There are many health benefits that can come along with following a vegan or vegetarian diet. For example, by simply increasing your fruit and vegetable intake you are also increasing your dietary fiber intake, and by reducing/eliminating animal products, you are also decreasing your saturated fat intake.
While fruit and vegetables are an excellent source of vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals (compounds produced by plants that exert disease-preventing effects), there are certain nutrients they do not possess, nutrients that are fundamental for proper human health.
Below are 7 nutrients you are more likely to be deficient in if you follow a vegan or vegetarian diet.
Vitamin B12:Vitamin B12 plays various fundamental roles within the body, such as helping to keep the body’s nerve and blood cells healthy, as well as make DNA (the molecule that contains all the information necessary to build and maintain an organism). Vitamin B12 is created by bacteria and found primarily in animal products such as dairy, meat, insects, and eggs.
Signs of vitamin B12 deficiency can include:
- Pale or jaundiced skin
- Weakness and fatigue
- Pins and needles sensations
- Issues with mobility (changes in the way you walk or move)
- Glossitis (inflammation of the tongue) and mouth ulcers
- Breathlessness or dizziness
Creatine:Creatine is a naturally occurring compound with a similar structure to an amino acid. Much of our creatine is stored within our muscles. However, a significant amount is also concentrated in the brain. Creatine functions as an easily accessible energy reserve for muscle cells, helping to boost strength and overall performance, and has also shown to improve brain function, such as memory. Foods that are rich in creatine include fish, meat, and other animal products, such as dairy. However, creatine is not essential in our diet, since it is produced by the liver, though studies have shown that those who follow a vegan or vegetarian diet tend to have lower amounts.
Signs of low creatine levels can include:
- Low muscle mass (lack of strength, difficulty exercising, a thin or frail body)
- Liver disease
- Weakness and fatigue
Vitamin D3:Vitamin D3 is a fat-soluble vitamin (meaning that it is absorbed along with dietary fat and can be stored in the body’s fatty tissue) that is naturally present in few foods, such as the flesh of fatty fish, beef, liver, cheese, and egg yolks. Vitamin D is extremely important for overall health, and has been linked to numerous health conditions, from bone and muscle health, mental health, immune activity, and cardiovascular functions.
Signs of vitamin D deficiency can include:
- Bone pain
- Back pain (particularly lower back pain)
- Muscle aches, weakness, and cramps
- Fatigue and tiredness
- Low mood (depression)
- Getting sick or infected often (frequent coughs and colds)
Omega-3 is a type of polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA - the type of unsaturated fatty acid that contains two or more double bonds). Polyunsaturated fatty acids are a type of “healthy fat" as they can improve "good" (HDL) cholesterol levels in the body. Omega-3s are deemed as an essential fatty acid (EFA) because they are necessary for health and cannot be made by the body. Omega-3s have countless health benefits, some of which include supporting mental, eye, heart, brain, and skin health, reducing bodily inflammation, and reducing symptoms of metabolic syndrome. Food sources of omega-3 include oily fish, such as salmon, sardines, mackerel, and fresh tuna (tinned tuna loses its omega-3 during the manufacturing process).
Signs of omega-3 deficiency can include:
- Rough, scaley skin and dermatitis (itchy, dry skin or a rash on swollen reddened skin e.g., eczema, dandruff)
- Hair loss and brittle nails
- Poor concentration and attentiveness
- Joint pain
- Weight gain/obesity
- Eyesight problems
- Cardiovascular concerns
Iron:Iron is an essential mineral we need for growth and development. Iron’s main role in the body is to produce hemoglobin, a protein molecule in red blood cells that transports oxygen from the lungs to the body’s tissues, as well as myoglobin, a protein that provides oxygen to muscles. Iron can be categorized into two groups, haem iron, and non-haem iron. Haem iron is found in animal products, such as beef, liver, pork, chicken, and fish. Depending on an individual’s iron stores, approximately 15-35% of haem iron is absorbed by the body. Non-haem iron is predominantly found in plant foods, including beans, broccoli, spinach, nuts, and lentils. However, only 5-15% of non-haem iron can be absorbed. Consuming foods that are rich in vitamin C, such as berries, peppers, kiwis, broccoli, kale, with non-haem iron can help boost absorption. Non-haem iron is also sensitive to compounds found in tea, coffee, and cocoa, which can ultimately reduce your body’s ability to absorb the iron by 39-90%. Thus, it is important to try not drink these drinks while you are consuming iron rich foods. Thereby, it is best to avoid tea, coffee, and cocoa at mealtimes and waiting an hour after your meal to drink tea, coffee, and cocoa, to promote adequate absorption.
Signs of iron deficiency can include:
- Weakness and fatigue
- Shortness of breath
- Dizziness or light headedness
- Unusual heartbeat
- Bodily pain
- Growth problems
- Pale or jaundiced skin
- Cold hands and feet
Calcium:Calcium is an important mineral in our diet. It is the most abundant mineral in our bodies, accounting for 1.5 percent to 2% of total body weight. Calcium plays multiple roles within the body, this includes contributing to bone health, regulating muscle contractions, and ensuring that our heart is kept active. The best sources of calcium are dairy products. Calcium can also be found in dark green leafy vegetables, dried peas and beans, and fish with bones.
Signs of calcium deficiency can include:
- Low mood (depression)
- Muscle spasms
- Muscle cramps
- Weakened or brittles bones (can result in easy fracturing)
- Weakened or brittle nails
- Confusion or memory loss
- Numbness and tingling in the face, hands, and feet
- Slow hair growth
- Fragile, thin skin
Zinc:Zinc is the second most abundant trace mineral (trace minerals are minerals needed in amounts less than 100mg per day) found in human body (second to Iron). Zinc is also an essential mineral as your body does not produce it on its own. Thereby, we must obtain zinc from our diet. Zinc affects almost every aspect of our health, including gene expression, enzymatic reactions, development and function of immune cells, protein production, DNA synthesis, cell growth and division, skin health, and wound healing. Zinc can be found in a variety of different foods, including oysters, red meat, poultry, beans, nuts, whole grains, and dairy products.
Signs of zinc deficiency can include:
- Impaired immunity
- Thinning hair
- Decreased appetite
- Fluctuating mood
- Dry skin
- Fertility issues
- Impaired wound healing
It is important to visit your doctor regularly if you are following a vegan or vegetarian diet to ensure that you are not deficient in any nutrients, particularly if you are experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned above.
Nowadays, many vegan and vegetarian food products are fortified with nutrients, to help ensure individuals are receiving their recommended dietary intake (RDI). You can also ensure you are receiving your RDI through supplementation. However, if you do decide to start taking supplements, is critical that your doctor approves and supervises the supplement beforehand.
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