A Guide to Vegan Nutrition: How to Get the Nutrients You Need to Stay Healthy

If you're looking to try a vegan diet, read this guide first.

guide to vegan nutrition

Explainer Health Nutrition

Words by

A well-planned vegan diet is not only good for the human body, but good for the planet and billions of farmed animals. Here’s what you need to know to ensure your vegan diet is also a healthful one.

What Is a Vegan Diet?

Following a vegan diet means you avoid consuming anything directly or indirectly sourced from an animal. While the term “veganism” was coined in the 1940s, the concept has existed for centuries. Some ancient Greeks practiced a diet that included abstinence from consuming beings with a soul, while some religions like Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism have also long followed plant-based diets on ethical grounds.

Over the last decade, vegan diets have become increasingly popular, though the percentage of the population who identify as vegan remains fairly small. There are an estimated 79 million vegans worldwide, which includes approximately 4 percent of the U.S. population.

The plant-based food industry experienced a surge in sales in recent years. Plant-based food sales grew faster than overall food sales in 2021 and the vegan food market grew by over $1 billion from 2020 to 2021. A recent study by Faunalytics found that choosing a vegan diet is now more common than opting for a vegetarian diet, while another study found an increase in vegetarian and vegan orders and decreased meat sales over a five year time period on one college campus restaurant.

Why Do People Go Vegan?

A recent study conducted by Faunalytics found that the motivations for becoming a vegan most commonly cited in the U.S. are health benefits, animal protection and environmental impact. Of all respondents, 42 percent were motivated by health, 20 percent by animal protection and 18 percent by concerns about the environment. The study found that ethical vegans tend to stick with their diet longer than those motivated by health concerns, but all respondents are more likely to stick with a vegan diet when it is self-directed, as opposed to externally motivated. Finally, though there are a myriad of reasons for going vegan, new vegans were more likely to stick with their diets when they are exposed to animal advocacy of some kind, whether or not animal protection and welfare were their primary motivations for going vegan. 

Vegan for Health Reasons

Many vegans choose a plant-based diet for the health benefits. These benefits can include decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, high cholesterol, diabetes and even some forms of cancer.

While a vegan diet is not always synonymous with a healthy diet, vegans can opt for healthful and nutritious foods to ensure they are getting the health benefits of a plant-rich diet, including whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes, and minimize intake of ultra-processed vegan junk food. Eliminating animal products from one’s diet can result in an overall reduction of saturated fats and sodium, which can also help you maintain a healthy weight.

Vegan for Environmental Reasons

Another benefit of a vegan diet is a decreased carbon footprint. One of the primary detrimental effects of factory farmed meat is methane gas pollution, in addition to land use changes and deforestation, as well as air and water pollution. Because of these many negative impacts, more environmentalists are starting to opt for a vegan diet, or at least a more plant-rich one.

In the past year, the BBC conducted an experiment tracking emissions of people following vegan, vegetarian and omnivorous diets, and found that the weekly carbon emissions associated with a vegan diet were about one-fifth of the omnivore’s emissions. Beef is the highest-emission food other than lamb and goat — because cattle, lamb and goat are all ruminant animals that belch a lot of methane and require a lot of land to raise — but other products derived from cow milk such as cheese and butter also rank high for climate impact. Some of the lowest-emissions foods are also the most inexpensive plant-based options, including beans and lentils.

Is a Vegan Diet Healthier?

While there is indeed evidence that a vegan diet can fulfill all nutritional needs and have several health benefits, some advocates for an omnivore or even carnivorous diet dispute the health benefits of a plant-based lifestyle. It is possible for a vegan to eat poorly and have poor nutrition, so in order to reap the health benefits of a vegan diet, it is important to understand which vegan foods are nutritious and healthful.

What Are the Health Benefits of Vegan Diets?

A vegan diet can offer a plethora of health benefits when the diet is plant-rich, consisting mostly of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes. Studies suggest a healthful plant-based diet is associated with a lower risk of some cancers, including stomach, lung and colorectal cancers, as well as a reduced risk of diabetes and heart disease. Consuming less saturated fats also means one is less likely to develop hypertension.

A Guide to Vegan Nutrition

Because animal products have been consumed for centuries, the concept of a diet without them can be off-putting to many people. There is an abundance of misinformation regarding vegan diets, especially in terms of staying healthy. The traditions and culture of food are deeply ingrained in all societies and changing attitudes and behaviors can be a difficult task. 

Is Veganism Safe for Pregnancy, Infants and Children?

It can be difficult to obtain some nutrients that are essential during pregnancy from plant sources, but with careful planning, a vegan diet can be safe and effective at any stage of life, including while pregnant or breastfeeding. Consuming high quantities of fruits and vegetables can also help protect against pregnancy complications, like high blood pressure (preeclampsia) and gestational diabetes. Some research even shows that maintaining a plant-based diet while pregnant can reduce the baby’s risk of diseases like asthma and eczema. 

Children can safely follow a vegan diet, but may require more careful planning and attention to what nutrients they are getting from foods, because their bodies are still developing. For infants, more longitudinal studies are needed to assess vegan diets. However, we know that breastfeeding or bottle-fed vegan infants may need additional B12 supplements, but once a baby starts eating solids, there are many options to obtain their nutrients. It is of course imperative to check with a physician or registered dietician to ensure all needs are being met. 

What Are the Positions of Dietetic and Government Associations?

The two primary government authorities on food supply in the United States are the Food and Drug Administration and the United States Department of Agriculture. Between these two bodies, the closest thing to a position statement about veganism is a page about vegetarian nutrition in the National Agricultural Library division of the USDA website. This page does not necessarily take a stance, but offers definitions and information on vegetarian diets (though not veganism). A scientist with the USDA made a statement that the current Healthy Vegetarian Dietary Pattern of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans can be adapted for a vegan diet while meeting nutrient quotas for nonpregnant and nonlactating adults who are otherwise healthy. 

The position statement of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly known as the American Dietetic Association) notes that appropriately planned vegetarian (including vegan) diets are healthy, nutritionally adequate and may even provide health benefits including the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Specifically, vegans are at reduced risk of ischemic heart disease, hypertension, Type 2 diabetes, some types of cancer and obesity. Veganism is also characteristic for low cholesterol and better serum glucose control. Further, the Academy states that these diets are appropriate for all stages of life, including pregnancy and lactation, and even for athletes. They also note that plant-based diets are more environmentally sustainable.

What Nutrients Do I Need as a Vegan?

The National Institutes of Health provide a straightforward fact sheet on daily recommended nutrients and where to obtain them.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 keeps blood and nerve cells healthy and helps create DNA. B12 occurs naturally almost exclusively in animal products, which can be challenging for vegans. However, it can also be found in many fortified foods, such as nutritional yeast, fortified nondairy milk and fortified grains. Another benefit of B12 is that the body will only absorb what is necessary and any excess will be excreted through urine, so there is no risk of overdose. 


Iodine is used to make thyroid hormones, which control metabolism; this is especially important for infants and pregnant people. Iodine is primarily found in animal products, making it another nutrient that can be especially troublesome for vegans to obtain. It occurs naturally in seaweed, however, and is in iodized salt. 


Protein provides the body with energy and is necessary for growth and development, including the cells and tissue in hair, skin, nails, muscle, bone, organs and bodily fluids. Proteins are made up of smaller units called amino acids, which can be either essential or nonessential (both of which can be vegan). 

One of the primary concerns about vegan diets is the amount of protein, but in reality there are tons of plant-based foods that are rich in protein. Substituting plant protein for animal protein has even been found to be associated with lower mortality. 

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids may reduce inflammation and decrease blood triglycerides and may even reduce the risk of dementia. This nutrient is most commonly found in fish, but also occurs in chia seeds, flax seeds, Brussels sprouts and walnuts, among other foods. 


Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body and helps to make and maintain strong bones. Most people obtain this nutrient from dairy, but it is sometimes added to nondairy milks, such as soy or almond (just check the label). Kale, broccoli and bok choy contain calcium as well.  Even many grains, such as bread and pasta, contain calcium in small amounts; because many people eat these often, the calcium content adds up. 

Vitamin D

Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium and helps nerves carry messages between the brain and body. Almost all of the milk supply in the United States is fortified with vitamin D, but many plant-based milks (like soy, almond and oat) are as well. A limited amount of vitamin D can be obtained from sunlight. 


Choline helps regulate memory and mood. Good sources of choline include potatoes, whole grains, nuts, seeds and beans, as well as cruciferous vegetables like Brussels sprouts, broccoli and cauliflower. 


Iron is important for growth and development, carrying oxygen throughout the body and making hormones. Although many vegetables contain iron, the human body does not absorb iron as well from plant-based foods (as from animal products) so it is important for vegans to increase their intake. 

Vitamin A

Vitamin A is important for vision, the immune system and reproduction, and helps the heart and lungs function properly. It is fat-soluble and is naturally present in a variety of foods, so vitamin A deficiencies are rare. The body can convert some carotenoids, which give yellow, orange and red fruits and vegetables their pigments, into vitamin A. Aside from fish, dairy and eggs, this vitamin is also found in many plant foods like cantaloupe, mangos, apricots, spinach, sweet potatoes, carrots, broccoli and squash. 

What Vegans Should Eat Every Day

Vegans should of course ensure they are eating nutrient-rich, well-balanced meals, and there are many opportunities to do so while avoiding the major food groups of meat, dairy and eggs. It is important to note, however, that in the United States, it is common to eat meals without a variety of nutrients or that may not prominently feature vegetables or whole grains. Vegetables and whole grains are typically used when studying the health benefits of a nutrient-rich diet and as seen in the previous section regarding nutrients, a varied diet is extremely important.

Fruits and Vegetables

Consumption of fruits and vegetables is extremely important for vegan nutrition and five daily portions are recommended. As stated, many nutrients found in animal products also occur in plenty of vegetables. Maintaining a healthy plant-based diet should include dark green vegetables, red and orange vegetables, starchy vegetables and others. Green leafy vegetables in particular are nutritious sources of calcium, vitamin D and iron. Broccoli, cauliflower, mushrooms, spinach and asparagus (just to name a few) all contain high levels of protein. 

Fruit is equally important for maintaining a healthy diet, and even offers protein as well. Various fruits are also an excellent source of antioxidants. Fruit is an easy snack to take on the go and can even satisfy sweet cravings. Dried fruits like raisins, prunes, figs and apricots offer calcium, vitamin D, and iron. 

Grains, Nuts and Legumes

There also exists a huge variety of grains, nuts and legumes for vegans to choose from. Grains can be either whole or refined, though whole is usually the healthier choice. The most popular carbs, like bread and pasta, can often be found in whole-grain varieties. Whole-grain bread can be a good source of iron and both brown and white bread can supply calcium. The category of grains also includes quinoa, oats, barley and brown rice, all of which are rich in dietary fiber. 

Nuts also come in a variety of forms but all offer the benefits of healthy fats, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated. These nutrients help lower cholesterol and maintain heart health. Still, nuts are generally low in fat, but high in protein and potassium, which makes them excellent alternatives to animal products. Legumes include beans and lentils, both of which are typically inexpensive and can be stored longer than other dietary staples. They offer many nutrients and are high in protein, and when eaten regularly they can help decrease the risk of colorectal cancer. A plant-based diet that is rich in whole grains, nuts, and legumes allows the body to function to the best of its ability. 

Vegan Nutrition Deficiency

The human body can only absorb so many vitamins and minerals per day. Excess intake does not equal excess benefit, and extra nutrients are typically discharged naturally by the body. Mineral and vitamin deficiencies, however, can result in a variety of negative health outcomes. Deficiencies of certain nutrients can also negatively impact growth and development or even basic bodily functions. More specifically, fatigue can be indicative of vitamin D, vitamin B12 or iron deficiency. Vitamin D deficiency can also present as bone pain or mood shifts, vitamin B12 deficiency can also present as numbness, and iron deficiency can present as shortness of breath or cold hands and feet. Calcium deficiency can cause numbness and tingling fingers or an abnormal heart rhythm, and potassium deficiency can cause muscle weakness and an abnormal heart rhythm as well. 

There are several necessary nutrients that are slightly more difficult to obtain when abstaining from animal products, namely vitamin B12, Omega-3 fatty acids, iodine, potassium, zinc, calcium, and vitamin D.  A systematic review published in Clinical Nutrition in 2021 assessed vegans’ intake of many of the necessary daily nutrients. One of the primary findings was that vitamin B12 was significantly lower among vegans. This potential deficiency is often noted by health authorities and vegans should discuss how to compensate for this with a physician or a registered dietician. 

Vegan Nutrition Supplements

According to vegan dietitian Ginny Messina, all vegans should take a B12 supplement, either a pill or through fortified foods. According to Messina:

The recommended dose of B12 is 25 to 100 micrograms per day or 1,000 micrograms 2-3 times per week of cyanocobalamin (not methylcobalamin). You can also meet needs by consuming two servings per day of fortified foods providing at least 2 micrograms of B12 per serving – but those servings should be consumed several hours apart.

Also according to Messina, many vegans could benefit from additional nutrient supplementation, including vitamin D and iodine, and some vegans could benefit from additional iron and calcium.

Vegan Nutrition Planning

For anyone new to a plant-based diet, mapping out meals and tracking consumption is a great way to stay on track and healthy. For new vegans, tracking intake can help avoid any potential deficiencies or consuming too many unhealthy foods.

Look For a Vegan Dietician

Consulting with a healthcare professional is a good step when making any major diet change. There are plenty of vegan registered dietitians who can make evidence-based recommendations. It is even possible to find a vegan registered dietician who specializes in certain illnesses, allergies or conditions, including pregnancy, breastfeeding or even dietary recommendations for athletes. The word nutritionist, however, is not well regulated, so be sure to look for a registered dietitian. 

What You Can Do

If you are interested in trying a vegan diet, or even a plant-rich one, check out Sentient Media’s plant-based resource guide and recipes. Consult with your doctor to help you make dietary changes in a healthy way.

Support Us

Independent Journalism Needs You

Donate » -opens in new tab. Donate via PayPal More options »