Vegans tend to get poor press when it comes to nutrition. But vitamin deficiency is not a problem exclusive to those who eat plant-based. It can happen to anyone who is not getting enough variety in their diet. Many people — vegan or not — opt for supplements to boost their vitamin intake.
What Is a Nutrient Deficiency?
Nearly 10 percent of Americans have a nutritional deficiency, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the UK, NHS England has referred to malnutrition as a “common problem” that affects millions.
Nutritional deficiencies occur when the body isn’t getting enough of a certain vitamin or mineral. Deficiencies can cause a number of health problems; they can stunt growth, cause hair loss, and even contribute to serious medical conditions, like dementia.
Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in the world, affecting more than 25 percent of people. Severe iron deficiency can cause anemia, which can lead to heart problems, issues during pregnancy, such as premature births, and delayed growth and development in children.
Vitamin D deficiency is also common, as is B12 and calcium deficiency. One study found that fewer than 15 percent of teenage girls and fewer than 22 percent of teenage boys in the U.S. have enough calcium in their diet.
Can We Get Enough Vitamins From Food?
The best way to get vitamins and minerals into the body is through food — but that is not always as simple as it sounds.
Vegetables grown decades ago were richer in vitamins and minerals than they are today. Rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere can impact a plant’s overall chemical composition or its “ionome.” This can lead to lower concentrations of important vitamins and minerals. Soil erosion, caused by intensive agricultural methods, has also led to nutrient loss in staple crops.
It’s not just crops that have changed. Diets have, too. The Standard American Diet began in the mid-1900s. Calorie-dense and nutrient-poor foods became mass-produced and easily-accessible. Nowadays, processed food is everywhere. Fast-food joints are on every corner, selling burgers loaded with bacon and cheese, fries, and sugary soft drinks. These types of food can pose serious health risks.
While the nutrient quality of fruits and vegetables has decreased over time, this doesn’t mean you should give up on them. Following a balanced, whole food-based plant-based diet is still considered by many as one of the healthiest ways to eat.
According to American physician and author Dr. Michael Greger, following a balanced vegan diet may help to prevent many causes of early death. Greger promotes the increased consumption of plant-based foods — especially greens, berries, legumes, flaxseeds, and turmeric.
He told Fox Business Network, “some of our leading killers can be reversed. For example, heart disease, the number one killer of men and women — arteries can be opened, heart disease reversed without drugs, without surgery, just a healthy enough diet centered around whole plant foods,” the doctor continued.
“There’s only one diet that’s ever been proven to reverse heart disease in the majority of patients: a plant-based diet.”
Why Do Vegans Need Supplements?
According to The Vegan Society, “well-planned vegan diets contain all the nutrients we need to remain strong and healthy.” But life is busy, and it’s not always possible to maintain a well-planned diet 100 percent of the time.
Vegan or not, if you’re not getting a varied enough diet, this is when you may need to consider supplementing your vitamins. If you’re concerned about whether you’re getting enough of the right vitamins and minerals in your diet, first, consult with a physician.
Anyone who doesn’t eat a balanced diet or supplement — not just vegans — are at risk of B12 deficiency. Every day, adults should be getting about 1.5 micrograms.
B12 deficiency can lead to a number of serious health conditions, including paralysis, psychosis, blindness, and nervous system damage. Depending on how much B12 the body has stored, it can take several years for a deficiency to become known.
The National Institute of Health recommends taking a vegan-friendly B12 supplement. B12 can also be found in mushrooms, fortified cereals, fortified nutritional yeast, and fortified dairy-free milk.
Meat-eaters and vegans both find it difficult to get enough vitamin D. According to the NHS, one in five people in the UK suffers from low vitamin D levels, which can cause fatigue, depression, and muscle pain, amongst other symptoms.
Vitamin D helps you to absorb calcium, magnesium, and phosphate, the nutrients that keep your bones, teeth, and muscles healthy. It also helps your body in other ways, improving brain development, as well as muscle and heart function, and even the function of your immune system. Every day, adults should be getting 10 micrograms of vitamin D.
Mushrooms, fortified dairy-free milk, tofu, orange juice, and the sun are all good sources of vitamin D. There are also many vegan supplements on the market.
Children are often told they need to drink cow’s milk and eat dairy products in order to grow up big and strong. This is because dairy is rich in calcium, which is essential for bone health. It also helps to regulate heartbeat and helps the blood to clot normally.
It is possible to get more than enough calcium from a vegan diet. Soy milk is rich in calcium, as are dark leafy greens, tofu, tempeh, almonds, orange juice, figs, chickpeas, and poppy seeds. Every day, you should be getting 700 milligrams of calcium.
If you’re concerned about not getting enough, there are plenty of vegan supplements on the market. Together Health even offers a Seaweed Calcium supplement.
Iron is a mineral that helps with the proper function of hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is a protein that transports oxygen in the blood. When humans do not have enough iron, they are at risk of anemia. Iron deficiency isn’t exclusive to vegans. According to Medical News Today, around 10 million people in the U.S. have low iron levels.
Male adults over 18 should be getting 8.7 milligrams of iron a day. For women aged 19 to 50, the recommended daily amount is 14.8 milligrams. For women over 50, it’s 8.7 milligrams a day.
Vegan foods rich in iron include dark leafy green vegetables, beans, nuts, and dried fruits. If you’re concerned about your iron levels, you should discuss it with your doctor, as supplementing too much can be dangerous. If your doctor recommends you supplement iron, there are plenty of options available.
Many iron supplements are made with animal-derived heme, but Holland & Barrett offers a vegan iron and vitamin C tablet, VegLife offers berry-flavored iron chewables, and Myprotein offers Iron & Folic Acid supplements.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Humans can’t make omega-3 fatty acids but they can get them from their diet. They benefit mental health, eye health, heart health, brain health, and prevent inflammation.
Omega-3s are polyunsaturated fatty acids with two ends –- carboxylic acid and methyl -– that make up the beginning and tail of the chain. Three important omega-3 fatty acids to know about when discussing human physiology are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which are usually found in marine oils, and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is commonly found in plant oils.
EPA and DHA are difficult to find in plant sources. However, the body can use ALA to create the long-chain EPA. EPA can then be used to create DHA, commonly believed to be the most important fatty acid. Some foods are fortified with EPA and DHA.
Vegan food sources of omega-3s include walnuts, chia seeds, flax seeds, Brussel sprouts, algae oil, wild rice, plant oils, and tofu.
There are a variety of omega-3 supplements on the market. Myprotein offers vegan omega 3 soft gels and Together Health makes its vegan fish-free supplements from algae.
Zinc is vital for our immune system. It helps to fight off bacteria and viruses and helps to heal wounds. It also helps with the sense of smell and taste. If the body doesn’t get enough zinc this can lead to a number of conditions including hair loss, impaired immune function, diarrhea, impotence, and the delayed healing of wounds.
Good vegan sources of zinc include whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and tofu. Every day, male adults need 9.5 milligrams of zinc. Women need 7 milligrams.
If you’re not getting enough zinc, you can opt for a supplement. Garden of Life offers vegan zinc supplements, as does Holland & Barrett, and Myprotein.