So you’ve been living the vegan dream and saving the planet like a boss. 🥕 But such a massive change in your diet can have some unwanted effects on your body. You could be missing out on essential vitamins and other nutrients your body needs to function.
Which nutrients are at risk of deficiency in vegan diets?
Meat, fish, and dairy products contain loads of vital nutrients. When you follow a vegan diet, it can be more difficult to get the same levels of these nutrients from plant-based products.
Here are some of the common nutrients you could be missing out on:
- vitamin B12
- vitamin D3
- docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
Never fear! There are plenty of ways to top these up through supplements and veggie alternatives.
With around 9.7 million Americans now eating plant-based diets, veganism is all the rage. But in some cases, skimping on animal products can lead to deficiencies.
There are loads of foods to chow down on that will help keep your nutrient levels in check. You just have to be a bit more aware of what you’re stuffing in your face. And you can always take supplements if you need an extra boost.
We give you the (faux) meat and potatoes of the matter.
Going vegan has a bunch of benefits, but you’ve gotta look after yourself too. Knowing where to get those extra nutrients will help you avoid deficiencies.
With a bit of know-how, you can fully embody your vegan swag while being a healthy, happy, fully functioning human.
There are two different types of nutritional iron: heme iron and non-heme iron.
Heme iron mostly hangs around in red meat, but it’s also in fatty fish, chicken, and eggs. Your body can absorb this stuff easily.
Non-heme iron comes from plants and veggies such as:
- dark green leafy vegetables
Many food products, including some plant milks and cereals, are also fortified with non-heme iron.
Non-heme iron is harder for your body to absorb, so if it’s your main source of iron, you’ll need almost twice as much. Vitamin C can help your body absorb more of the stuff, so make sure to have some OJ (or carrot juice) on hand to help things along.
Iron deficiency can lead to anemia, a condition in which you don’t have enough red blood cells to carry oxygen around your body. Symptoms can include:
- tiredness and lack of energy
- shortness of breath
- heart palpitations
- pale skin
Vitamin B12 is the kryptonite of vegans everywhere, since only animal products naturally contain high enough quantities of it to meet your needs.
It’s essential for keeping your body, cells, and brain healthy. It even helps your body actually create DNA. That’s some straight-up Jurassic Park sh*t right there.
B12 deficiency can cause nerve damage. Symptoms of a deficiency include:
- loss of appetite
- weight loss
You might remember this stuff from science class or your grandma’s dusty old first aid box. But iodine is also a vital nutrient your body needs to make thyroid hormones. These hormones help control your body’s metabolism and play an important role in bone and brain development during pregnancy and infancy.
Non-vegans can get enough iodine from fish and dairy products. But many people also get this nutrient from iodized salt.
Some research suggests that about 3.2 percent of people worldwide have iodine deficiency, but it’s rare in the United States.
But it can be very serious, especially if you’re pregnant. It can lead to:
- fetal development issues
- cognitive impairment
- a swelling in your neck called a goiter
- memory and learning problems
- fatigue and weakness
Got milk? Then you’ve got calcium.
If you remember those old ads, then you also probably remember that it’s good for your bones. Almost all calcium hangs out in your bones and teeth, keeping them solid AF.
Although dairy products like cheese and milk provide a bunch of calcium, you can also find it in kale, broccoli, fish, and grains.
It does some other cool stuff like helping nerves carry messages between your brain and all your other body parts. It also helps blood vessels move blood around (which is kinda their job, TBH) and supports the release of hormones and enzymes.
A lack of calcium can increase your risk of developing osteoporosis. This can lead to fractures, since it makes your bones more brittle.
Vitamin D is best known as the sunshine vitamin 🌞. Most of your vitamin D intake comes from the UV rays you absorb through your skin.
Almost all the vitamin D you’ll find in foods has been added as a supplement. But mighty mushrooms are naturally loaded with it, since they soak it up from the sun like us).
Vitamin D works in harmony with calcium to keep your bones strong. But it also supports your immune system in its quest to fight off illness.
Vitamin D deficiency in children can cause rickets, a Victorian-sounding condition that causes bones to become soft, weak, and painful. In teens and adults, it can cause osteomalacia, a painful disease affecting the bones and muscles.
Creatine is a substance found in your muscles and in smaller amounts in your brain. Your body makes enough creatine on its own, so you don’t have to worry about deficiency. But you can get extra creatine by eating meat or fish or taking supplements.
Athletes and gym buffs everywhere rely on creatine supplements to up their game. Research suggests it can improve athletic performance, promote post-exercise recovery, and prevent injury.
Vegetarians and vegans, in particular, can reap benefits from supplementing creatine, including increased physical performance and improvements in brain function and memory.
Carnitine is a nutrient that helps your body turn fat into energy. It does this by transporting fatty acids into your cells’ mitochondria (y’know, the powerhouse of the cell).
Your body can make most of the carnitine you need by itself, so carnitine isn’t an essential nutrient unless you have a rare condition that leads to a deficiency.
If you fall into this category, you’ll need to supplement carnitine, since your body doesn’t produce enough of it. Carnitine deficiency can cause:
- muscle weakness
- motor development issues
- poor feeding in a baby
- low blood sugar
- shortness of breath
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
Doco… what? Well, it’s one of the three main omega-3 fatty-acids.
Your body can’t produce omega-3 fatty-acids by itself, so you’ll need to get them from food. You can find them in fish and seafood, as well as nuts, seeds, and plant oils.
DHA is particularly abundant in your brain, eyes, and sperm cells. Those little swimmers are counting on you to eat enough of this fatty acid.
DHA deficiency can cause an itchy rash and scaly skin, but it’s not common in the United States.
If you’ve ever pulled an all-nighter before a tight deadline (or just indulged in Jägerbombs more than you should’ve), you’ve probably consumed taurine. It’s a common additive in energy drinks like Red Bull. (And no, it doesn’t come from bull spunk. Sorry to disappoint.)
Taurine is an amino acid that’s all over your brain, eyes, muscles, and organs. It’s involved in loads of important processes in your body and helps your central nervous system work properly. Other than energy drinks, you can find taurine in high quantities in meat and fish.
Your body generally makes enough taurine, so supplements shouldn’t be necessary unless you have certain health conditions, such as congestive heart failure or swelling of the liver.
Taurine deficiency has been known to cause:
- cardiomyopathy (issues with the heart)
- kidney dysfunction
- damage to the retinal neurons in the eye
If you’re feeling a little overwhelmed, there’s no need to panic. It’s fairly easy to avoid any deficiencies when eating a vegan diet.
Now that you’re more aware of the risks, you’ll know what symptoms to look out for.
You can avoid most deficiencies by eating a balanced diet, and there are loads of vegan food sources containing most of these nutrients.
Amazing nutrients and where to find them (if you’re vegan)
Things have progressed a bit since the ’70s. There are more vegan food products than ever, many of which are packed with those essential vitamins and nutrients.
Here’s a rundown of where to find them:
- fortified plant milks
- fortified cereals
- vegan butter
- nutritional yeast
- meat substitutes
- some mushrooms
(NGL, Super Mario has Vitamin D covered. 🍄 )
- nori seaweed
Sometimes, your body just won’t get enough nutrition from food alone. That’s where supplements come in to save the day.
Many plant-based peeps use supplements to help them get enough of key nutrients. Sure, it’s an adjustment, but so was that time you threw away your Crocs, and that only did you good. Taking supplements just becomes part of your new lifestyle.
When starting out on a plant-based diet, it can be useful to get regular blood tests. This will help you keep track of deficiencies so you can make any necessary dietary adjustments.
If any concerning symptoms pop up, talk with a medical professional. Something more serious could be going on, and they can help you find out what’s up.
Cautions about supplements
Although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversees the production of dietary supplements, there are a few differences between supplements and medications.
The FDA approves supplements as food, not as drugs. This doesn’t mean supplements are dangerous, since there are still good manufacturing processes (GMPs) in place to ensure product safety.
But it does mean you should take any wild claims about health benefits with a pinch of salt, because the approval process isn’t as rigorous. It’s best to speak with a medical pro before taking any new supplements, especially if you regularly take any medication.
It’s a good idea to be aware of the vitamins and nutrients you might be missing out on when livin’ la vida vegana.
Deficiencies can cause a whole bunch of problems, and life is tough enough already.
Luckily, there are plenty of vegan foods to help you meet your daily nutrient needs. And you can always rely on supplements for an extra boost if you need it.