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The Big 15: The What, How, and Why of the 15 essential micronutrients (and vegan sources for each)

Image source: Web MD

Meet the 15 essential micronutrients, their functions in the body, and how much you should be consuming every day (otherwise known as RDA: recommended dietary allowance).

......More importantly, learn about the multitude of delicious, vegan foods where you can find all 15 micronutrients!

B Vitamins

Importance + Function: B Vitamins assist with energy production, immune function, and iron absorption.

· B1 (thiamine): helps the body process carbs and some protein

· B2 (riboflavin): helps convert food into energy, and makes red blood cells.

· B3 (niacin): helps with digestion and with making cholesterol

· B5 (pantothenic acid): helps turn carbohydrates, protein, and fat into energy

· B6: helps with metabolism, the immune system, and brain development in babies

· B7 (biotin): helps the body make fats, protein, and other things needed by cells

Vegan foods high in B Vitamins:

· B1, B2 and B3: whole-grain, enriched, fortified products such as bread and cereals

· B5: potatoes, oats, cereals, tomatoes

· B6: fortified cereals, fortified soy products, chickpeas, potatoes

· B7: fruits

RDA (General):

· B1:

- Men: 1.2 milligrams per day

- Women: 1.1 milligrams per day, unless pregnant or breastfeeding

- Pregnant or breastfeeding women: 1.4 milligrams per day

· B2:

-Men: 1.3 milligrams per day

-Women: 1.1 milligrams per day, unless pregnant or breastfeeding

-Pregnant women: 1.4 milligrams per day

-Breastfeeding women: 1.6 milligrams per day

· B3:

-Men: 16 milligrams per day

-Women: 14 milligrams per day if not pregnant or breastfeeding

-Pregnant women: 18 milligrams per day

-Breastfeeding women: 17 milligrams per day

· B5:

-Adults: 5 milligrams per day, except for pregnant women

-Pregnant women: 6 milligrams per day

-Breastfeeding women: 7 milligrams per day

· B6:

-Men and women (ages 19-50): 1.3 milligrams per day, except for pregnant or breastfeeding women

-Pregnant women: 1.9 milligrams per day

-Breastfeeding women: 2 milligrams per day

-Men (ages 51 and up): 1.7 milligrams per day

-Women (ages 51 and up):1.5 milligrams per day

Vitamin B12

Importance + Function: Vitamin B12 makes red blood cells, nerves, DNA, and carries out many other essential functions in the body. Vitamin B12 cannot be made within the body; therefore, it must be received via food or supplement sources.

Due to this factor, though many “anti-vegans” would be disappointed to hear it: vegans and vegetarians are not the only ones prone to Vitamin B12 deficiency; we all are. B12 deficiencies are relatively common, whether someone can’t consume enough of the vitamin in their food, or their body simply cannot absorb enough of it.

A Vitamin B12 deficiency can develop slowly, presenting not only gradual symptoms, yet a wide variety of them. These may (or may not) include numbing/tingling in the hands, legs, or feet; balance issues, anemia, tongue inflammation, cognitive difficulties, weakness, and fatigue.

Untreated Vitamin B12 deficiency can lead to blood diseases, severe neurological problems, and nerve damage.

Vegan foods high in Vitamin B12: Fortified cereals, nutritional yeast, select fortified foods (such as marmite, veggie burgers, plant-based milks).

RDA (General):

· Adults: 2.4 micrograms per day, except for pregnant or breastfeeding women

· Pregnant women: 2.6 micrograms per day

· Breastfeeding women: 2.8 micrograms per day

RDA (Vegans):

· Adults (ages 14-65): 25 micrograms per day, or 1000 micrograms 2x per week

· Pregnant women: 25-100 micrograms per day

· Breastfeeding women: 30-100 micrograms per day

· Adults ages 65 + up should be consulting with healthcare provider for personalized supplementation recommendations.


Importance + Function: Calcium contributes to healthy teeth, and maintenance (and growth) of strong bones.

The body uses calcium to aid in muscle contraction, nerve communication (between the brain and the body), and blood clotting. The hormones and enzymes that calcium helps release are used in almost every function in the body.

Calcium deficiencies do not present symptoms in the short-term. The body works to maintain calcium levels in the blood, by withdrawing it from the blood. Over a longer term, lower calcium levels can potentially lead to osteopenia (lower bone mass), and elevate the risk of osteoporosis and fractures. Symptoms of serious, advanced calcium deficiency include tingling or numb sensations in the fingers, convulsions, and potentially, abnormal heart rhythms. Vegan foods high in calcium: Tofu, blackstrap molasses, fortified vegan alternatives (soy milk, soy yogurt), fortified cereals, kale.

RDA (General):

· Adult (ages 19-50): 1,000 milligrams per day

· Women (ages 51 and older): 1,200 milligrams per day

· Men (ages 51-70): 1,000 milligrams per day

· Men (71 and older): 1,200 milligrams per day

RDA (Vegans):

· same recommended RDA for vegans


Importance + Function:

Fiber, unbeknownst to some, is a type of carbohydrate that the body can’t digest. Fiber helps with digestion, regulates the body’s use of sugars, and helps us to feel full. There are two types of fiber, and each one has positive health benefits.

Soluble fiber (dissolves in water), helps to lower glucose levels, and the “bad” blood cholesterol (LDL).

Insoluble fiber (which does not dissolve in water), helps move food through the digestive system, promotes regularity, and prevents constipation.

Symptoms that your body is not getting enough fibre include constipation, weight gain, blood sugar fluctuations, and general fatigue and nausea.

Vegan foods high in fiber: Oatmeal, lentils, apples, carrots, broccoli, whole grains, peas, beans, fruit and vegetables.

RDA (general):

· Men(ages 19-50): 38 grams per day

· Women (ages 19-50): 25 grams per day (unless pregnant or breastfeeding; see next point)

· Pregnant women: 25 to 30 grams per day

· Men (ages 51and up): 30 grams per day

· Women (ages 51 and up): 21 grams per day

RDA (vegans)

· same recommended RDA for vegans


Folic Acid

Importance + Function:

Folic Acid aids in cell renewal, prevents birth defects in pregnancy, and is important for health and overall cell development. Folic Acid is needed for the proper development of the human body, supports in DNA production, and is a crucial component in numerous bodily functions.

Folic Acid Deficiency Anemia occurs when an individual 1) doesn’t eat enough foods which contain folic acid, 2) consumes a large volume of alcohol over a period of a time, 3) has a pre-existing stomach condition, 4) is pregnant, or 5) is taking a medication which prevents the body from efficiently absorbing folate.

Folic Acid Deficiency Anemia symptoms (similar to symptoms for any kind of anemia) include fatigue, headaches, pale skin, shortness of breath, weight loss, lack of appetite, and a ringing in the ears. Anemia symptoms caused specifically by a lack of folate include altered taste, diarrhea, numb sensation in feet/hands, muscle weakness, and depression.

Vegan foods high in folic acid: Dark, leafy greens, asparagus, broccoli, citrus fruits, whole grain breads, nutritional yeast, fortified cereals, beans, peas, lentils, seeds and nuts, cauliflower, beets, corn, edamame, tempeh, tofu, red pepper, oranges, hazelnuts.

RDA (General):

· Adults: 400 micrograms per day (unless pregnant or breastfeeding, see next point)

· Pregnant women: 600 micrograms per day

· Breastfeeding women: 500 micrograms per day

RDA (Vegans):

· same recommended RDA for vegans

· a balanced vegan diet should (ideally) cover the RDA for folic acid.


Importance +Function:

Iodine is a mineral, which helps make thyroid hormones in the body. These hormones contribute to metabolism and other vital functions, including bone and brain development during pregnancy.

Since it is a key mineral for its creation, people who are low in iodine cannot make sufficient thyroid hormone in their bodies. In pregnant women, lack of iodine can lead to stunted growth and intellectual disabilities.

Goiter (also known as an enlarged thyroid gland) is often one of the first visible signs of a deficiency.

Vegan foods high in iodine: Seaweed (kelp, kombu), iodized salt. (Note: kelp may contain too much iodine, which can cause health issues if you’re consuming it on a regular basis.)

RDA (General):

· Adults: 150 micrograms per day (unless pregnant or breastfeeding)

· Pregnant women: 209 micrograms per day

· Breastfeeding women: 290 micrograms per day

RDA (Vegans):

· same recommended RDA for vegans.


Importance + Function:

Iron builds muscles naturally, maintains healthy blood, and aids the body in overall growth and development.

Hemoglobin (a protein in red blood cells which transports oxygen from the lungs throughout the body), is produced by iron, as is myoglobin, a protein which provides oxygen to muscles.

The body will use iron stored in the muscles, liver, spleen and bone marrow; thus, deficiency does not cause obvious symptoms in the short term. These stored levels becoming too low will lead to iron deficiency anemia.

Symptoms of iron deficiency anemia include fatigue, weakness, GI upset, problems with concentration and/or memory, and a weakened immune system.

Vegan foods high in iron: Soybeans, pumpkin seeds, beans, lentils, fortified cereals, spinach, molasses, tempeh, dried figs, soy milk, almonds, sunflower seeds, tofu, tomatoes.

RDA (General):

· Men (ages 19 and up): 8 milligrams per day

· Women (ages 19-50): 18 milligrams per day, unless pregnant or breastfeeding

· Pregnant women: 27 milligrams per day

· Breastfeeding women: 10 milligrams per day

· Women (ages 51 and up): 8 milligrams per day

RDA (Vegans):

· RDA for vegans is the same.

· General iron absorption for vegans can further be supported by:

- adding a source of Vitamin C at meals

-avoiding coffee and tea at meals

-increasing intake of legumes

-cooking food (especially water-based, acidic ones such as tomatoes and tomato sauce) in cast iron skillets

-avoiding calcium supplements with meals.


Importance + Function:

Magnesium helps with heart rhythm, muscle and nerve function, and bone strength. Magnesium also aids in regulating blood sugar levels, blood pressure, and making protein, bone, and DNA in the body.

In the short-term, magnesium deficiency does not present obvious symptoms, as the kidneys retain magnesium by limiting the amount lost in urine. Over time, a deficiency can develop, including symptoms such as appetite loss, nausea and vomiting, fatigue, and weakness. The more extreme cases can be indicated by numbness, tingling, muscle cramps, seizures, and/or abnormal heart rhythm.

Vegan foods high in magnesium: Green leafy vegetables, nuts, soybeans, potatoes, whole wheat, quinoa, seeds, tahini, pulses, soy milk, cocoa powder

RDA (General):

· Men (ages 19 to 30): 400 milligrams per day

· Men (ages 31 and up): 420 milligrams per day

· Women (ages 19-30): 310 milligrams per day, unless pregnant or breastfeeding

· Women (ages 31 and up): 320 milligrams per day, unless pregnant or breastfeeding

· Pregnant women: 350-360 milligrams per day

· Breastfeeding women: 310-320 milligrams per day

RDA (Vegans):

· same recommended RDA for vegans


Importance + Function:

Potassium helps control blood pressure, balances fluid in the body, and aids in nerve signal transmission.

Essentially, the body uses potassium for almost everything and every function that it carries out: kidney and heart functions, muscle contractions, and more.

Low potassium intake can increase blood pressure, deplete calcium in bones, and increase your risk of kidney stones. Hypokalemia, severe potassium deficiency, is identified by symptoms including constipation, fatigue, weak muscles; severe symptoms include increased urination, decreased brain function, high blood sugar, muscle paralysis, difficulty breathing, and irregular heartbeat.

Hyperkalemia (too much potassium) can potentially develop as a result of too much intake in food and/or supplements. Folks who are at risk for hyperkalemia (those with chronic kidney disease, people taking certain medications, folks with type 1 diabetes, to name a few, should consult their doctors before increasing potassium intake with food and/or supplements.

Vegan foods high in potassium: potatoes, bananas, soybeans, pulses, lentils, tempeh, potatoes, dried fruit, squash (acorn and butternut), avocado, spinach, broccoli and bananas.

RDA (General):

· Adults: 4,700 milligrams per day, unless pregnant or breastfeeding

· Breastfeeding women: 5,100 milligrams per day

RDA (Vegans):

· same recommended RDA for vegans


Vitamin A

Importance + Function: Vitamin A contributes to healthy eyes and general growth and development; including healthy teeth and skin, and protects cells and DNA from free radicals. Vitamin A supports the immune system, reproduction functions, and helps the heart, lungs, kidneys (and other organs) function properly.

There are two types of Vitamin A: preformed Vitamin A, and provitamin A. The most common, and recognized type of Provitamin A is beta-carotene, found in many foods and supplements.

The majority of folks will get enough Vitamin A from their food, and deficiency in more rare in this case. Certain types of groups (premature infants, folks with cystic fibrosis) may have more challenges in getting appropriate levels of Vitamin A.

Though rare, the most common symptom of Vitamin A deficiency is an eye condition called xerophthalmia: the inability to see in lower light.

Vegan foods high in Vitamin A: Carrots, orange foods (sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, melons), fortified cereals, papaya, watercress.

RDA (General):

· Men: 900 micrograms per day

· Women: 700 micrograms per day

· Pregnant women: 770 micrograms per day

· Breastfeeding women: 1,300 micrograms per day

RDA (Vegans):

· Vegans should make an effort to eating two (minimum) varietals of foods high in Vitamin A every day. These can include carrot juice, butternut squash, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, kale, and cantaloupe.

· The vitamin A content in foods is measured in RAE (retinol activity equivalents). The aforementioned foods all have over 400 RAE (depending on the portion sizes).

Vitamin C

Importance + Function:

Vitamin C strengthens blood vessels, gives skin its elasticity, contributes to antioxidant function and iron absorption.

Also known as ascorbic acid, Vitamin C protects against cell damage (from free radicals), supports the immune system, and aids in collagen protection (a protein required for wound healing, and also touted for its skin-boosting benefits). Vitamin C makes for more efficient absorption of iron from plant foods (which is why you often see a citrus snack paired with an vegan iron supplement.)

Though deficiencies are rare in Canada and the US, low intake of Vitamin C can lead to scurvy (fatigue, inflammation of the gums, joint pain, poor wound healing.) Scurvy, if untreated, can potentially lead to the development of anemia.

Vegan foods high in Vitamin C: Oranges (and other citrus fruits), guava, red and green peppers, kiwi, grapefruits, strawberries, cantaloupe, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, black currants, melon, watercress, raspberries, cauliflower, pineapple, potatoes, spinach.

RDA (General):

· Men: 90 milligrams per day

· Women: 75 milligrams per day, unless pregnant or breastfeeding

· Pregnant women: 85 milligrams per day

· Breastfeeding women: 120 milligrams per day

RDA (Vegans):

· same recommended RDA for vegans

Vitamin D

Importance + Function:

Vitamin D contributes to strong, healthy bones (by helping the body absorb calcium); supports muscles, and aids in communication between the brain and the rest of the body. Vitamin D is key for the immune system, in fighting off bacteria and viruses.

A unique property of Vitamin D is its relationship to the sun: when the skin is directly exposed to the sun, this cues the body to make Vitamin D. (Folks in the sun should also be mindful of limiting exposure, and taking appropriate steps to be sun safe.)

Vitamin D deficiencies can occur in individuals who either do not consume enough of it in their diets, have limited sun exposure, or have kidneys which cannot convert Vitamin D to its active form in the body.

Vegan foods high in Vitamin D: Mushrooms (fun fact: the sun! Spend a few minutes outside to stimulate Vitamin D production), fortified cereals.

RDA (General):

· Adults (ages 19-70): 600 international units (IU) per day

· Adults (ages 71 and older): 800 international units per day

RDA (Vegans):

· RDA for vegans is the same. Note that some individuals may be able to adjust RDA based on sun exposure (for those under the age of 65).

Vitamin E

Importance +Function: Vitamin E aids in blood circulation, acts as an antioxidant (protects from free radicals), and keep organs functioning and healthy. (Free radicals ( a term which occurs several times in this article), are compounds formed when our bodies convert the food that we eat into energy.) Vitamin E in the body can boost its immune system, and helps cells to interact with one another, crucial for carrying out several important functions. Vitamin E deficiencies are most commonly linked to people with diseases, where fat is not properly digested or absorbed (examples: Crohn’s disease, cystic fibrosis). Deficiency can cause nerve and muscle damage, which results in loss of feeling in the extremities, loss of body movement control, muscle weakness, and vision problems.

Vegan foods high in Vitamin E: Almonds (and other nuts), sunflower seeds, tomatoes, fortified cereals, peanut butter, vegetable oils, nuts and seeds, avocado, butternut squash, wheat germ, mango, broccoli, canned tomatoes, chickpeas.

RDA (General):

· Adults: 15 milligrams per day (or 22.5 international units; including pregnant women

· Breastfeeding women: 19 milligrams per day (or 28.5 IU)

RDA (Vegans): · Same recommended RDA for vegans

Vitamin K

Importance + Function: Vitamin K contributes to blood coagulation (also known as the blood clotting process), bone health, and several other functions in the body.

As most people (not all) get enough Vitamin K from the foods that they eat, Vitamin K deficiency is rare. Severe deficiencies can lead to bruising and/or bleeding problems, reduce bone strength, and thus increase the risk of osteoporosis.

Vegan foods high in Vitamin K: Leafy greens including kale, spinach, Swiss chard, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, asparagus, coriander, green beans, peas, cauliflower.

RDA (General):

· Men: 120 micrograms per day

· Women: 90 micrograms per day

· Note: if supplementing, consult with a health professional first; as an excess of Vitamin K can affect blood clotting negatively.

RDA (Vegans):

· same recommended RDA for vegans


Importance + Function:

Zinc supports the body with in immunity, growth, nerve function, and it a key component for reproduction and fertility.

The body uses zinc to make proteins and DNA. This is additionally important during pregnant, infancy and childhood, as zinc helps the body grow and develop properly.

Most folks get enough zinc from the foods they eat, but certain groups are likely than others to have trouble getting enough zinc. Though deficiency is rare, it can cause slow growth in infants/children, hair loss, diarrhea, eye/skin sores, and loss of appetite. These symptoms can also be signs of other issues, as opposed to solely zinc deficiency; therefore consultation with a doctor is recommended if you think you may be deficient in zinc (or any vitamin/nutrient.)

Vegan foods high in zinc: Spinach, cashews, beans, dark chocolate, fortified cereals, nuts and seeds, oatmeal, tempeh, miso.

RDA (General):

· Men: 11 milligrams per day

· Women: 8 milligrams per day, unless pregnant or breastfeeding

· Pregnant women: 11 milligrams per day

· Breastfeeding women: 12 milligrams per day

RDA (Vegans):

· RDA for vegans is the same


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