Lara Baudains April 18, 2019

Although adhering to a vegan diet demonstrates numerous health and environmental benefits, if not adequately researched it can leave you at risk of nutrient deficiencies. With the number of vegans only expected to increase, it’s important that we identify potential nutritional gaps in this plant-based diet in order to reap the benefits.

A vegan diet excludes all animal products including meat, fish, dairy and eggs. Exclusion of any food group can result in deficiencies with one study demonstrating that this restrictive way of eating can negatively impact both nutritional intake and quality when compared to a less restrictive diet containing animal products1. With this in mind, we’ve identified key nutrients that you need to be aware of.

Protein

Meat products contain all the essential amino acids for growth and repair in the body and are called “complete proteins”. Despite plant foods containing numerous proteins, most don’t contain all of these essential amino acids and these are called incomplete proteins and can be a limiting factor in a vegan diet.

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Be sure to consume adequate amounts of plant-based proteins such as tofu, Quorn, beans, pulses or nuts. Look to combine incomplete proteins to make complete ones e.g. peanut butter on whole-wheat bread. If you struggle to fit these into your diet, consider supplementing with vegan protein shakes

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is essential for DNA synthesis. Unlike other B vitamins, it can only be found in animal-based or fortified foods making it very difficult for vegans to get the recommended 1.5mcg/day (aged 19-64)2. Deficiencies can result in pernicious anaemia or nervous system damage.

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Eat fortified foods such as some plant milk, soy products and breakfast cereals or take a Vitamin B12 supplement.

Omega-3 fatty acids

These are important for metabolism as well as maintaining our eye, brain and heart health and cannot be made by the body so it’s important we get these from our diet. The most potent source of the omega-3 fatty acid, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) come from oily fish, a food product that’s off limits to vegans. Although the omega-3 fatty acid, alpha-linoleic acid (ALA) can be converted to EPA and DHA, the process can be slow and inefficient.

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Incorporating foods high in ALA (flaxseed oil, chia seeds and walnuts) and when that isn’t possible vegan omega-3 supplements, provide great support to a vegan diet.

Iron

This mineral is an important component of haemoglobin, responsible for transporting oxygen around the body. Low levels can lead to anaemia, resulting in symptoms of fatigue and depression. Iron is found in higher levels in animal sources but can still be found in plant-based foods.

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Stock up on iron-rich legumes, green leafy vegetables, grains, nuts and seeds and consume with foods high in vitamin C, which helps the absorption of iron. Investing in a mineral supplement can be very beneficial for vegans too.

Zinc

This mineral is hugely beneficial to our immune system. With a varied diet you would usually get sufficient amounts, however, as veganism excludes animal food sources high in zinc, it’s necessary to look elsewhere to get the necessary 9.5mg/day and 7.0 mg/day for males and females (19-64 years) respectively3.

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Adding more plant-based zinc-rich foods to your diet such as beans, legumes, nuts, seeds and oats will help you achieve adequate amounts, as will supplementation.

Calcium

This nutrient maintains healthy bones and teeth and is found in abundance in meat and dairy products. This can, for obvious reasons be problematic for vegans.

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Increase your daily intake of non-dairy sources of calcium such as fortified soy/oat/rice milk, green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds. Calcium supplements can be hugely beneficial to vegans when struggling to fit these foods into their diet.

Veganism is here to stay, so we at Healthspan want to make sure you’re getting the most out of your diet through both food and supplements (where necessary) so you can live a long, healthy life.

For more information about looking after your health, visit our vegan advice hub.


References
1Clarys P, Deliens T, Huybrechts I, Deriemaeker P, Vanaelst B, De Keyzer W, et al. (2014). Comparison of nutritional quality of the vegan, vegetarian, semi-vegetarian, pesco-vegetarian and omnivorous diet, Nutrients
2BNF (2016). Nutrition Requirements, British Nutrition Foundation

Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn't possible, supplements can help. This article isn't intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.

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