I should start this article by saying, I am not a medical professional nor am I a nutritionist. I actually decided to write this article because it was something I was excited to research and learn more about. There is a lot of good information and advice out there in the world of Google on this topic, and hopefully I can provide some insight as well.
What Are Some Vegan Diet Deficiencies to Watch Out For?
Battling the “But where do you get your protein from?” question may make you believe that once you switch to a plant-based diet your biggest struggle will be finding enough protein. However, that most likely will not be the case. Your body’s need for protein can be fulfilled through eating a variety of plant-based foods such as tofu, tempeh, chickpeas, lentils, beans, quinoa, chia, etc. A lot of those are staple foods for most vegans, so protein is covered.
The big potential vegan diet deficiencies to keep an eye on are vitamins and fatty acids. In this article I will specifically address vitamin B12, vitamin D3, and Omega-3 Fatty Acids.
- Recommended 2.4 micrograms (mcg) per day.
Vitamin B12 helps the body with proper nerve and cellular health. Vitamin B12 can also help the body prevent anemia. But I am sure most of us are more familiar with B12 boosting our energy levels and cognitive focus. Vitamin B12 is the vitamin most vegans, or those eating a more a plant-based diet, are at risk of deficiency. Vitamin B12 is a micro-organism found in dirt or inside an animal’s stomach. So, aside from eating dirt, how do vegans get B12? The best way to ensure you get enough B12 on you plant-based journey is to take a supplement. Or, if you are not one for poppin’ pills, to find a sufficient amount of B12 from food you will have to look for foods or drinks that are fortified, such as non-dairy milks, nutritional yeast, soy products, or cereals.
- Recommended 600 International Units (IU) per day.
Vitamin D3 is crucial for bone health and may increase lifespan. Vitamin D3 can be produced by the body when it is exposed to sunlight. About 20 to 30 minutes of sun exposure, six to seven days a week should provide what the body needs. Hmmm, are you able to take a full sun walk everyday around lunchtime? If so, that is amazing and I would like to know where you work so I can join you for daily lunch walks filled with delicious sunlight. Most of us, due to work, weather, where we live, or just life aren’t able to get a sufficient amount of sunlight to take care of all of our vitamin D needs, so we must find it in food or a supplement. On a plant-based diet, vitamin D3 specifically, is difficult to come by so we have to watch out for fortified foods and drinks. Some of these options include fortified non-dairy milks, orange juice, or oatmeal. If these fortified foods aren’t your jam, there are also vitamin D3 supplements to fill in the gaps. And if you are one that gets out and enjoys soaking up the sun, please do so responsibly with sunscreen and proper protective gear.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
- Recommended 250 to 500 milligrams (mg) per day.
Omega-3 fatty acids is an essential fat that the body uses for cell growth, heart health, mood boosting, joint pain relief, and even dry eye relief. Most fats the body can make on its own, however that is not the case with Omega-3s. Omega-3 fatty acids must come from food or supplements. Besides seafood and fish oils that you may have used in the past to supplement Omega-3s, those on a plant-based diet can get Omega-3s from vegetable oils, walnuts, flax seeds, flax seed oil, chia seeds, hemp seeds, leafy vegetables, or through a supplement.
Some other nutrients to keep an eye on for potential deficiencies include:
- Zinc (recommended 8-11 mg per day)
- Iron (recommended 8 mg per day for men and 18 mg a day for women)
- Calcium (recommended 1000 mg per day)
- Iodine (recommended 150 mcg per day)
One thing I highly recommend when making a major change to your diet is to inform your doctor. I don’t check in with my doctor much, maybe once every two or three years, but it just so worked out that shortly before switching my diet I had some blood tests done. Then, about a year and a half later, I had the same tests done again. It was cool to see and discuss the differences between the two tests. And it was reassuring to see the numbers (AKA my health) had significantly improved over the year and a half of eating plant-based. If you want to be sure your body is not deficient in any of the above mentioned nutrients, give your doctor a call. Sometimes, you can simply request the blood work order be put in over the phone and then head to the lab at your convenience to get the blood drawn. It is a pretty simple process (at least in my experience).
Eating a Well Rounded Plant-Based Diet
We all probably remember learning about the Food Guide Pyramid in elementary school. That triangle image with breads and grain at the bottom, then fruits, veggies, meat, diary up the middle, and with fats and oils at the top? Well, that doesn’t quite work out for someone looking to eat a more plant-based diet. Is there a Food Guide Pyramid for those of us abstaining from animal products? Yes! One wonderful image I found while doing research for this article is an image of The Vegan Plate, created by dietitians Brenda Davis and Vesanto Melina in their book “Becoming Vegan” (2014).
When I came across this image, I was very thankful. Not only does it capture the different types of food to keep on our plate daily, it also captures the supplements discussed in this article: Vitamin B12, Vitamin D3, and Omega-3 Fatty Acids.
You may be thinking, this image is great, but it still doesn’t give me much on what I should eat at each meal when trying out this whole plant-based gig. How about this:
- Fruits and Veggies – eat with every meal and snack break (try for 5 servings a day)
- Starchy & high fiber foods – eat with every meal
- Protein rich foods – eat with 2 to 3 meals a day
- Calcium rich foods – eat with 1 to 2 meals a day
- Nuts & seeds – 1 serving a day
This will vary from person to person, so as previously mentioned go ahead and talk to your doctor about your change in diet and be sure you are getting the right nutrients each day for YOU.
One good tool for tracking your intake is Cronometer. This application can be easily added to your phone and used for meal tracking and as an exercise log. I have used this tool to watch what nutrients I am getting plenty of and where I am lacking. A basic account is free and tracking a meal is quick and easy.
Food or Supplements?
This question differs from human to human. I am one that likes to eat, so finding new foods and new recipes to ensure I am getting the nutrients my body needs is enjoyable for me. For someone else, that may not be the case and a quick multivitamin may be the way to go for them. In my case, when it comes to B12, D3 and Omega-3s, to ensure I get what I need I take a vegan multivitamin, in addition to a rounded diet, to ensure I am getting the right amount daily. There are a few options out there, but the multivitamin I am currently taking is from a 100% vegan company called Future Kind. I support these guys because they have one mission – to end animal suffering. So far on this multivitamin, I feel regularly energized and in good spirits. I will do a full review of this vegan multivitamin and others in the near future, so keep an eye out for a new post!
Bottom Line: Know and Care for Your Body
As with any big change to your body, feel it out and be aware of what the change is doing to your body. Talk to your doctor and keep track of your food intake. If you find yourself missing out on getting adequate amounts of nutrients like vitamin B12, vitamin D3, or Omega-3s, do some research, read the food labels, and find supplements that work for you. This plant-based journey will revitalize your life and your body, but be sure to do so safely and informed. Good luck and thanks for stopping by!