As the popularity of veganism grows, it’s important to understand the potential nutritional deficiencies that can arise from eliminating animal products from our diets. While a well-planned vegan diet can provide all the necessary nutrients for optimal health, there are certain essential nutrients that may be lacking if not consumed in sufficient amounts.
So, what is a vegan diet deficient in? The answer is not straightforward as it depends on various factors, including the individual’s dietary habits and lifestyle choices. However, there are some essential nutrients that vegans should pay extra attention to and ensure adequate intake of through their diet or supplements.
Understanding the Vegan Diet
A vegan diet is a way of eating that eliminates all animal products, including meat, dairy, eggs, and honey. Instead, vegans rely on plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, and nuts to meet their nutritional needs.
While a vegan diet can be incredibly healthy when done correctly, vegans may face some nutritional challenges due to the elimination of certain food groups. Below, we will discuss some of the potential nutrient gaps and deficiencies that may arise on a vegan diet, and how to address them.
Protein is essential for growth, repair and maintenance of the body’s tissues. It is made up of amino acids, and there are nine essential amino acids that the body cannot produce on its own and must be obtained through the diet. Animal products are typically rich sources of all nine essential amino acids, making it easier for meat-eaters to consume adequate amounts of protein. However, it is possible for vegans to meet their protein needs through a variety of plant-based sources.
Some excellent sources of plant-based proteins include tofu, tempeh, legumes (beans, lentils, and peas), nuts and seeds, and whole grains. Combining different plant-based protein sources throughout the day can ensure that vegans are consuming all nine essential amino acids. For example, a meal that includes lentil soup with whole-grain bread or tofu stir-fry with quinoa can be a great way to get enough protein and essential amino acids.
Without adequate protein intake, vegans may experience muscle loss, fatigue, and a weakened immune system. However, most vegans who consume a varied and balanced diet can easily meet their protein needs without the use of supplements.
Iron is an essential mineral that plays a crucial role in the transport of oxygen in the body. It is particularly important for vegans as the iron found in plant-based foods is less readily absorbed than that found in animal products. As a result, vegans may be at greater risk of iron deficiency if they do not plan their diet carefully.
There are two types of dietary iron: heme and non-heme. Heme iron is found in animal products and is more easily absorbed by the body. Non-heme iron is found in plant-based foods and is less well absorbed.
|Food Source||Iron Content (mg per 100g)|
|Kidney beans (cooked)||2.8|
|Tofu||1.5 – 4.6|
Vegans can ensure they are getting enough iron by consuming a variety of iron-rich plant-based foods, including spinach, lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans and tofu. It is also important to consume foods high in vitamin C, such as citrus fruits, bell peppers, and broccoli, as vitamin C helps the body absorb non-heme iron.
Vitamin C-rich foods should be eaten at the same time as iron-rich foods to enhance absorption. Drinking tea or coffee with meals can reduce the absorption of iron, so it is best to avoid these beverages when consuming iron-rich foods.
If you are concerned about your iron levels, speak to your doctor or a registered dietitian to discuss whether a supplement may be necessary.
Calcium is an important mineral that is necessary for the growth and maintenance of healthy bones and teeth. It also plays a role in muscle function, nerve transmission, and blood clotting.
Vegans may have difficulty obtaining enough calcium from their diet as many traditional sources of calcium, such as dairy products, are not included in a vegan diet. However, there are many plant-based sources of calcium, including:
|Food||Calcium content (mg)|
|Kale (1 cup, cooked)||179|
|Broccoli (1 cup, cooked)||62|
|Almonds (1/4 cup, dry roasted)||96|
|Fortified plant-based milk (1 cup)||300-500|
Vitamin D is also important for the absorption of calcium and can be more difficult to obtain on a vegan diet, as it is primarily found in animal-based foods and can be synthesized in the skin through sun exposure. Vegans may need to rely on fortified foods or supplements to obtain adequate vitamin D.
Tip: Cooking vegetables can improve their calcium bioavailability. Try roasting kale or broccoli for a delicious and nutritious side dish.
Vitamin B12 is an essential nutrient that plays a crucial role in the formation of red blood cells and the maintenance of a healthy nervous system. Unfortunately, this vitamin is not naturally found in plant-based foods, which makes it a key nutrient of concern for vegans.
To ensure adequate intake of vitamin B12, vegans may choose to consume fortified foods such as cereals, plant-based milks, and nutritional yeast. Alternatively, vitamin B12 supplements may be taken to meet daily requirements. It’s important to note that even vegetarians who consume dairy products and eggs may still not be getting enough vitamin B12, as the vitamin is not present in large quantities in these foods.
The consequences of vitamin B12 deficiency can be severe, including anemia, nerve damage, and even neurological disorders. Therefore, it is essential that vegans pay close attention to their vitamin B12 intake and consider supplementing if necessary.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats that play a crucial role in brain function, heart health, and reducing inflammation in the body. While fish is a common source of omega-3s, vegans can still obtain this nutrient through plant-based sources such as flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, and algae supplements.
However, it is important for vegans to be aware that the plant-based sources of omega-3s provide a different type of fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which the body then converts to the more beneficial forms, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
|Plant-based source||Omega-3 content per serving|
|Flaxseeds (ground)||2.35 g|
|Chia seeds (ground)||2.5 g|
|Hemp seeds (hulled)||1.0 g|
Supplements made from algae, such as Spirulina and Chlorella, are a good source of EPA and DHA, but be sure to check the labels for the amount of omega-3s per serving.
It is recommended that vegans consume 250-500 mg of EPA and DHA per day, either through diet or supplements, to achieve optimal health benefits.
Other Essential Nutrients
In addition to the nutrients discussed in the previous sections, there are other essential nutrients that may be lacking in a vegan diet. These include zinc and vitamin D.
Zinc is important for immune function, wound healing and the synthesis of DNA. While it can be found in plant-based sources such as legumes, nuts and seeds, these foods may also contain phytates which can reduce zinc absorption. To ensure adequate intake, vegans may need to consume a slightly higher amount of zinc compared to non-vegans or consider taking a supplement.
Vitamin D is important for bone health and immune function. While it can be obtained from exposure to sunlight, it can be difficult to get enough in certain climates or during the winter months. Few plant-based sources of vitamin D exist and fortified foods such as plant-based milks, cereals and supplements may be necessary to meet daily requirements.
Ensuring adequate intake of all essential nutrients is important for optimal health on a vegan diet. By understanding potential nutrient gaps and taking steps to address them, such as consuming a variety of whole foods and considering supplements when necessary, vegans can thrive on this lifestyle choice.
Curious about how a vegan diet affects your health? Here are the answers to some frequently asked questions:
What nutrients are most commonly lacking in a vegan diet?
While a vegan diet can provide all the necessary nutrients, some are harder to obtain from plant-based sources. These include protein, iron, calcium, vitamin B12, and omega-3 fatty acids.
Can vegans get enough protein?
Absolutely! Plant-based sources of protein include beans, lentils, tofu, tempeh, nuts, and seeds. Combining different protein sources throughout the day can ensure adequate protein intake.
How do vegans get enough iron?
Iron can be found in leafy greens, legumes, fortified cereals, and dried fruits. Pairing iron-rich foods with vitamin C can also improve absorption.
What about calcium?
Calcium can be found in fortified plant-based milks and juices, tofu, leafy greens, and fortified cereal. Ensuring adequate vitamin D intake can also improve calcium absorption.
What’s the deal with vitamin B12?
Vitamin B12 is essential for nerve function and the production of red blood cells. It is only naturally found in animal products, so vegans should supplement or consume fortified foods, such as plant milks and breakfast cereals.
How can vegans get their omega-3s?
Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and soy products. Supplementing with algae-based omega-3s is also an option.
Are there any other essential nutrients to consider?
Zinc can be found in legumes, nuts, and seeds, while vitamin D can be obtained through fortified foods or exposure to sunlight. It’s important to vary your diet and ensure adequate intake of all essential nutrients.