Recently, a Pakistani vegan asked me about some of the nutrients that are difficult to obtain through a vegan diet. Why would the nutritional needs of a vegan be difficult to meet in Pakistan? Well, she pointed out to me that many things that other vegans recommend are difficult to get hold of in Pakistan.
A search on Happy Cow revealed that there is only one vegan delivery place in Pakistan, one vegetarian restaurant, and a few places with vegan options. That’s all. No health food stores, let alone all-vegan shops. Of course, Pakistan is not the only country lacking a vegan infrastructure. This means that many suggestions on popular Western vegan websites are not feasible for the majority of the world. Yes, fruits and vegetables are available in any country. But some things that vegans in Western countries take for granted are not available in less privileged countries.
How Do the Nutritional Needs of a Vegan Differ From a Non-Vegan?
The nutritional needs of a vegan differ a bit from non-vegans. That’s because the following nutrients can be difficult to get from a vegan diet:
- Vitamin B12
- Omega 3
- Vitamin B2/Riboflavin
- Vitamin D
Vitamin B12 and the Nutritional Needs of a Vegan
The biggest concern for vegans is the possibility of a B12 deficiency. Vitamin B12 is the only vitamin that is not present in plant products. It is necessary for the nervous system, so a deficiency can have very serious effects. That is why it is important to either consume fortified vegan products or take a B12 supplement.
Many plant milks are fortified with B12. Nutritional yeast is another source that can help with the intake of B12. But back to Pakistan where it might not be easy to purchase something like plant milk and nutritional yeast. In that case, the best option would be a B12 supplement.
There are several vegan B12 supplements on the market, such as Terranova, my personal favorite. Terranova’s supplements only contain active ingredients without any fillers or additives, and their entire range is vegan. They are a bit on the pricier side, but you get what you pay for.
If your local pharmacy doesn’t stock vegan supplements ask them if they can import them for you. If that’s not possible try ordering online, but make sure you get the original product.
Vegan Omega 3
Omega 3 is another nutrient that can be low in vegan diets. You can obtain it from oils and seeds. But the most important vegan source of omega 3 fatty acids is seaweed.
However, omega 3 fatty acids are complicated. Only the DHA type can be transported to the brain, and for this the only vegan source is seaweed. The other sources contain ALA which needs to be converted by the body into DHA. This happens at a very low rate, so make sure to have a high intake of vegan omega 3 sources. If you worry that you might be deficient in DHA, you should look for an omega 3 supplement. Again, I would suggest a Terranova product. Their Life Drink contains chlorella and spirulina which are both seaweeds that contain DHA. It also contains an omega 3-6-9 blend with a good amount of ALA. Remember that this will partially be converted into much-needed DHA.
Be aware that omega 6 slows down the conversion of ALA to DHA. But in general, DHA deficiency in vegans is not as likely as the media often suggests.
Vegan Forms of Calcium
Calcium is far less difficult to obtain from a vegan diet. Almonds, hazelnuts, and many greens (especially kale) contain large quantities. And there are several plant milks that are fortified with calcium. Dark leafy greens are generally excellent as they also help to provide enough iron and vitamin B2 (riboflavin).
Overall, in order to make sure you meet the nutritional needs of a vegan (including iodine, choline, and zinc, which I have not listed separately), you should focus on the following foods:
- seaweed (for example, wakame)
- nuts and seeds as well as their oils (almonds, peanuts, hazelnuts, walnuts, pistachios, chia seeds, flax seeds, hemp seeds, or sesame)
- legumes (in particular, kidney beans)
- fruit (especially, figs, avocados, and bananas)
- grains (such as quinoa, brown rice, wild rice, or oats)
- vegetables (okra, broccoli, cauliflower, and more)
- greens (for example, kale and spinach)
- fortified foods (particularly, nutritional yeast and plant milk)
Vitamin D Doesn’t Come From Nutrition
Vitamin D is a tricky nutrient, even for non-vegans. The quantities that we can get from food are not enough to cover our daily needs. So the most reliable source of vitamin D is direct sunlight. In warmer climates, this is not difficult to achieve. You simply have to expose a significant portion of your skin to direct sunlight for at least 20 minutes daily. But in the winter we cover most of our skin so it’s much more difficult to absorb enough vitamin D.
An awful lot has been said about the risks of direct exposure to the sun. But we forget that human life depends on the sun. I am not suggesting you hit the beach at noon without sunscreen after not having been in the sun for half a year. However, in recent years many people have been so afraid of the sun that they are not getting enough vitamin D. This is not only a vegan concern and shouldn’t be forgotten by vegans either.
Finally, contrary to what many people think, it’s not difficult to obtain enough protein from a vegan diet. Most people in the Western world actually consume too much protein, so less is more.
Summing up the Nutritional Needs of a Vegan
Don’t be discouraged by a vegan diet simply because some nutrients are harder to get on a vegan diet. Remember that most animals that meat-eaters consume have to get their nutrients from a plant-based diet as well. There is no reason you can’t do the same. You simply have to familiarize yourself with the nutritional needs of a vegan and buy the correct foods.
If you have any favorites as far as supplements go please post them in the comments, especially if they are available in non-Western countries.