Vegetarian and vegan eating patterns are an excellent approach to improving energy, balancing mood, managing weight, and preventing illness. Although a vegan diet may not be the best for everyone, there are countless benefits to limiting our intake of animal products — for our bodies, the environment, and animal welfare. A lot of good can be done by following a diet with the majority of foods being a rainbow of raw, soaked, sprouted, or cooked plant foods.
Simply eliminating animal products from your grocery list is not that same as having a great eating pattern. First, to enjoy a plant-based diet, it helps to know how to make and where to buy delicious and satisfying foods. It’s not cool to just eat pasta with broccoli every night. Second, getting certain nutrients may not be possible from foods alone, and supplementation may be needed to prevent nutrition-related conditions like osteoporosis, anemia, major mood disorders (especially if there is family history or genetic predisposition to mental health issues), cognitive decline and dementia, and chronic joint pain and arthritis.
Whether you are thinking of going vegan, vegetarian, or plant-based (mostly vegetarian but with select animal food when desired), here is a quick list of key nutrients and their food sources for a balanced diet:
- Protein (Animal sources: All animal foods. Vegan sources: Soy, tempeh, and soy-derived products, mycoprotein or Quorn, whole grains including buckwheat, amaranth, and kamut, beans, legumes, nuts and nut butters, seeds including chia and quinoa, dark green vegetables, spirulina, and nutritional yeast.)
- B-12 (Animal sources: Mackerel, sardines, salmon, crab, eggs, yogurt, Swiss cheese, milk. Vegan sources: Fortified cereal, fortified soy products, fortified rice beverages, B12 supplement)
- Iron (Animal sources: Red meat, seafood. Vegan sources: Blackstrap molasses, tofu, beans, legumes, dark green leafy vegetables especially spinach, dried fruits like raisins and apricots, peas, seeds like pumpkin and sesame, wheat germ, iron-fortified cereals, breads, and pastas.)
- Calcium (Animal sources: Milk, yogurt, kefir, cheese, sardines with bones, salmon, trout. Vegan sources: Dark green vegetables especially kale, bok choy, turnip greens, and broccoli, blackstrap molasses, okra, tofu, almonds, sesame seeds, seaweed, soybeans, white beans, oranges, sweet potato, squash, dried figs, fortified foods like orange juice, non-dairy milk, and cereals.)
- Vitamin D (Animal sources: fatty fish, beef liver, cheese, egg yolks. Vegan sources: Sunlight, supplements.)
- Zinc (Animal sources: Red meat, shellfish, poultry, eggs, cheese, yogurt. Vegan sources: Soy products like milk and edamame, beans and legumes, nuts, seeds, mushrooms, sprouted whole grains, oats, and wheat germ.)
- Omega-3 fatty acids (Animal sources (providing DHA and EPA): Fatty fish like mackerel, wild-caught salmon, tuna, herring, anchovies, and trout, fish oil, and egg yolks. Vegan sources (providing ALA): Flaxseed, walnuts, chia and hemp seeds, nut/seed oils, soybeans, tofu, natto.)
- B2 aka Riboflavin (Animal sources: Liver, meat, poultry, clams, salmon, milk, yogurt, eggs. Vegan sources: Fortified grains and cereals, tofu, tempeh, edamame, mushrooms, dark green vegetables, almonds, sweet potatoes, winter squash, green peas, sun-dried tomatoes.)
- B6 aka Pyridoxine (Animal sources: Fish, liver, tuna, turkey, chicken, lean pork. Vegan sources: Pistachios, sweet potatoes and potatoes, sunflower seeds, dried fruit, bananas, avocados, spinach, rice bran.)