Have you have dabbled in vegetarianism to some degree?
Did you go all out and jump right into veganism, shunning all animal (and insect) derived foods? Maybe you excluded one type of animal protein from the diet or just vowed to go meatless at least once a week.
Whether the decision was based on a commitment to your health, sympathy for our friends in the animal kingdom, or that was your way of being rebellious, you can’t deny the great benefits of cuttingout animal products from the diet – if it’s done correctly.
And therein lies the potential for problems. Eliminating entire sections of the food pyramid that many adults recall also means eliminating nutrients that are vital for optimal health.
If you follow a vegan or vegetarian diet, or plan on incorporating one, make sure you’re taking steps to avoid these common nutrient deficiencies.
B12 – This is the big concern in the world of veganism since B12 is found primarily in animal products. Plant-based foods offer some B12 but it’s not an active form, and is therefore not a reliable source. Regular intake from supplements, fortified cereals, and nutritional yeast offer B12 to avoid deficiency symptoms such as lethargy, muscle weakness, memory problems, trouble sleeping, and pernicious anemia.
Vitamin D – Those who don’t get enough sun exposure are at risk for developing a vitamin D deficiency, but if you’re a vegan on top of not getting sunlight, you could find yourself in trouble. There’s not much in the way of vitamin D fortified foods that are vegan friendly – mostly orange juice and breakfast cereals. To make sure you’re getting the amount of vitamin D needed to support proper bone composition, vegans who get limited sun exposure need to supplement. Look for a vitamin D3 supplement derived from lichen if veganism is your thing. You can also find vitamin D2 supplements that are plant-based, but opt for the D3 since that’s the active form the body needs. Vegetarians have a better pick of vitamin D3 supplements derived from wool.
Just remember to have your physician test your serum vitamin D levels before you start taking any D supplements – getting too much is no meat-free picnic either.
Iron – Regardless if you’re a meat eater or not, your body needs iron from the diet to transport oxygen and other nutrients within the body. Not getting enough could make you anemic. While plant foods do have naturally occurring iron, it’s the type of non-heme iron that is harder for the body to absorb (compared to animal sourced iron). So an iron supplement is crucial for vegans and vegetarians to ward off deficiency. Just don’t fall into the habit of routinely taking mega doses, as too much iron in the blood comes with its own unwanted baggage including corrosion in the gastrointestinal tract.
Zinc – Much like iron, zinc can readily be found in plant-based foods, but absorption in the body can be problematic. Although it’s found in vegan friendly legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains, plant-based compounds called phytates bind to zinc and weaken absorption ability.
Iodine – Research suggests that plant-based foods have a lower concentration of iodine than foods that are animal-derived. You need a constant supply of iodine to maintain proper thyroid function for metabolism and hormone balance. While you can get your fill from iodized salt that is so prevalent from processed foods – and there are plenty of processed junk foods that are vegan – a better source is sea vegetables (kelp or seaweed).
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are big news these days, especially DHA and EPA. The most popular sources for these omega-3s are fish and fish oils. So if you’re a vegan or an omnivore who doesn’t eat fish, an omega-3 supplement is beneficial. There are vegetarian omega-3 supplements available, often made from microalgae. You can also up your omega-3s with walnuts, chia, flax, and hemp seeds.
This is the more obvious nutrient deficiency when going vegetarian, and more particularly vegan. Animal foods are packed with protein that makes us feel full and provides amino acids that take part in energy production and building and repairing tissues. And while many plant foods also have protein, it’s often not the complete protein found in animals. Plant-based proteins often lack one or more amino acids that are needed for easy utilization by the body. Leaning how to pair incomplete proteins to make complete proteins is advantageous for vegetarians, as is consuming soy protein (if not allergic), quinoa, or amaranth, which are plant-based complete proteins.
That being said, don’t shy away from scaling back your consumption of animal-based foods. Eating a diet high in plant-derived nutrients supports the health of all the organ systems and makes the body more alkaline (animal foods are acid forming – not good). We’re all for swapping out the occasional cow burger for a whole grain and bean patty.
Before embarking on a 100% vegan or vegetarian diet, be sure to consult with a dietician or other qualified health professional who understands the relationship between diet and health. These are the folks you want on your team to guide you through this new way of eating so that you avoid nutrient deficiencies and their negative consequences to your health.