Are you running on the power of plants? If you adhere to the vegan diet, don’t miss out on today’s article. This list of the ten best superfoods for vegans will help take your nutrition game to the next level.
Some nutrients are harder to come by with the vegan way of eating (e.g., vitamin B12). In addition, certain nutrients in animal-based foods are more bioavailable than when you obtain them from plant-based foods. This means that you may have higher needs for these nutrients (such as zinc and iron) if you eliminate animal-based foods.
There are many different ways of eating that can be healthful choices. Make sure you are eating a variety of foods with various essential and non-essential but beneficial nutrients. By doing so, you will get the most from your dietary plan.
With careful planning, you can obtain all of the essential nutrients you need on a vegan diet. You can also get nutrients that are not considered essential but that may provide benefits to the body.
There are no magical superfoods that you must add to your diet for optimal health. However, the foods in this list are super in the sense that they provide nutrients that may be lacking in the vegan diet. How many of these are you currently eating?
1. Pick up some natto for nutrients that support bone and heart health
If you are a vegan, you are likely getting plenty of vitamin K1 from green leafy vegetables. However, there is another form of vitamin K, vitamin K2, which is mostly present in animal-based foods.
Both forms of vitamin K provide benefits to the body. While vitamin K1 plays a role in blood clotting, vitamin K2 helps to support bone health. Vitamin K2 may also play a role in the prevention of coronary calcification, protecting the health of your heart.
Natto is unusual amongst the plant-based foods because it is exceptionally high in vitamin K2. Natto is a traditional food from Japan that is made from fermented soybeans. Individuals in that country sometimes eat it as a breakfast food.
You may have difficulty finding natto, as your local supermarkets or health food stores may not carry it. If you have an Asian food market in your area, they may be your best bet. You can find natto in the freezer section in individual-serving containers.
Be warned that natto is an acquired taste, and its pungency may take some getting used to. I recommend using the condiments that come with your natto, typically soy sauce, and hot mustard. Enjoying your natto over a serving of rice may also help your palate to adjust to this new taste adventure.
2. Unsweetened calcium-fortified soymilk is good for your body
Do you have a non-dairy milk or yogurt alternative in your refrigerator right now? Please go and check out the nutrition facts label. Don’t worry; I won’t go anywhere!
If you are choosing non-dairy milk alternatives, cover the dairy group on the MyPlate by choosing calcium-fortified soymilk. The best milk alternatives will contain approximately 30% DV for calcium and at least 8 grams of protein per cup. Some dairy alternatives contain very little protein and calcium, so you must read the label to know what you are getting.
On a soy-free diet? No problem, there are also pea-based milk and protein-fortified nut milk that has added calcium. Go for the unsweetened varieties to skip the added sugars and empty calories.
Some milk alternatives are fortified with tricalcium phosphate, while others have calcium carbonate. The products fortified with calcium carbonate are thought to have similar calcium bioavailability to cow’s milk. Thus, all other factors being equal, choose a milk alternative that was fortified with calcium carbonate.
Homemade milk alternatives are typically very low in calcium and protein and may not be the best choice. Using these products may mean that you are shorting yourself on calcium and not covering the dairy group on the MyPlate. Save yourself a significant amount of work and stick with store-bought calcium-fortified milk alternatives.
3. For a B-vitamin boost, choose nutritional yeast
Nutritional yeast is an inactive yeast product that can add a “cheesy” flavor to dairy-free recipes. It is not the type of yeast that you bake with to get bread to rise. Plant foods do not naturally contain vitamin B12, but nutritional yeast is typically fortified with this essential nutrient.
Some additional benefits of nutritional yeast are that it is relatively high in fiber and protein. One downside of this product is that several well-known brands exceed the tolerable upper intake level for folic acid and niacin. A single serving of nutritional yeast may put you over the limit.
Regularly exceeding the tolerable upper intake level for a nutrient may lead to adverse effects for you. Exercise moderation with your intake of nutritional yeast. Using a little bit of this ingredient may be super, but there can be too much of a good thing.
You need vitamin B12 for a healthy nervous system and to make blood cells. Vegans are an at-risk group for vitamin B12 deficiency.
Some other fortified products, such as non-dairy milk alternatives and breakfast cereals, may also contain vitamin B12. Many are not fortified, so it is critical to check the label for this vitamin. Supplementing with vitamin B12 is another smart option to ensure adequacy.
4. Mushrooms are a non-plant super vegan food
There are a few natural sources of vitamin D in foods. Salmon and sardines are two sources. If you are vegan, mushrooms treated with UV light may provide some vitamin D.
The food label may not reveal if your mushrooms received UV light treatment and contain vitamin D. Fortunately, there are other reasons to add mushrooms to your diet. Mushrooms provide a hearty texture to meals, which may satisfy even the staunchest meat-eater.
Aside from vitamin D, mushrooms provide certain B vitamins and other nutrients that vary by variety. Though they are not technically “plants,” they are still a worthy addition to your vegan plate.
Regardless of your diet, if you live in a northern latitude with low sun exposure, you may require vitamin D supplementation. Always consult with a physician or dietitian before beginning any supplementation regimen.
5. Meet your iodine needs with seaweed
Dairy products are an important source of iodine in the diet. If you do not consume dairy, ensure that you are getting this essential nutrient in other ways. Many non-dairy milk alternatives are not fortified with iodine, so check the label to see whether yours is.
Seaweed can be one way for vegans to meet their iodine needs. In fact, some types of seaweed may contain nearly 2,000% DV per serving! Be sure to exercise moderation with your intake of seaweed products so that you do not overdo it.
If you are not a fan of seaweed, iodized salt is another way to get your iodine needs met. A quarter-teaspoon of iodized salt contains approximately 47% DV for iodine. Consume small amounts so that you remain in line with the recommended intake levels for sodium.
6. Skip the spinach and get some bone-building calcium with turnip greens
Many of the types of greens that are most common in American diets are high in oxalates that inhibit calcium absorption. This includes spinach, Swiss chard, beet greens, and rhubarb. Help protect your bone health by seeking out the greens that provide well-absorbed sources of calcium, such as turnip greens.
One half-cup of fresh boiled turnip greens provides 10% of the DV for calcium. Consider doubling your serving to pack more veggies and more calcium in. Most people can benefit from increasing their intake of leafy greens.
There is a higher risk of low bone mineral density and bone fracture with the vegan diet. Make sure to get sufficient amounts of bone-health supporting nutrients to help mitigate this risk.
If you dislike turnip greens, mustard greens are another calcium-packed option. For additional calcium, choose tofu made with calcium sulfate (check the nutrition facts label). And don’t forget to choose calcium-fortified dairy alternatives (#2 on this list).
7. Give your vegan diet a boost of omega-3s with walnuts
Nuts and seeds each provide a slightly different profile of health-promoting fatty acids. Many nuts are rich sources of monounsaturated fat, the same type of heart-healthy fat found in olive oil. Walnuts are unique in that they are high in the essential omega-3 fat ALA.
Flax seeds and chia seeds are two other ways to get the omega-3 ALA into your diet. Don’t miss out on these healthy sources of fat!
8. Supplementing with algal oil can get you omega-3s not found in walnuts
This one is not technically a food, but you may want to consider an algal oil supplement if you are vegan. The walnuts mentioned above are an important source of the essential omega-3 fatty acid ALA. However, they lack the non-essential but beneficial omega-3s DHA and EPA.
DHA and EPA are not considered essential because your body can convert ALA to these nutrients. However, the conversion rate tends to be minimal.
DHA and EPA are mainly found in fatty fish. If you are a vegan, you can get DHA from an algal oil supplement. Consult with your physician or dietitian about supplementation.
If you’d like to skip supplementation, certain vegan foods are fortified with DHA. For example, I have seen DHA-fortified tofu available. Keep in mind that the amount of DHA in these products tends to be minimal; fatty fish typically provide far more.
9. Tempeh has some tempting nutrient benefits
Tempeh is the third soy-based food on this list, and for good reason. Soy foods are considered complete proteins. They are uncommon among plant foods in not being extremely low in any of the essential amino acids.
Soy foods are also some of the best sources of the essential nutrient choline in the vegan diet. It can be challenging to get enough of this nutrient with the vegan way of eating without soy foods. A vegan meal plan created by the Vegetarian Nutrition dietetic practice group includes four servings of soy to meet choline needs.
A benefit of choosing a fermented soy product such as tempeh is that it may enhance your absorption of zinc. Vegans and vegetarians may have a higher RDA for zinc than omnivores, and vegans are an at-risk group for zinc deficiency. Choosing tempeh over unfermented soy foods may help you get more of this essential nutrient.
10. Bell peppers are the perfect pick for vitamin C
Sweet bell peppers are one of the best sources of vitamin C around. A single serving of raw red peppers completely covers your daily needs for vitamin C. However, vegan diets are often packed with vitamin C-rich fruits and vegetables, so why put peppers on this list?
The RDA for iron is 1.8 times higher for vegans and vegetarians than it is for omnivores. This need for iron may be even higher if the individual is a vegan athlete. Consuming foods that are rich in vitamin C, like peppers, with your plant-based iron foods can help to increase iron absorption.
If you dislike peppers, many other vitamin C-packed options are vegan-friendly. Oranges, kiwi, grapefruit, strawberries, and broccoli are some of the many different ways to get your vitamin C. Drinking tea and coffee between meals (not with them) can also help your body to increase iron absorption.
In addition to vitamin C, fruits and vegetables have phytochemicals and fiber. Aim to fit a variety of these healthful foods into your daily meal plan. Experiment to find your favorites for a delicious and colorful plate!
Final Thoughts On Best Superfoods for Vegans
Contrary to popular opinion, protein is generally not a concern on a vegan diet, but certain micronutrients may be lacking. By including the foods mentioned above regularly, you can help your body to get what it needs. Many of these superfoods are great choices on a variety of dietary plans.
Are you looking for more foods that are health-promoting additions to your diet? Check out our other nutrition articles. You’ll get plenty of ideas to fill your plate with an array of colorful, nutritious, and healthy foods!
Summer is a registered dietitian located in Avon, Connecticut where she specializes in weight management, special diets, general nutrition, and avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID). She is the developer and content creator behind the Summer Yule Nutrition website, where she shares evidence-based information on hot topics in food and nutrition.