With the surge in popularity of the vegan diet in recent years, I thought it’d be a good idea to write a post covering nutrients vegans may be missing so that they know what to supplement and what foods to focus on to ensure their body remains as healthy as possible and is not affected so much by nutritional deficiencies.
12 Nutrients Vegans May Be Missing
#1 – Omega 3 Fatty Acids
I’ve written a bit about omega 3 fatty acids, I think they are quite important in maintaining optimal levels of health as they have been shown to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, promote healthy heart function, maintain healthy skin and nails and help regulate brain function. Vegans may be able to combat this deficiency by taking an omega 3 supplement or consuming large amounts of foods high in alpha-linoleic acid (ALA) which is then converted into the other forms of omega 3 fatty acids: EPA and DHA.
Rich dietary sources of the omega 3 fatty acid ALA include:
- Flax seeds
- Chia seeds
- Brussel sprouts
#2 – Protein
Some would argue that it’s quite easy to get protein on a vegan diet with plant proteins such as quinoa and tofu. However, try comparing the following supermarket foods:
- 100g chicken breast (around 100 kcals) which contains about 20g protein
- 100g quinoa (around 360 kcals) which contains about 14g protein
- 100g tofu (around 80 kcals) which contains about 8g protein
It’s quite clear that animal proteins are a lot more protein-packed than plant proteins which can make it harder for vegans to get a sufficient amount of protein throughout the day. In addition, less plant protein tends to be digested than animal protein. In order to get sufficient protein following a vegan-based diet, I’d consider consuming plant protein powders and basing all your meals around some form of plant protein such as legumes, quinoa, tofu or Quorn.
#3 – Iron
Iron can be absorbed from animal and plant sources. Heme iron comes from animals and non-heme iron from plants. However, non-heme iron is harder for the human body to absorb which often means more non-heme iron is required to gain sufficient iron. Iron is important for transporting oxygen around the body and an iron deficiency can cause: cravings, headaches, dizziness, fatigue and more.
I’d suggest consuming an iron supplement such as Spatone or eating the following iron-rich plant foods:
- Black beans
- Brussel sprouts
- Dark chocolate
#4 – Zinc
Zinc is important for maintaining a strong immune system, but it can be hard to obtain from plant sources as, like iron, absorption of zinc from plant-based foods is reduced. This can mean that your body takes longer to heal, fight infections and can even cause hair loss.
For this reason, you may want to consider taking a zinc supplement or consume the following plant-based sources of zinc:
- Pumpkin seeds
- Cacao or cocoa powder
#5 – Vitamin B12
If you consume a solely plant-based diet means it is likely you aren’t getting enough vitamin B12 as this vitamin is found predominantly in animal products. It is important for optimal brain function and blood flow around the body and without sufficient vitamin B12, you may find yourselves with symptoms such as fatigue, memory loss and a higher than normal heart rate.
Personally, I think Marmite and nutritional yeast are a great source of vitamin B12 for vegans. Sensitive serum tests have shown that 92% of vegans and 77% of vegetarians have low levels of the active form of vitamin B12.
It’s pretty much impossible to get sufficient vitamin B12 from plants. Fortified foods are so processed that the vitamin B12 in there might not even be absorbed that well. Marmite might be your only choice – or you could get a vitamin B supplement or nutritional yeast.
#6 – Creatine
Creatine is not an essential nutrient and a lower dietary intake of creatine is not much of a health concern. However, if you are a power athlete whether that means sprinting, weight lifting or quite simply doing some high-intensity activity then creatine may help to fuel your ambitions.
Creatine is only found in animal foods and is used to help increase your phosphocreatine stores which are used for energy during short-duration intense activity (up to around 10 seconds). If you’re seeking a higher level of high-intensity performance then consider creatine supplementation and ensure you take a creatine supplement and you’re careful to make sure that it doesn’t contain any banned substances. Also, consider that vegetarians who supplemented with creatine were able to improve their scores of brain function so it might be worth taking. See what works for you.
Further Reading: How To Avoid Taking Banned Substances (And Contaminated Ones!)
#7 – Calcium
The main source of calcium talked about has always been dairy, but studies have shown that it is not necessarily as effective as people think and that plant-based sources of calcium are likely just as good. Calcium’s benefits are mainly preventative, such as preventing the development of osteoporosis (thinning of the bones) a condition which causes bones to become thinner and as a result, weaker and more prone to fractures. Increased calcium intake can help reduce the risk and effect that this condition has. In addition, adequate calcium intake can also help to manage blood pressure and heart health.
Note: DV = daily value
Top plant-based sources of calcium:
- Tofu, firm, made using calcium sulfate (1/2 cup contains 25% DV)
- Tofu, soft, made using calcium sulfate (1/2 cup contains 14% DV)
- Turnip greens (1/2 cup boiled contains 10% DV)
- Okra (1 cup contains 8% DV)
- Bok choy (1 cup contains 7% DV)
- Almonds (30g contains 7% DV)
- Kale (1 cup contains 6% DV) – note this % can vary from as low as 2% to as high as 9%
- Watercress (1 cup contains 4% DV)
- Broccoli (1 cup contains 4% DV)
- Calcium-fortified foods such as cereals and various milks
#8 – Vitamin D
The best source of vitamin D is the Sun. However, many people who live up North, not just vegans and vegetarians will tend to get a lack of sunlight since it is less sunny, particularly during Winter. Vitamin D helps to improve muscle strength, maintain optimum immune function within the body and aids in the development and maintenance of strong, healthy bones. Dietary sources of vitamin D tend to come from animal products although some plant-based sources include:
- Bok choy
- White beans
- Acorn squash
#9 – Retinol (Vitamin A)
Vitamin A is an essential fat-soluble vitamin. It can be obtained in two forms through conversion into vitamin A – by consuming retinol and carotenoids. Retinol is about 6 times more bioavailable than carotenoids through conversion into vitamin A. Since retinol is only found in animal products, vegans can ensure they get enough vitamin A by consuming beta-carotene rich foods. In addition, it is worth noting that some individuals do not convert beta-carotene into vitamin A efficiently.
Foods rich in beta-carotene include:
- Winter squash
- Dandelion greens
- Sweet potato
- Collard greens
- Turnip greens
#10 – Choline
Choline is an essential nutrient which aids cognitive function, nerve function and muscle movement. Low levels of choline may manifest itself with the following symptoms: fatigue, memory loss, cognitive decline, nerve damage and muscle aches. To ensure choline levels are adequate you may want to consume a choline supplement since choline can be harder to obtain from plant-based foods.
Plant-based foods rich in choline are:
- Split peas
- Navy beans
- Brussel sprouts
#11 – Vitamin K2
Vitamin K2 has been shown to be vital for bone strength and cardiovascular health by ensuring that calcium stays at the bones and does not leech into the arteries. Vitamin K2 is mostly found in animal foods which can make it hard for vegans to obtain. My suggestion would be to consume a vitamin K2 supplement or to eat natto, a fermented soy-based food product which is very rich in vitamin K2!
#12 – Carnosine
Whilst carnosine is synthesised within the body, vegans and vegetarians have been shown to have lower levels of carnosine than omnivores. This is because carnosine is abundant in red meat. This may not be much of an issue for some, but carnosine has been shown to have various health benefits such as improved recovery from stress-related fatigue, enhance mood and anxiety and improve performance during high-intensity exercise.
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