The vegan diet is rich in many nutrients as long as you eat a diverse group of foods and pay close attention to certain vitamins and minerals. The benefits of a high-quality vegan diet include lower risk of heart disease, chronic diseases, and obesity. However, if a vegan diet is not planned well, vegans can be at risk for deficiency of essential nutrients. This article discusses these important nutrients, their body functions and what you can eat on the vegan diet to avoid deficiency.
Vitamin B12 is a very important vitamin for vegans because there are absolutely no natural plant sources of this vitamin. B12 is especially needed to make red blood cells, preserve DNA, and to support the nervous system. When you don’t enough B12 your diet, you develop what is known as pernicious anemia. Signs and symptoms of this type of anemia are fatigue, shortness of breath, muscle weakness, memory loss, and mood changes. You can also get numbness and tingling of the hands and feet.
Because there are no plant sources of vitamin B12, vegans have a high chance of developing vitamin B12 deficiency. Therefore, vegans have to supplement their diet to avoid this deficiency. Consuming B12 fortified plant milk, fortified cereal, or fortified nutritional yeast are all good ways to add vitamin B12 to the vegan diet. A more dependable way of getting vitamin B12 is to take supplements. The recommended weekly dose is 2000 mcg to 2500 mcg.
Vitamin D is the sunshine vitamin because it is produced in the skin when exposed to UV rays from sunlight. Vitamin D is important for increasing bone strength. It also supports the immune system and reduces the risk of inflammation.
Vegans tend to have lower blood levels of vitamin D than non-vegans. However, bone fracture risks and vitamin D deficiency are not more common to vegans when compared to people that eat animal products. Adequate sun exposure, about 15 to 30 minutes per day, can provide most people with their vitamin D requirement. Other sources of Vitamin D for vegans are fortified plant milk, fortified cereal, mushrooms exposed to sunlight or UV lamp and dietary supplements of 2000 IU per day.
Mushrooms exposed to sunlight are rich in vitamin D[/caption
Calcium is needed for bone formation and bone support throughout a person’s life. Most people get their calcium from fortified dairy products, however vegans do not consume dairy products. In spite of that, bone health and calcium deficiency should not be an issue for vegans who eat enough calcium-rich plant-based foods. Vegetables rich in calcium include kale, napa cabbage, broccoli, collards, and watercress. Other calcium-rich foods are fortified plant milk, tofu, figs, oranges, sesame seeds, nuts, and beans.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are involved in the regulation of a normal heartbeat, brain function, and vision function. They also help reduce inflammation and the risk of blood clots. The short chain omega-3 fatty acid, ALA, can only be acquired from food sources. Food sources of ALA that vegans should include in their daily diet are walnuts, flax seeds, and chia seeds.
The two long chain omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, are very deficient in the vegan diet. Your body can convert ALA to EPA and DHA, but this conversion is low and inefficient. Although EPA and DHA blood levels are low in vegans, evidence shows that vegans can maintain a low stable level via conversion of ALA. Also, there is no current evidence of vegans having negative health effect from lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids.
Iron plays an important role in many body functions. Low blood levels of iron present as iron deficiency anemia. Some of the symptoms include tiredness, muscle weakness, fast heart rate, and shortness of breath.
Iron deficiency is very common in the general population. It is especially common in women of childbearing age, pregnant women, and children. The occurrence of iron deficiency anemia in vegans is similar to that of non-vegans. Good news is that a good vegan diet is very rich in iron sources. Excellent sources of iron are dark green leafy vegetables and legumes. Other plant-based iron sources include whole grains, dried fruits, tofu, nuts, and seeds. Of note, vitamin C-rich foods (tomatoes, bell peppers, broccoli, citrus fruits, tropical fruits) should be paired with iron-rich foods to enhance iron absorption.
Iodine is an essential nutrient that you must acquire from your diet, but there are limited plant-based sources of iodine. Your body needs Iodine to produce thyroid hormones which control metabolism, normal growth and development. Deficiency symptoms occur when Iodine levels are very low. These symptoms are swollen neck, hypothyroidism, tiredness, weight gain, hair loss, trouble with learning, and memory issues. Iodine deficiency is also linked to pregnancy issues like miscarriages and stillbirths.
Vegans sources of iodine include iodized salt (not sea salt) and sea vegetables. If you don’t eat seaweed, or use Iodized salt, then you should take a supplement of 150mcg daily.
Vegans should be concerned about zinc because it is not well absorbed in plant foods. The problem with absorbtion is however decreased by various cooking methods such as baking, fermenting, soaking, and sprouting. Moreover, the body compensates by increasing absorption when necessary. In general, vegans are not at higher risk of developing zinc deficiency as long as they consume foods rich in zinc. Whole grains, legumes, seeds, and nuts are all good plant sources of zinc.
In summary, vegans should vary their sources of nutrients. When well planned, people who are vegan get higher intake of almost every nutrient. They also eat less unhealthy stuff like sodium, saturated fat, and cholesterol than the general population.