Veganism might do wonders for us, for animals and for the planet, but truth be told, there are some essential nutrients that are hard to obtain from a vegan diet. This is because they are not as widely available in plant-based foods or their bioavailability in plant sources is low. This of course doesn’t mean that you have to eat meat or live with nutritional deficiencies. There is a third path. Here, guest health blogger, Anita Fernandes, helps identify the most common nutritional deficiencies and suggests how to take steps to counter them.
1. Vitamin B12
This nutrient plays an important role in healthy brain function and the production of red blood cells. Also known as cobalamin, it is mainly obtained from meats, eggs and dairy products. B12 is not found in any commonly consumed plant sources. Signs of deficiency include fatigue and a higher risk of neurological and psychiatric disorders.
To counter the risk of B12 deficiency, eat plenty of B12-enriched foods, such as soy products and certain breakfast cereals. Add tempeh and nori seaweed to your diet. (Raw or freeze-dried nori are better choices as conventional drying destroys B12.)
2. Omega Fatty Acids EPA & DHA
Adequate dietary intake of alphalinolenic acid (ALA) and chain omega-3 fat like EPA and DHA is essential because of their role in inflammatory response, brain health, and protection against autoimmune and cardiovascular disease. Deficiencies can cause fatigue, depression, anxiety, and brain development problems. While your body can produce DHA and EPA from ALA found in plant foods such as walnuts and flaxseeds, the conversion rates are just too low to make much difference. But there is a solution and it doesn’t mean eating fish. You may not find microalgae on your supermarket shelf, but algal oil supplements can do the trick, with most individuals requiring 200–300 mg a day. (Talk to your doctor before you start taking any dietary supplements.)
Iodine deficiency is something that we don’t hear much about because the risk is not high for the general population. As vegans it’s something that we need to pay heed to, as reports show that blood iodine levels may be as much as 50% lower in those on vegan diets. Iodine is essential for healthy thyroid function, which also regulates your body’s metabolism. Deficiency is linked to symptoms like fatigue, dry skin, memory loss, depression, and weight gain. During pregnancy and infancy, an iodine deficiency also increases the risk of mental retardation.
Although iodine can be obtained through plant sources, the nutritional value varies depending on iodine content in soil. As a vegan, the best thing that you can do to get adequate iodine would be to include more iodized salt and seaweed in your diet. Just half a teaspoon of iodized salt would give you your daily requirement. If you can’t consume salt for health reasons, speak to your health care provider about supplementation.
As a vegan, you probably know that leafy greens are a good source of iron. The problem with iron deficiency or anemia in vegans arises because of the types of iron in food and their bioavailability. Heme-iron, which is more easily absorbed, is only found in meats, while non-heme iron from plant sources is not easily absorbed. Phytic acids in plant foods actually inhibit absorption of non-heme iron, which may explain the higher rates of anemia among vegans.
To get enough iron, increase your intake of leafy greens, beans, dried fruits, nuts, and seeds, as well as iron-fortified breakfast cereals and breads. You can also aid absorption of this essential mineral by consuming vitamin-C rich foods along with iron-rich foods. Additionally, restrict tea and coffee. Supplements can also help, but should only be taken if necessary and as per the recommendations of your health care provider as excessive intake of iron can also cause serious complications.
5. Vitamins A & D
Fat-soluble vitamins like A and D play an important role in almost all bodily functions. Although A and D deficiencies can affect all population groups, vegans are at a higher risk because of poor dietary availability in plant sources. Deficiencies in these vitamins can cause a range of problems from weakened immunity and depression, to autoimmune disorders and chronic joint or bone conditions.
While increasing your intake of carotenoids and spending more time in the sun will help, you should make it a point to consume beta-carotene containing foods along with dietary fats to improve absorption. Although there’s little else that you can do, as most processed foods are not fortified with these nutrients, you can speak to your health care provider about supplementation.
Worried your diet may be lacking? The best thing you can do is get your levels tested and then seek guidance from a dietitian.
Guest post by Anita Fernandes.
Anita has been writing extensively on health and wellness for over a decade. She has expertise in nutrition, fitness, public health, and weight loss and has contributed content to a variety of leading digital health publishers. Anita has a unique perspective on healthy living and lifestyle, as she has battled and overcome eating disorders and obesity. She shares her experiences in an effort to help others overcome the physical and mental health problems that can sometimes seem insurmountable.