Whether we admit it or not, we’re all guilty of a little nutritional imbalance. Vegans, vegetarians, paleos, omnivores, intermittent fasters, raw foodists – it all comes down to the fact that we’re not perfect, and sometimes we slip up. And that’s okay. However, it is important to know what nutrients we need to stay healthy, and what foods provide these essentials. People who follow a vegan diet typically get plenty of fiber and many micronutrients, as well as immunity-boosting antioxidants. Vegans also tend to intake less saturated fat and cholesterol than vegetarians and omnivores. Yet, some nutrients are slightly more difficult to come by, such as iron, calcium, vitamin B12, vitamin D, omega 3’s, zinc, and iodine. To be clear, these nutrients are prominent deficiencies for everyone, not just vegans. Be sure you’re operating at your best and check out these plant-based foods that pack a nutritional punch.
7 Nutrient Deficiencies You Can Avoid With a Vegan Diet
We all know calcium helps to build strong bones, but it also aids in blood clotting and muscle contraction, which includes regulating the beats of our heart. Our bodies cannot produce their own calcium, therefore it is necessary to obtain it from food. Despite what the dairy industry has led us to believe, calcium exists in a wide variety of plant-based foods — not just milk. Further, acute calcium deficiency is extremely rare, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, and it often takes years for such a deficiency to present itself as a serious medical issue. However, by supplying our bodies with the recommended amount of this mineral (between 1000 – 1,200 mg daily), we can reduce our risks of heart disease and osteoporosis.
Vegan foods rich in calcium include dark leafy greens such as kale and collard greens, broccoli, butternut squash, beans, tofu, soymilk, rice milk, and figs. These are just a few examples, as the vast majority of plants contain some amounts of calcium. As long as you are eating a variety of foods and enough calories, there is no need for a healthy individual to take a supplement, and there is certainly no need to consume dairy to maintain strong bones.
Iron helps red blood cells carry oxygen to the body’s cells. Despite the key function it plays, iron is the most deficient mineral amongst Americans, particularly among women. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 10 percent of American women suffer from iron deficiency. This can lead to anemia, which causes exhaustion, lightheadedness, and fatigue. Daily recommended amounts vary, depending on gender. Men typically need 8 mg per day, whereas women prior to menopause should take in around 18 mg per day.
Vegan-friendly foods high in iron include legumes such as lentils, soybeans, tofu, lima beans, and tempeh; grains such as oats, quinoa, and brown rice; nuts and seeds, leafy greens like swiss chard and collard greens, and blackstrap molasses. As with calcium and most nutrients, the key is to eat enough calories and a variety of whole foods. However, those currently suffering from acute anemia can benefit from a natural vegan iron supplement. Garden of Life makes a quality iron pill that won’t upset your stomach.
Perhaps the most “trending” nutrient of the bunch, omega-3 fatty acids support a healthy metabolism and can also lead to several health benefits, such as reducing the risk of heart disease, supporting cognitive function, and promoting joint health. There is no established recommended daily amount, but most medical sources suggest between 0.5 – 1.1 grams, depending on age. Many associate omega-3’s with fish, though there are a multitude of other plant-based sources.
Flax, chia, and hemp seeds, along with kale and walnuts, all contain high amounts of ALA omega-3’s. The two other forms of omega-3’s (EPA and DHA) are typically fish-derived, though the National Academy of Medicine has determined that ALA is the only essential omega-3. Vegan algae-based supplements are also being tested as significant health-promoting sources of omega-3’s.
4. Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is a crucial nutrient that supports the function of our brains and nervous systems, plays a role in the creation of DNA, and promotes healthy red blood cells. In the US, vitamin B12 deficiency is relatively rare (affecting between 1.5 – 15 percent of the population, according to the National Institute of Health), as most people can ingest it from the foods they eat – either from animal-based or fortified products. However, some people have difficulty absorbing this nutrient. To ensure everyone receives the recommended amount of this vitamin (around 2.5 micrograms for teens and adults), most doctors recommend a supplement.
There are plenty of plant-based vitamin B12 supplements on the market, but a few suggestions include Garden of Life, Tropical Oasis, and Jamieson. Many vegan foods are also fortified with vitamin B12, including plant-based milks, yogurts, cereals, and nutritional yeast.
5. Vitamin D
Vitamin D and calcium go hand-in-hand; it helps promote the absorption of calcium and also aids in bone growth. The body is able to produce its own vitamin D, but only after exposure to sufficient sunlight, according to WebMD. The organization recommended 30 minutes in direct sunlight, without sunscreen, twice a week, but this may not be the best option for those who live in northern regions, or those concerned about sun damage. Most professionals suggest that patients supplement their vitamin D by eating vitamin-rich foods, in conjunction with safe sun exposure. Recommended amounts range considerably, depending on the individual’s sun exposure and age (the older one gets, the more one needs). Amounts vary from 400 IU per day for infants to 4,000 IU for seniors.
Vitamin D can be found in many plant foods that are also high in calcium. Think dark leafy greens like bok choy, kale, collard greens, and turnip greens. Mushrooms, such as shiitake, chanterelle, and maitake, and portabello, and fortified plant-based milks and cereals are also stellar vitamin D sources.
From A to Zinc, this nutrient promotes overall health by supporting the immune system and synthesizing proteins and DNA. It also helps to heal wounds and allows for proper function of taste and smell. Recommended amounts vary from 2mg to 13mg, depending on an individual’s stage of life (teens, pregnant, and breastfeeding women tend to require higher amounts within this range).
While many immediately point to oysters and red meat as key sources of zinc, the mineral can be found in a plethora of plant-based options. A wide variety of beans, nuts and seeds, legumes, and whole grains all contain healthy amounts of zinc. Enjoy a baked sweet potato with black beans, steamed kale, and a tahini-based dressing, and you’re good to go!
Iodine supports a healthy thyroid, which plays a key role in the body’s metabolism. Those deficient in this mineral can experience fatigue, dry skin, tingling in hands and feet, forgetfulness, depression and weight gain, depending on the severity and duration of the deficiency. Infants and pregnant women particularly need to ensure their iodine levels are sufficient, as it also plays a key role in bone and brain development. The recommended amount is 150 mcg for most adults and teens, but it can reach up to 290 mcg for pregnant women.
Some point to milk and seafood as proper iodine sources, but everyone can get their daily dose with just a half teaspoon of iodized salt. Seaweed is also an excellent source, along with most produce, though iodine levels varying depending on the produce’s proximity to the ocean (the closer to the beach, the better). Be liberal with the furikake and enjoy your kelp noodles!