When it comes to nutrition, not many areas are clear-cut. However, one topic which has unanimous support is that we should all enjoy a diet that is high in plant based foods, something that vegetarianism obviously promotes.
On the other hand there is no denying that meat and fish are nutritionally dense foods that provide an array of valuable vitamins and minerals. By totally omitting these foods from the diet, nutrient deficiencies may consequently become more likely. A healthy vegetarian diet therefore is about more than just cutting meat from the diet; you also need to tailor your food choices to avoid these deficiencies.
In this article, we are going to walk through some of the most common deficiencies experienced by vegetarians, before outlining how these can be avoided for optimum health.
The Top 5 Most Common Micronutrient Deficiencies
If you asked most people to name a good source of iron, it is likely that most of them would confidently say red meat – something obviously off the menu for vegetarians. For this reason it should come as no surprise that this mineral is one of the most notorious deficiencies.
Sadly, avoiding an iron deficiency isn’t as simple as just increasing your iron intake. Vitamins A, B2, C and the mineral copper are all essential nutrients that are required in sufficient amounts to efficiently absorb and utilize iron. This shows that an iron deficiency is not always due to an inadequate iron intake.
Vegetarians and vegans are also at a disadvantage because the iron found in meat and fish (haem iron) has a much greater bioavailability than the iron found in plant sources (non-haem). So to avoid a deficiency, a relatively greater amount of iron needs to be consumed to ensure enough actually gets into the bloodstream.
To protect against a deficiency, dark leafy greens, legumes, wholegrains, dark chocolate, tofu, nuts and seeds should be part of the every-day diet. As vitamin C helps the absorption of non-haem iron, consuming the above foods with others rich in vitamin C, such as oranges and bell peppers, will be beneficial.
Although a blood test is the best way to measure iron status, lasting fatigue, difficulty concentrating, lack of energy, susceptibility to illness, headaches, pale skin and feeling faint are all common symptoms to look out for, as these indicate a lack of iron in the diet that requires attention.
Not only is vitamin D a common deficiency in vegetarians, it is widespread even in omnivores. This is because obtaining sufficient vitamin D through the diet is difficult, as after all, the body has the ability to create more than enough vitamin D from exposure to sunlight.
In the body, vitamin D’s main role is to help absorb and utilize calcium for the strength of the bones. However it also has a role in a healthy immune system, with emerging evidence for vitamin Ds importance in cardiovascular health.
As the body can store vitamin D in fat stores, it was once thought that we would have enough to see us through the darker, colder months where we are making very little. However the widespread deficiency across the globe shows that this is not the case.
The best dietary sources of vitamin D are unfortunately not suitable for vegetarians, with oily fish and liver providing the highest amounts. That being said, appreciable amounts are found in egg yolks and cheese. To help people obtain more vitamin D through the diet, food manufacturers are now fortifying certain foods such as dairy and cereals with this essential nutrient.
It is important that we optimize vitamin D intake year-round. When the sun is out, try to get outside in shorts and a t-shirt for at least 20 minutes a day, preferably without excessive sunscreen. In the winter time, as the body makes very little from sunlight and with food sources being relatively scarce, supplements are highly recommended.
Vitamin D supplements come in two forms, D2 (ergocalciferol) and D3 (cholecalciferol). Vitamin D3 is by far the better of the two, as it is the form the body can readily use. However as D3 is derived from sheep’s wool, it is not suitable for vegans. Because of this, the plant-based D2 is the only option.
Zinc is a mineral that very few people give much thought to, unless they are told they are deficient in it. Zinc has a wide range of important roles in the body, from supporting immunity and cognitive function, to metabolism, fertility and the condition of the hair, skin and nails.
Following on from the trend of iron and vitamin D, the best sources of zinc are from meat, fish and seafood. For example, one oyster will provide nearly all the daily requirement of zinc, whereas a vegetarian would need to consume around 4 pints of milk to obtain a sufficient amount.
Although more difficult, vegetarians can certainly obtain a sufficient amount through the diet, it just takes more planning. Aside from milk and other dairy products, legumes, tofu, wholegrain, nuts, seeds and eggs provide a respectable amount of zinc.
Zinc and iron deficiencies often come hand in hand, as these minerals compete for absorption in the body. It is recommended that, as a result, iron and zinc rich foods are consumed at different times of the day. However, as iron and zinc are present together in numerous foods, this is challenging. If supplementation is your chosen option, make sure you take zinc and iron at different times of the day.
The benefits of omega 3 are well publicized, whether it is for a healthy heart, optimal brain function or visual acuity. However, not all omega 3s are made equal and the two with the most researched health benefits are EPA and DHA. Sadly these omega 3s are found almost exclusively in fish and seafood. ALA is the third and final member of the omega 3 family and can be found in a vegetarian diet through foods such as walnuts, chia and flaxseeds.
The body does have the ability to produce EPA and DHA from ALA, but experts regularly argue about how much the body can really create. Although research has shown that vegetarians and vegans tend to make more than meat-eaters in response to a lack in the diet, many vegetarians are now choosing to supplement with algae oil – as algae is the only plant based source of EPA and DHA.
As vegetarians and vegans have relatively low amounts of EPA and DHA in the body, supplementing with algae oil is very likely to benefit various aspects of health, with cognitive function and cardiovascular health the most widely researched. In children, higher amounts of the omega 3s are known to positively influence aspects such as physical development, behavior, learning and memory. So for youngsters who are vegetarian or who don’t like fish, a supplement containing EPA or DHA could be a smart choice.
Last, but by no means least, is vitamin B12 – a nutrient that is not found in in any plant-based foods. For this reason, The Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics believes this is the nutrient of most concern to vegetarians and vegans alike.
This is also an essential nutrient you do not want to be deficient in. Although only needed in miniscule amounts – 2.5 micrograms per day to be exact – B12 is involved in a plethora of key bodily functions. Vitamin B12 is best known for its role in helping to create energy, which is why those who are deficient in it can struggle to even complete the simplest of daily tasks. B12 also has an integral role in the immune and nervous systems, whilst it also works alongside iron to create red blood cells.
Although meat, fish and seafood are again the best sources, vegetarians can obtain their daily B12 requirements through the consumption of eggs, dairy and fortified foods. However for vegans, fortified foods or a vitamin B12 supplement are necessary to ensure that a deficiency doesn’t occur.
Unlike the rest of the B vitamin family, the body does have a small capacity to store vitamin B12, so vegetarians and vegans may go for a short while without feeling any ill effects. However, as soon as B12 stores are depleted, symptoms of deficiency will occur. Due to this, it is recommended that someone who is cutting out meat, fish and seafood from the diet should start supplementing with B12 as soon as possible.
Although a vegetarian diet has been shown to decrease the risk of various chronic illnesses and promote longevity, there is no denying that omitting meat and fish from the diet can cause issues from a micronutrient perspective. Now armed with this new knowledge, hopefully vegetarians and vegans can reap the rewards of plant-rich diets whilst avoiding the most common pitfalls.