Perhaps you are considering going vegan but wondering if you will still be able to get all of the nutrients your body needs without eating animal products? On last week’s blog post we talked about what micronutrients are and why they are important for the proper functioning of our bodies. This week we are going to look potential micronutrient deficiencies and a macronutrient deficiency that may result from following a vegan diet.
A vegan diet is one that eliminates all animal products; this includes dairy, meat, poultry, seafood, eggs and honey. This differs from a vegetarian diet that may include one or a combination of these foods in the diet. A well planned vegan diet is high in fibre, vitamins and antioxidants. However, if a vegan diet is not thoughtfully planned it can result in various nutrient deficiencies. Animal products contain various nutrients that are found in their most absorbable form and are either less absorbable, in smaller quantities or not found naturally in plant-based foods. For this reason, it is important to ensure a vegan diet is well planned to avoid deficiencies in these nutrients.
The following is a list of nutrients that are most likely to be deficient in a vegan diet as well as common vegan food sources of these nutrients.
The iron that is found in meat is highly absorbable; this is known as heme iron. Iron can be found in non-meat sources as well but it is less absorbable; this is called non-heme iron. Absorption of non-heme iron decreases when consumed in conjunction with phytates (found in whole grain, brans and legumes) and tannins (found in coffee, tea and cola drinks). However, absorption can be increased when consumed with foods that are rich in vitamin C (such as citrus fruits, berries, and tomatoes) and foods rich in vitamin A (such as oils and spreads). Vegan food sources that are rich in that are rich in non-heme iron include dried beans and other legumes, blackstrap molasses, wheatgerm, pasta, bulgur, spinach, prune juice and dried fruit (especially dried apricots).
Vitamin B12 is found primarily in animal products. Vegan food sources of vitamin B12include vitamin B12fortified meat substitutes and plant milks, and nutritional yeast. This usually needs to be supplemented in vegan diets.
Calcium is found primarily in dairy products. Vegan food sources of calcium include fortified soy milk and tofu fortified with calcium. Other vegan food sources that contain calcium in smaller amounts include molasses, almonds, spinach, kale and broccoli.
Vitamin D is also usually found in dairy products. Vegan food sources of vitamin D include fortified soy milk or orange juice, and fortified soft margarine. This is a vitamin that usually needs to be supplemented in all Canadians, not just vegans.
Zinc is found primarily in meat but is also present in non-meat sources. Vegan food sources of zinc include whole grains, legumes and seeds.
A vegan diet is also at risk of having a macronutrient deficiency, protein, as well as the micronutrient deficiencies mentioned above. The main source of protein in many peoples diets is meat, but it can also be obtained from non-meat sources as well. The protein found in animal products is complete; this means that it contains all of the essential amino acids our bodies cannot produce on their own that must be obtained from the diet. However, the protein found in plants is incomplete as it does not contain all of the essential amino acids. However, you can still get all of the essential amino acids by combining different kinds of protein rich plant based foods. Vegan sources of protein include lentils and other legumes, tofu or soy products, and nuts and seeds. Other vegan foods contain protein but in smaller amounts; these foods include whole grain bread, potatoes, pasta and corn.
You may be wondering if you need to supplement any of these nutrients that may be lacking in a vegan diet. Supplementation may be necessary if you suspect quantities of these nutrients from your diet is not sufficient to meet your body’s needs. Speak to your doctor or dietitian if you are concerned about having an inadequate intake in any of the aforementioned nutrients before supplementing.
A vegan diet can be nutritious and meet all of your nutrient requirements if it is well planned. However, some nutrients may be more difficult to obtain from diet alone and supplementation may be necessary. Consider your reasons for choosing veganism very carefully. If there is a possibility it is tied into disordered eating thoughts, speak to your healthcare team before eliminating food groups from your diet.
- What You Need to Know About Following a Vegan Eating Plan – Unlock Food [Internet]. [cited 2018 Nov 10]. Available from: http://www.unlockfood.ca/en/Articles/Vegetarian-and-Vegan-Diets/What-You-Need-to-Know-About-Following-a-Vegan-Eati.aspx
- Centre for Clinical Interventions. (2018). All about iron. [PDF file]. Retrieved from https://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/~/media/CCI/Mental%20Health%20Professionals/Eating%20Disorders/Eating%20Disorders%20-%20Information%20Sheets/Eating%20Disorders%20Information%20Sheet%20-%2002%20-%20All%20About%20Iron.pdf
- Center for Clinical Interventions. (2018). Vegetarian diets and eating disorders. [PDF file]. Retrieved from https://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/~/media/CCI/Mental%20Health%20Professionals/Eating%20Disorders/Eating%20Disorders%20-%20Information%20Sheets/Eating%20Disorders%20Information%20Sheet%20-%2029%20-%20Vegetarian%20Diet%20and%20Eating%20Disorders.pdf