Many more people are choosing to seek out a whole foods, plant-based diet to support their overall health, increase their energy, decrease inflammation, and prevent chronic diseases. A whole foods, plant-based diet is eating a diet of fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, nuts, and whole grains and excluding processed foods, meats, dairy, and eggs. Living in a culture that emphasizes meat and dairy as prime sources of calcium, protein, and iron, I often get the question of, “where do you get all the necessary nutrients you need on a whole foods plant-based diet?”. This article is meant to help you navigate how to ensure you are getting the necessary amount of protein, iron, and calcium you need on a whole foods plant-based diet because it is certainly achievable.
Protein plays an instrumental role in the structure and function of every single cell in our body as well as being a building block for making hormones and enzymes. If you are an adult, it is vital to eat 0.8g of protein per kg of body weight per day, with a slightly higher goal if you are pregnant, lactating, or an athlete. Eating a variety of beans, lentils, nuts and nut butters, seeds, amaranth, seitan, and tempeh will allow you to get all the necessary protein and essential amino acids you body needs to thrive. You could use an app like myfitnesspal to help determine how much protein you are getting in your diet now and then increase or decrease your protein intake to achieve the 0.8g/kg/day.
Dietary intake of iron is so essential because we use iron to transport oxygen throughout our body on our red blood cells. Plant-based sources of iron rich foods include sesame seeds, dark chocolate, black strap molasses, leafy green vegetables, fortified oatmeal or cereal, soybeans, white beans, lentils, tofu, spinach, dried peaches, prunes, or apricots, pumpkin/squash seeds, chia seeds, amaranth, and sorghum. Eating these iron rich foods with vitamin C rich foods, such as citrus fruits, tomatoes, berries, bell peppers, and cruciferous veggies will help increase the absorption of iron up to 5 times. Also, it is best to avoid high oxalate foods, drinking tea or coffee with your meal, and avoid high calcium containing foods as these inhibit the absorption of iron. According to the Institute of Medicine, the required amount of iron intake for adult women is 18mg/day and for adult men is 8mg/day.
Eating enough calcium in our diet is crucial for the health of our bones, along with getting enough physical activity and vitamin D to form strong bones. Since calcium is a mineral that resides in dirt, plants are a lovely source of calcium. In fact, cow’s milk only has calcium within it because cows eat plants that contain calcium! Some of our best whole food plant-based sources of calcium are collard greens, turnip greens, kale, rhubarb, tempeh, soy beans, bok choy, mustard greens, tahini, navy beans, squash, almond butter, almonds, broccoli, dates, sesame seeds, amaranth, nettle, and black eyed peas. The Institute of Medicine recommends adults consume 1000mg/day of calcium.