Vegan diet and nutritional deficiencies – What nutrients are vegans missing?
Many people consider a vegan diet to be healthy, as it consists mainly of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes. However, if you eat no meat or dairy products, you risk developing certain nutrient deficiencies. It is easier to avoid those shortcomings if you know what they are so you can take the necessary actions to provide your body with the missing nutrients. This is the reason why most doctors advise checking the levels of vitamin B12, iron, calcium and iodine regularly.
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Vegan diet without mistakes
There are many reasons why people choose a vegan diet. Their desire to be healthier is really strong some are concerned about animal welfare or ecology. Regardless of the reason, however, many of them find it difficult to ensure the optimal intake of certain vitamins and minerals. These include vitamin B12, iron, calcium and iodine. Since fruits and vegetables are full of important nutrients, it seems strange that a plant-based diet might be deficient in anything. However, meat and dairy products contain large amounts of important vitamins and minerals that are virtually non-existent in plant foods. In order to maintain your health, you must find alternatives suitable for a vegan diet, which will compensate for any deficits.
A vegan or vegetarian diet can be beneficial to your health. However, if you exclude animal products completely, you may wonder how you will be getting certain missing nutrients. Many people assume that it will be a problem to consume enough of plant-based protein. But that does not necessarily have to be right. There are many vegetable protein sources such as lentils, beans, chickpeas, nuts, seeds, soy products and whole grains. So here are the most common nutrient deficiencies in a vegan or vegetarian diet.
This special vitamin is produced by bacteria and occurs mainly in animal products such as dairy products, meat and eggs. However, many plant foods are also rich in B12. Some of these are, for example, yeast and some plant dairy products. Above all, vitamin B12 is important for the formation of red blood cells, fatty acids and some neurotransmitters that we need for brain activity. We store this substance in the liver so deficiency probably will not occur in the short term at an adult age.
Symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency include fatigue, drowsiness, low tolerance to physical exertion, dizziness, palpitations, bruising and bleeding, weight loss, impotence, changes in gut flora and bleeding gums. Other symptoms associated with the nervous system include numbness in the arms or legs, problems with movement, changes in the brain, such as memory loss, mood swings, dementia, blurred vision, or disturbed bowel drainage and weak bladder. Your doctor may request a blood test to check the status of vitamin B12.
As mentioned above, the highest levels of vitamin B12 are in animal products – meat, milk and dairy products. For vegans, vegetable sources of vitamin B12 are some algae and the plants exposed to a bacterial action of the soil or insects. Some mushrooms or fermented soybeans also contain analogues of the vitamin. However, even more reliable sources are soy, nut milk or meat substitutes.
Calcium, which is commonly found in dairy products, is what we need for our body to build strong bones and teeth. It also supports heart health, nerve function and muscle contraction. Calcium can also help protect against cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes. Low calcium intake is associated with osteoporosis and higher risk of bone fractures. For the measurement of bone density, a scan of the bones is made and if it is low, this would be the diagnosis of osteoporosis. Low levels of vitamin D also increase the risk of osteoporosis, but we’ll come back to that in the next paragraph.
Many non-vegans struggle to reach the recommended daily allowance of 1.2 g of calcium. That is why it is not surprising that vegans may be suffering from calcium deficiency. To get more, you can include these foods in your daily menu: cabbage, kale, mustard cabbage, calcium fortified tofu or soy milk, broccoli or orange juice.
Although the richest sources of calcium are milk and dairy, vegans can also get it from nuts, seeds, legumes, and grains. The need for calcium is higher for vegans and vegetarians due to the relatively high levels of oxalic acid in foods such as spinach, rhubarb, beans and high levels of phytic acid in seeds, nuts, cereals, some raw beans and soy. These specific acids can reduce the calcium intake of these foods by 10-50%.
Vitamin D and vegan diet
Vitamin D and calcium go hand in hand, as it is necessary for calcium intake. It is also important for muscle movement, healthy nerves and a strong immune system. However, one of the best sources of vitamin D is sunlight. Many people avoid the sun or block it with sunscreen to reduce the risk of skin cancer. Vitamin D deficiency, however, can cause many symptoms and be associated with joint pain.
Vitamin D is not naturally contained in many foods. Vegans may find it difficult to eat the recommended daily amount for adults between the ages of 19 and 70 years. Try adding more vitamin D-enriched juices, soymilk, almond milk, hemp milk and cereal to your diet. According to scientific data mushrooms contain some vitamin D, and some varieties are exposed to ultraviolet light to increase the vitamin D content. If you are not exposed to sunlight on a regular basis, consider taking a daily vegan vitamin D supplement.
Iodine is necessary for the production of thyroxine, a thyroid hormone necessary for normal growth. As a result, the body regulates the metabolic rate and the development of the central nervous system. Iodine is concentrated in the thyroid gland, and iodine deficiency can lead to enlargement of the organ, goiter or other thyroid disease. Symptoms of hypothyroidism include fatigue, muscle weakness, feeling cold, difficulty concentrating, poor memory, weight gain, depression, facial swelling, hair loss, dry skin, constipation and arrhythmia. For women, iodine deficiency can also increase the risk of miscarriage and congenital anomalies.
Through a series of tests, doctors can detect the levels of iodine in the organism. Iodine content in foods depends on the iodine content of the plants, which in turn depends on the iodine content of the soil. If the soil content is low, it may need to be added. The main sources of iodine are seafood, dairy and eggs. For vegans it is advisable to consume more iodized salt, bread with iodized salt, enriched soy or nut milk and algae.
Vegan diet and iron
Iron is a mineral and important compound in hemoglobin that transports oxygen from the lungs to body tissue. There are two types of iron: heme and non-heme. Heme iron absorbs better than non-heme. Since meat, seafood and poultry are the main sources of heme iron, it is logical that vegans are deficient, but this may not be the case. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found no significant difference in iron content between vegetarians and non-vegetarians. This may be due to the high amount of iron-rich plant foods vegetarians consume. Other plant foods also support iron absorption.
The daily dose for adults aged 18 to 50 years is 8 mg for men and 18 mg for women. People with low levels of iron, including vegans, are at risk for anemia, which has many symptoms. Although herbal iron cannot be absorbed so easily, a varied diet rich in plant-based whole foods should provide enough iron.
You can find the element in green leafy vegetables, whole grains, lentils, peas and dried fruits. The addition of vitamin C-rich foods also helps in iron intake. For a vegan diet, it does not matter how much iron you eat or how you eat it to increase absorption. Scientists and researchers offer the following guidelines:
- Eat non-heme iron foods with others that contain a lot of vitamin C.
- Avoid iron-blocking tannins in coffee, tea, walnuts, berries and apples when you consume iron.
- Cook your meals in a cast-iron pan. The iron in the pan is leached into your food.
- Do not take calcium at the same time with iron.
Zinc is important for cell metabolism and immunity. According to many studies, the body does not store zinc, so it is important to reach the recommended daily dose of 11 mg for men and 8 mg for women over the age of nineteen. Non-vegans get most of their zinc from oysters, shellfish, meat and poultry. Zinc deficiency can be difficult to diagnose. Symptoms can be vague or blamed on some other condition.
The risk of zinc deficiency is especially high if you do not eat meat, legumes and whole grains. Legumes and unleavened whole grains contain phytates that prevent zinc intake. Soaking beans, grains and seeds until sprouts form before eating can help to increase the amount of absorbed zinc. Other zinc sources are tofu, almonds, oatmeal, chia seeds, cashew, walnuts, pecans and peanuts.
Omega-3 fatty acids
There are three types of omega-3 fatty acids: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). According to scientists, the most important sources of ALA in the diet are the vegetable oils. EPA and DHA are also found mainly in fatty fish such as salmon and tuna. Omega-3 containing products are marketed to promote heart health. Consuming omega-3 fatty acids from seafood can reduce the risk of heart disease and relieve symptoms of arthritis. Omega-3 fatty acids also have many other health benefits. Therefore, it is important to increase the recommended daily dose to 1 g.
These essential fatty acids are therefore very important for the maintenance of the general condition. While fish and eggs are generally considered to be rich sources, omega-3 is also found in chia seeds, linseeds, walnuts and hemp seed. Vegan omega-3 sources include rapeseed oil, algae oil, white beans, cauliflower and broccoli. However, keep in mind that not all vegan foods contain all three types of omega-3 fatty acids. Therefore, it is good to have a large selection. You can try supplements, but it’s unclear if they offer the same benefits as omega-3s, which are derived from whole foods.
Tips for a balanced vegan diet and nutrition
Fresh vegetables are one of the most nutritious foods in the world. The key to achieving the health and longevity of the entire body is in a balanced diet, regardless of their nature. You should above all strive to include a variety of different foods in your vegan diet. You may also want to add certain supplements to make sure you get the right amount of essential nutrients. Look for a vegan or vegetarian multivitamin that contains vitamin B12, iodine, and zinc. However, do not take any iron supplements unless your doctor recommends this. You can also try vegan and vegetarian protein powders to supplement your protein intake if you are worried about it.
Just get the nutrients you need. It does not matter if the reason for being vegan is general health, animal welfare or both. It is like any nutritional plan where you need to find your balance. To avoid malnutrition, you need to work harder to include certain nutrients in your diet. Examine your body to see if you are lacking in nutrients and find out where you can improve. If you need help to determine what and how much you should eat, you can talk to a nutritionist. Self-diagnosis of vitamin deficiency is not recommended as the symptoms often mimic other conditions. If you think you have a problem, contact your doctor.