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How can a vegan diet be healthy? Add to ...

The question

Is a vegan diet actually healthy? How can a vegan get all the nutrients they need without taking pills?

The answer

Yes, a vegan diet - one that excludes all animal products including meat, poultry, fish, dairy and eggs - can be very healthy if properly planned. Many studies suggest that vegetarians are less likely to be overweight and have a lower risk of heart disease and certain cancers.

Avoiding meat may have something to do with the observation that vegetarians enjoy good health, but it's not the whole story. A steady diet of whole grains, nuts, vegetables, fruit, beans, and soy foods is low in saturated fat and offers plenty of vitamins, minerals, protective plant chemicals, and fibre.

As a vegan, the nutrients you need to pay close attention to include protein, vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, iron and omega-3 fatty acids. While you can meet your daily requirements for many of these from foods alone, you should supplement with B12 and vitamin D.

To get adequate protein, vegans must include plant protein foods at each meal such as beans, peas, lentils, tofu, soy products, nuts and seeds.

Vitamin B12 is found naturally only in animal foods so vegetarians must include three servings of B12 in their daily diet: fortified soy or rice beverage (1/2 cup), nutritional yeast (1 tbsp), fortified breakfast cereal (30 grams), fortified soy "meat" (1.5 ounces).

Vegans should choose fortified foods and take a B12 supplement (as a separate supplement or from a multivitamin).

A vegan diet does not provide any vitamin D; you will need to take a 1000 IU daily supplement of vitamin D3.

Calcium sources which vegans rely on include fortified soy, rice and almond beverages (about 300 milligrams of calcium per 1 cup), fortified fruit juice, almonds, soybeans, tofu prepared with calcium, bok choy, broccoli, kale and figs. If you are under 50, you need 1000 milligrams of calcium each day; if you're over 50 you need 1200 milligrams.

Vegetarians have higher daily iron requirements than meat-eaters because the body absorbs iron less efficiently from plant foods than it does from animal sources. Food sources include beans, lentils, nuts, leafy green vegetables, whole grains, ready-to-eat breakfast cereals, and dried fruit. Iron absorption can be increased by eating plant foods with vitamin C-rich foods such as citrus fruit, strawberries, red pepper and tomato juice.

Vegans also need to get small amounts of omega-3 fats from plant sources such as walnuts, ground flaxseed, chia seeds, and flaxseed oil.

Send dietitian Leslie Beck your questions at dietitian@globeandmail.com. She will answer select questions, which could appear in The Globe and Mail and/or on The Globe and Mail web site. Your name will not be published if your question is chosen.

Read more Q&As from Leslie Beck.

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The content provided in The Globe and Mail's Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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