups of dandelion and one young coconut will provide as much if not more calcium than a glass of cows milk, and will provide much more nutrition, too!
Moringa Powder: Moringa leaf powder is a superfood that has exploded in popularity. As with many superfoods, its health benefits are a bit overhyped, but a typical 10-gram serving has 150 mg of calcium (15% RDA). You can add moringa powder to green smoothies, or incorporate it into recipes. Read more about the health benefits of moringa here.
Calcium In Nuts & Seeds: Just one tablespoon of whole sesame seeds has 9% RDA of calcium! Think about all the things you can do with sesame seeds and at the same time, fortify your meals with lots of calcium. Add ground sesame seeds to green smoothies, make hummus with sesame tahini, or use it in salad dressings! Add it to nut butters or find ways to incorporate them into other recipes.
Chia seeds are another excellent source of calcium. One ounce has 18% RDA of calcium! Add them to smoothies or make them into your favorite recipes.
Flax seed, while being a rich source of Omega-3 essential fatty acids, also add calcium to your diet. One tablespoon has 3% RDA so as an added benefit to getting your daily fix of Omega-3s, you’ll also help to fulfill your calcium needs
Almonds are also high in calcium with 1/4 cup providing 9% RDA.
Calcium in Non-Leafy Green Vegetables: Yep, vegetables have calcium too. Some more than others. A cucumber will give you 5% of your daily value of calcium. Both celery and carrots provide 2% per stalk or carrot.
Sprouted Legumes: Chick peas (garbanzo beans) are a rich source of both calcium and protein with just a half cup providing 11% RDA of calcium. Hummus is also a great source of calcium as it combines calcium-rich garbanzo beans with sesame tahini, which is also a good source of calcium.
Fruit As A Source Of Calcium: Did you know that citrus fruit is a source of calcium? A medium orange will have about 5% RDA while a lemon has 7%. One papaya provides 7% RDA, and a kiwifruit has about 3%. Snack on these fruits throughout the day or add them to your green smoothies!
Iron is another mineral that I am asked about frequently. Some people incorrectly assume that not eating red meat will lead to iron deficiency.
But here’s the truth. LOTS of plant-based foods provide iron. It’s possible, and very easy, to get iron from plant sources.
Iron Intake Recommendations: According to guidelines set by the Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Science in 2000, these are the iron intake guidelines for adults:
- Adult men & Post-menopausal women: 8 milligrams per day
- Adult women under age 50: 18 milligrams per day
- Adult vegan/vegetarian men: 14 milligrams per day
- Adult vegan/vegetarian women: 33 milligrams per day.
- Iron intake varies in children depending on age, as well as for women who are pregnant or nursing.
Why Are Iron Intake Guidelines Higher For Vegans & Vegetarians? The iron requirements for vegetarians and vegans are higher than they are for those on a typical diet because plant-sourced iron is less bio-available.
However, this does NOT mean that iron from plant-based foods is less beneficial. It just means that we need to eat more of the healthy, whole foods that support our overall well-being.
Iron intake is less of a concern for vegetarians who consume milk and eggs, or for plant-based dieters who supplement their diet with meat. Strict vegan men tend to have no problems getting adequate iron from a calorie-sufficient, whole foods diet.
Iron intake can be slightly more problematic for pre-menopausal women (generally, women under age 50) who follow a strict vegan diet, or who attempt to follow 100% raw vegan or fruitarian diets long term.
Since the dietary iron intake guidelines for for vegan women are so high (33 milligrams), it can be challenging to get adequate amounts if calories are reduced too low (as in an extreme weight loss regimen), or if food variety is restricted.
It’s a good idea for women to periodically track their iron intake to ensure that they are getting enough, and supplement if the need arises. It’s perfectly okay to relax certain aspects of your diet in order to boost iron intake if needed. For example, supplementing your diet with eggs, or iron-fortified foods, may be better than relying on iron pills long term.
Pro Tip: Do not calculate your iron intake based on percent daily values (%DV) that you see on most nutrition labels. These are set for 8 milligrams per day iron intake guidelines for adult, non-vegetarian men.
Many of the same calcium-rich, plant-based whole foods mentioned in the previous section are also good sources of iron.
Dark, Leafy Greens for Iron: Dark leafy green vegetables are an excellent source of iron, particularly dandelion greens and kale.
- Dandelion Greens (per 2 cups – 110 grams – chopped): 3.4 mg
- Kale (per two cups – 134 grams- chopped): 2.2 mg
- Bok Choy/Pak Choi (per two cups – 140 grams – shredded): 1.2 mg
- Italian Parsley (per one cup – 60 grams – chopped): 3.7 mg
- Spinach (per two cups – 60 grams – chopped): 1.6 mg
Moringa Powder: A 10-gram serving of moringa powder has 4 milligrams of iron. Moringa powder can be added to green smoothies.
Iron is found in just about all vegetables but fennel is especially rich with 1.7 milligrams in one bulb. One cup of chopped broccoli contains about 0.7mg. A medium-sized zucchini contains 0.7 milligrams of iron.
While no one vegetable is exceptionally rich in iron, it all adds up, contributing to your daily dietary iron intake.
Chick peas (garbanzo beans) are a good source of iron (and protein) with just a half cup providing 6.2 mg of iron! Hummus made from chick peas and sesame tahini is also a good way to get iron in a plant-based diet.
Lentils are also a good source of iron.
Iron-Rich Raw Chocolate: Certain brands of raw cacao can be high in iron. Sunfood brand is one such brand, but be sure to check labels and iron content will vary greatly depending on where it’s grown, and the variety of cacao used.
Dietary Iron in Nuts & Seeds: Sesame seeds are not only a great source of calcium per tablespoon, but they also provide 1.3 mg of iron too! Use them in smoothies, salad dressings or other recipes. A fourth of a cup of sunflower seeds provides 1.8 mg and the same amount of almonds gives you 1.3 mg.
Cashew butter is a particularly rich source of iron. Three tablespoons contains up to 1.6 mg of iron!
Strict vegans need to supplement their diets with vitamin B12. There is no way around this. There IS a lot of misinformation out there about vitamin B12 that can spell disaster. So here’s the deal:
- Plant-sourced vitamin B12 is an analog form, and not usable by our bodies. In fact, it may interfere with the absorption of usable B12 – which is a big problem if you are a strict vegan.
- Despite what you might read online, or even on supplement labels, there is NO usable vitamin B12 in sea vegetables (nori, kelp, laver), spirulina, chlorella, moringa, nutritional yeast (unless it’s been fortified with the vitamin), or any other plant-sourced food.
- It is highly unlikely that you will get adequate vitamin B12 by eating unwashed produce, or relying solely on gut bacteria somehow producing sufficient quantities if you are on a raw vegan diet.
To maintain adequate levels, eat vitamin B12 fortified foods two or three times a day to get at least three micrograms (mcg or µg) or take a daily B12 supplement that provides at least 10 micrograms.
Our bodies synthesize vitamin D through skin exposure to sunlight. However, there are some factors that may complicate your ability to get adequate vitamin D from sunlight alone.
If you wear sunblock, have darker skin, spend most of your time indoors, or live in an area where long winters prevent you from getting sun exposure, among other factors, you might need to supplement.
For a light-skinned person, 15-30 minutes of full sun exposure on the face and arms each day will typically be enough to produce sufficient Vitamin D. Darker skinned people will need more exposure. Always be careful not to allow your skin to burn.
Vegans should be aware that there are two types of vitamin D. D2 (ergocalciferol) is free from animal products while D3 (cholecalciferol) is sourced from animal ingredients. While D3 is typically regarded as a superior form of vitamin D, recent studies suggest that D2 is as effective.
You can get adequate zinc from a whole foods, plant-based diet. While this mineral is lower in plants, you can get adequate amounts from a diet that includes plenty of zinc-rich foods such as:
Sesame seeds, black currant, spinach, Swiss chard, collard greens, almonds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, sprouted whole grains, crimini mushrooms, sea vegetables, basil, thyme, summer squash, asparagus, broccoli, peas, and mustard greens.
It’s a good idea to periodically track your food intake to see how much zinc you typically get, and then make adjustments when necessary. I use the Cron-o-Meter app to check my nutrient intake.
Selenium can be tricky if foods such as Brazil nuts, sunflower seeds, or mushrooms (crimini, shiitake and some varieties of portobello) are not regularly consumed.
Brazil nuts are exceptionally rich in selenium, with just one nut providing well over 100% of your daily value of selenium.
Getting adequate iodine is not just a concern for plant-based dieters. Both plant-based dieters and omnivores alike are at risk of iodine deficiency if they do not eat iodine-rich, or iodine-fortified, foods.
In the 1920s, there was an initiative in the United States to fortify table salt with iodine to combat the prevalence of goiter (enlarged thyroid resulting from iodine deficiency). Today, iodized table salt is sold in all supermarkets, and iodine deficiency is rare.
If you do not use iodized table salt, then you should incorporate sea vegetables into your plant-based diet.
Iodine is plentiful in sea vegetables like kelp and dulse, but not found in most other foods. Just one teaspoon of dulse flakes provide more than a day’s supply of this mineral. Add to salads, soups, or other meals. (I order my dulse flakes from Amazon.com.)
Sea salt is not typically iodized, although some brands are. While an all-natural sea salt may contain trace amounts of iodine, I do not recommend relying on it solely for dietary iodine.
DHA/EPA Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids
Typically found in fish oils, these long-chain fatty acids are converted in the body from Alpha-Linolenic acid (ALA) which is found in flax seeds.
However, your body’s ability to convert ALA to DHA and then to EPA is inefficient. Long term vegans who rely solely on flaxseed or chia seeds may want to consider supplementing with a vegetarian DHA/EPA supplement. Supplementation may be more important for children or teenagers who eat vegetarian diets, or for women who are pregnant or nursing.
I have used Opti-3 brand algae oil supplements, which is a vegan-friendly alternative to fish oils. It contains oil extracted from organically grown algae which is where fish get their Omega 3s from.
How To Avoid Nutrient Deficiencies & Other Problems On A Plant-Based Diet
Get sufficient calories. The number one cause of failure on a plant-based (or any) diet is insufficient calories. I know that you’re anxious to lose weight. We ALL want to be slim and sexy now. Not in a week, or a month, or a year.
BUT – severely restricting calories sabotages your metabolism, making it more difficult (if not impossible) to lose weight or maintain weight loss. Hunger sets you up for cravings and binging.
Plus, consuming fewer than 1500 calories per day for a woman, and fewer than 1800 per day for a man, without supplementation, can lead to inadequate nutrition over the long term.
Do not eliminate fat. I like to keep my fat intake at around 15-20% of my total calories. That works great for me. I do not recommend reducing fat intake to less than 10% of total calories – particularly for women.
Do not go too extreme with your diet. It is not necessary to become a 100% raw food vegan in order to be healthy. Fruitarianism ins’t necessarily the solution for weight loss. The more strict the diet, the easier it is to get tripped up by nutritional problems.
Just keep things simple: Plant-based, whole foods, low fat.
If something doesn’t feel right or balanced, modify your diet. Never follow dietary recommendations if they just don’t feel right to you. Never accept statements from a health guru who preaches “the one true diet for humanity”. There is no such thing.
I know what works for my body. I have been following a plant-based diet since 2009 (that’s 8 years as of this writing!) You may need slightly more protein than I do. Maybe your body does better with a little more (or less) dietary fat. It’s cool. We’re all different, and so it’s okay to make changes.
Start with my recommendations, but feel free to tweak them to suit your own needs.
What About Anti-Nutrients (fructose, oxalic acid, phytates) Found In Plant-Sourced Foods?
I can sum this up in three words: Not A Concern.
Sadly, there is a LOT of alarmism in the natural health movement. Every week it seems, there is a new blog post out there extolling the health devastating effects of otherwise healthy foods such as kale, nuts, beans, whole grains, fruit, quinoa, brown rice, etc… I’m serious!
It’s crazy, and inaccurate. So please do not fall for the hyped up “this healthy food is actually destroying your health” nonsense that you encounter in the fringes of the health blogosphere.
The reality is that the so-called “anti-nutrients” in certain foods actually provide health-protecting benefits, and do not cause problems in healthy individuals.
When you are eating a plant-based, whole foods diet, it is unnecessary to worry about components of the foods you eat. You’re not eating parts of food. You’re eating whole foods, as your body was intended to.
If something you have read on a blog, or in a book, concerns you, then read more about oxalic acid (oxalates), phytates, fructose and fruit sugar, and kale’s effects on thyroid function (it has no effect unless you already have a compromised thyroid).
In short, none of the so-called “anti-nutrients” in whole foods pose any threat to healthy individuals.
Do I Need A MultiVitamin?
I’ll conclude this plant-based nutrition primer with my thoughts on multivitamins.
Multivitamins are a controversial topic. Some medical professionals recommend them, while others feel that a healthy, balanced diet will provide all of the nutrients we need.
There is research suggesting that multivitamins don’t do much for us anyway. We certainly do not need the extra beta-carotene, vitamin C, most B-vitamins, vitamins E, K, and most minerals supplied by these pills IF our diets are healthy and balanced.
Some natural health bloggers suggest that vitamin pills are unnatural or dangerous, and we know that large doses of certain vitamins can be toxic, although not in the amounts found in a typical multivitamin supplement.
Based on my research, a daily multivitamin is not dangerous, and I don’t know of any studies suggesting that they are.
A daily multivitamin is probably unnecessary for somebody following a calorie-sufficient, plant-based diet. It can be taken every day, or a few times per week for peace of mind. I see no problem with that.
A multivitamin may be necessary for people who are losing weight on a low-calorie diet. Consuming fewer than 1500 calories per day over the long term may require supplementation of certain nutrients.
If you are concerned about nutritional deficiencies, then use an app like Cron-o-Meter to track your nutrient intake, and then either modify your diet, or supplement with specific nutrients where needed.
A plant-based diet isn’t extreme. It doesn’t put you at any more risk of nutritional deficiencies than the so-called Standard Western (or American) Diet, unless you take it too far, or severely reduce calories. The typical western diet has plenty of risks – excess saturated fat, excess calories, low fiber, added sugars, to name a few.
So the next time somebody looks at your plate with bewilderment about your “lack of protein”, or can’t understand how you’ll still have a skeleton if you don’t drink milk, just smile and tell them about all of the nutrient-rich foods that you eat every single day.
1 – Lappé, Frances Moore (1981) Diet for a Small Planet, ISBN 0-345-32120-0
2 – Young VR, Pellett PL (1994). “Plant proteins in relation to human protein and amino acid nutrition”. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 59 (5 Suppl): 1203S–1212S. PMID 8172124.
3 – “Dietary reference intakes: macronutrients” (PDF). Institute of Medicine.
4 – Lemon, Peter (2000). “Beyond the Zone: Protein Needs of Active Individuals”. Journal of the American College of Nutrition. 19 (5): 513–521. doi:10.1080/07315724.2000.10718974. PMID 11023001.