Vegan and Vegetarian Diets May Be Lacking in Certain Nutrients: Here’s How to Get More of Them

Vegan and vegetarian diets are certainly all the rage, with more people making the switch than ever before. While some people choose to follow a plant-based diet for environmental reasons, others adopt these diets due to their health benefits. Not surprising, given that studies have linked vegetarian and vegan diets to lower body mass index (BMI) and a lower risk of certain diseases, including cancer, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.

But while plant-based diets can have many health benefits, they can also, without some planning, lead to nutrient deficiencies. In fact, one survey suggests that around 28% of vegans and 13% of vegetarians show one or more nutrient deficiencies. This is because many plant-based diets do not contain high levels of certain nutrients, such as vitamin B12, omega-3 fatty acids, iodine, calcium, selenium, iron, and zinc.

Research shows that veganism in particular is linked to significantly lower intakes of vitamin B12 and calcium, especially in people who don’t take vitamin supplements. Selenium, zinc, vitamin D, and iodine intakes are also low in this group.

This article is part of Quarter Life, a series on issues that affect those of us in our twenties and thirties. From the challenges of starting a career and taking care of our mental health, to the excitement of starting a family, adopting a pet, or simply making friends as adults. The articles in this series explore the questions and provide answers as we navigate this turbulent period of life.

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While vegetarian diets may contain slightly higher levels of amino acids, vitamin B12, calcium, and protein compared to vegan diets, intake may still be lower than when following an omnivorous diet.

proper planning

Vitamins and minerals are important for good health. For example, vitamin B12 is important for brain function and red blood cell production. But our bodies don’t naturally produce many important vitamins and minerals (including vitamin B12, iron, selenium, and iodine), so getting them from the foods we eat is essential.

The hands of a person.  One hand is open with two tablets in the palm, while the other is holding a medicine bottle.
Be sure to consult your GP before taking any supplements.

But not getting enough of these important vitamins and minerals can lead to deficiencies. These can have a variety of side effects, including excessive tiredness and mental confusion. If left untreated, over time, this can lead to serious nerve, skeletal, and blood disorders.

If you are someone thinking of making the switch to a vegetarian or vegan diet, here are some things to consider to avoid vitamin deficiencies:

  1. Seek expert advice to help you plan your diet to ensure it contains all the essential nutrients you need, especially if you are transitioning from a vegetarian to a vegan diet, are or may become pregnant, or are over 60 years of age.
  2. Focus on your nutrients. Try to choose plant-based food products that have been fortified with important vitamins and minerals, or foods that naturally contain large amounts of important nutrients. For example, Brazil nuts are rich in selenium, while seaweed is a good source of vitamin B12 and iodine.
  3. Eat a varied diet. This is especially important when it comes to the plant-based proteins you consume to ensure you get all the essential amino acids from your diet. Some foods that contain them include lentils, legumes, beans, soybeans, tofu, nuts, and seeds.
  4. It combines certain nutrients. Certain nutrients can help others to be better absorbed in the body. For example, vitamin C can increase the absorption of iron. Vitamin B12 supplements should also be taken with food to help the body absorb it more easily.
  5. Watch your health. If you start to experience fatigue, memory problems, or even low mood, it could be a sign of a vitamin deficiency. Be sure to consult a doctor before taking any supplements to ensure you are taking the correct ones.

If you need to use a vitamin supplement, be sure to look for supplements that are labeled GMP certified, as these will contain the proper nutrition. But long-term supplement use can have its drawbacks, such as being expensive or interacting with certain medications. There is also the danger of excessive supplementation, which can lead to a buildup of certain unmetabolized nutrients in our bodies. It is currently unknown how common this is and what the long-term effects might be. For all these reasons, it is important to consult a GP before taking any supplement.

A well-planned plant-based diet can be good for both your health and the planet. But it’s important to be aware of the foods and nutrients you might be eating to avoid essential nutrient deficiencies.

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