As a registered functional nutritionist, I work with all sorts of clients, and all sorts of diets. More and more, I see people going to the extremes - hello, Keto Diet!
We should all know that plants are an important part of a healthy diet. Studies consistently show fruits and vegetables reduce the risk for a myriad of diseases and conditions. And many conclude that if plants are a good part of a healthy diet, then an ALL plant based diet must be even better.
While I personally don’t encourage or follow a vegan diet, the point of this post is not to dissuade you from being vegan, but instead to support you if you do choose to follow a vegan diet or fully plant based diet.
The truth is, it is near impossible to get everything you need nutritionally from an all plant based diet. So a healthy, well-balanced vegan diet takes some effort and thought, and a bit of supplementation, too!
In order to be at your best when following a vegan diet, here are some things to keep in mind:
5 Common Vitamin, Mineral, and Protein deficiencies for Vegans
Among other things, this vital vitamin is necessary for DNA synthesis and maintaining blood and nerve health.
B12 can be made in small amounts by the microbiome (gut), but not in sufficient quantities for our body’s needs (and requires a healthy gut, too!). Otherwise, this vitamin is exclusively found in animal-based foods.
So if you do choose to follow a vegan diet, plant based diet, or mostly plant based diet, you may want to consider supplementing with a high quality B12 supplement.
While your body can make this vitamin through sunlight exposure on bare skin, it’s a little more nuanced than simply getting outside most days!
Depending on your latitude, there are certain places where only a few months out of the year even allow for this natural reaction to happen. The sun must hit the skin at a particular angle in order for it to be used to synthesize vitamin D.
If you live too far from the equator, this sunlight angle is only achieved a few MONTHS out of the year, and only during a few hours a day in those particular months.
In other words, you’re super unlikely to get the amount you need from sunlight unless you live in Florida and sun bathe daily.
While animal-based foods are overflowing with vitamin D, dairy tends to be a prime source, as well as fatty fish. Yes, some mushrooms can contain vitamin D, but it varies greatly depending on the way they were grown, time of year, sun exposure, etc., so they are not a reliable source.
We recommend you supplement with a high quality D3 supplement.
I know, I know, plants have iron. This is true, but also an over-simplification. The iron in plants is called non-heme iron. The body doesn’t absorb this type of iron as well as heme-iron (the kind that comes from animals).
This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to supplement, but does mean you need to be aware of good iron sources and how to increase that non-heme absorption.
Eating iron-rich plants with vitamin C sources can increase absorption. Cooking with cast-iron pans is also a great option.
If you are a long-distance runner or a female, iron needs are increased (or if you’re pregnant!), so you’ll really want to be aware of your intake!
Dried beans and lentils, dark green leafy vegetables, prune juice, and tempeh are some of the best sources.
If you still feel like you need more, then supplement with a high quality iron supplement.
Again, plant foods do contain protein, but usually at much lower amounts than animal sources. Also, ounce for ounce, plant protein sources also tend to be less protein-dense, so you have to eat more of the plant sources and a greater variety to get all the protein you need.
Additionally, animal products are complete proteins (meaning - they contain all of the essential amino acids). Whereas, most plant based sources are “incomplete” sources (meaning - they lack one or more of the essential amino acids).
To solve this issue, you will need to combine multiple plant based protein sources to create complete sources of the essential amino acids. This is particularly important if you’re an avid exerciser with a higher rate of protein breakdown (or pregnant!). And one key amino acid you will want to make sure you are getting enough of is Leucine. The simple solution to getting enough Leucine is to add an amino acid or bcaa supplement. The catch is you need to find a vegan source of leucine.
Dried beans and lentils combined with grains like rice are a complete protein source. Nuts and soy are also more protein-rich plant based sources.
This is an essential fatty acid. That means the body needs to get it from food sources. Yes, the body can convert some other fatty acids (ALA, EPA) to DHA, but the conversion rate is inefficient at best and not sufficient for our body’s needs.
Fish and seafood are the most plentiful sources of DHA. The only real plant based source is algae. But good luck eating enough of this to get your needs met!
Walnuts, ground flax, and chia seeds are good sources of other omega-3s and can support the conversion to DHA to meet some of your needs.
But in the end, you are probably best served supplementing with a high quality DHA supplement.
THERE ARE OTHER COMMON DEFICIENCIES TO CONSIDER IF YOU ARE VEGAN
There are other considerations, especially if you’re pregnant, nursing, or a growing child, but these are the top 5 for me.
Does this mean you need to supplement all of these? Not at all! But unless you’re eating a TON of B12 or Vitamin D fortified foods, I’d definitely recommend supplementing those two, as well as DHA (algae oil is a great option!).
The Propello Life Vegan Protein powder is also a good option to help meet your protein needs, especially on days you’re less focused on your diet balance. It’s also a great example of complimentary proteins to create a complete protein profile (organic - pea, hemp, chia, sacha inchi).
If you’re pregnant, nursing, or raising a young child as a vegan, I highly recommend talking with a registered nutritionist to make sure you’re meeting all your nutritional needs.
These groups have additional considerations that make a vegan diet quite difficult to support a healthy body.
Remember, any time you choose to restrict something from your diet, it’s important to ensure you’re making up what that food/food group offers in another way. This helps ensure your health and supports your performance.
About the Author:
Aubrey Phelps - MS RDN PPCES IFNCP
Aubrey is a registered integrative nutritionist specializing in perinatal and pediatric nutrition. She’s a momma to an inquisitive little boy, feisty mini girl, and a joyful rainbow baby girl. Her passion is empowering women to feel their best at every stage of life, and support the transition into motherhood and beyond. Outside of her private practice, Back To Scratch, Aubrey consults for Growing Independent Eaters, a home-based tube-weaning program, as well as Real Food Blends, and serves as the Director of Wellness for a microbiome-testing company, BIOHM health.
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