Vegan and vegetarian diets are both very healthy ways of eating. Whether you choose to follow a vegan
or vegetarian diet based on concerns for animal welfare, the environment, or simply out of personal
preference, you are doing your body a favor. They have been linked to multiple health benefits and a
lower risk of excess weight, heart disease, and even some types of cancer.
However, a few nutrients are either difficult or impossible to get in adequate amounts from vegetarian
diet. Therefore, it’s very important to be aware and supplement your diet with them to maintain health
or physical performance.
Common Nutritional Deficiencies
Vegan and vegetarian diets can be beneficial for your health, but completely cutting animal products
might make you question where you’re getting certain nutrients. Many people assume that getting
enough protein on a plant-based diet will be a problem, but that is not necessarily true. There are plenty
of plant protein sources such as lentils, beans, chickpeas, nuts, seeds, soy products, and whole grains.
The nutritional deficiencies that are most common with vegan and vegetarian diets include: –
- Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is an essential nutrient that’s almost exclusively found in animal-sourced foods, such as fish, meat, dairy products, and eggs. Vitamin B12 known as cobalamin, it’s a water-soluble nutrient involved in developing red blood cells and maintaining nerves and normal brain function.
Studies have shown that without supplements or enriched foods, vegetarians are at a high risk of vitamin B12 deficiency. Lacto-ovo-vegetarians can get adequate amounts of this nutrient from dairy products and eggs, but this is much more challenging for vegans.
To get sufficient amounts of vitamin B12, those following a vegetarian diet must get vitamin B12 by taking supplements or eating food that has been fortified with this nutrient.
These include enriched yeast extracts, soy products, breakfast cereals, bread, and meat substitutes.
- Vitamin D3 (Cholecalciferol)
Vitamin D is an essential nutrient with many important functions. Also called the sunshine vitamin, vitamin D doesn’t have to come from your diet. Your skin can produce it when it’s exposed to sunlight. However, if your sunlight exposure is limited or you live far from the equator, you must get it from food or supplements.
There are two types of dietary vitamin D — ergocalciferol (D2) found in plants and cholecalciferol (D3) found in animal-based foods.
Of these types, cholecalciferol (D3) increases blood levels of absorbable vitamin D much more efficiently than ergocalciferol (D2). The best sources of vitamin D3 are fatty fish and egg yolks. Other sources include supplements, cod liver oil, or enriched foods like milk or cereals.
As the main dietary sources of vitamin D3 are not plant-based, vegetarians and vegans may be at a higher risk of deficiency especially in the winter.
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is an essential omega-3 fatty acid that’s important for normal brain development and function. Deficiency in DHA can have adverse effects on mental health and brain function, especially in children. In addition, inadequate DHA intake in pregnant women may adversely affect fetal brain development.
It’s mainly found in fatty fish, fish oil, and certain types of microalgae.
In your body, DHA can also be made from the omega-3 fatty acid ALA, which is found in high amounts in flax seeds, chia seeds, and walnuts. However, the conversion of ALA to DHA is very inefficient and may not increase blood levels of DHA.
For this reason, vegetarians and vegans often have lower levels of DHA than meat eaters.
- Heme iron
Heme iron is a type of iron only found in meat, especially red meat. It’s much better absorbed than nonheme iron, which is commonly found in plant foods. Heme iron also improves your absorption of nonheme iron from plant foods. This phenomenon is not entirely understood but is called the “meat factor.”
Non-heme iron is poorly absorbed, and its absorption can be limited further by antinutrients that are also present in plant foods, such as phytic acid. Unlike non-heme iron, the absorption of heme iron is not affected by the presence of antinutrients.
For this reason, vegetarians and vegans — especially women and people on raw food diets — are more prone to anemia than meat eaters.
However, iron deficiency is easy to avoid on a well-planned vegan diet that contains plenty of non-heme iron.
Taurine is a sulfur compound found in various body tissues, including your brain, heart, and kidneys.
While its bodily function is not entirely clear, it appears to play a role in muscle function, bile salt formation, and antioxidant defenses. Taurine is only found in animal-sourced foods, such as fish, seafood, meat, poultry, and dairy products.
Subsequently, studies have shown that vegans have lower levels of taurine than meat eaters.
It’s not considered essential in the diet, as your body produces small amounts. Still, dietary taurine may play a role in maintaining your body’s taurine levels.
Creatine is a molecule found in animal foods. Most of it is stored in muscles but significant amounts are also concentrated in the brain. It functions as an easily accessible energy reserve for muscle cells, giving them greater strength and endurance.
For this reason, it’s one of the world’s most popular supplements for muscle building.
Creatine is not essential in your diet, as it can be produced by your liver. However, studies have shown that vegetarians tend to have lower amounts of creatine in their muscle. Creatine is only naturally found in animal tissue, vegetarians and vegans can only get it from supplements.
Carnosine is an antioxidant that’s concentrated in the muscles and brain of humans and animals.
It’s very important for muscle function, and high levels of carnosine in muscles are linked to reduced muscle fatigue and improved performance. Carnosine is only found in animal-based foods. However, it’s considered non-essential, as your body can form it from the amino acids histidine and beta-alanine.
Dietary sources of beta-alanine may contribute significantly to muscle levels of carnosine, but the main dietary sources — meat, poultry, and fish — are non-vegetarian.
Subsequently, studies have shown that vegetarians have less carnosine in their muscles than nonvegetarians.
Supplementing with beta-alanine is a great way to increase the levels of carnosine in your muscles, improving endurance and increasing muscle mass.
So, if you follow or are interested in a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle, you may need to put in more effort initially to learn where your nutrients are coming from. Your health is your greatest asset, so you should do everything you can to protect it.