To be vegan… or not to be vegan, that is the question. In today’s blog we’ll explore veganism and how it impacts your nutrient intake.
Most people are aware of what it means to be a vegetarian—someone who, for health, religious or moral reasons, doesn’t eat animal products, whether meat, poultry or fish. There is some flexibility in vegetarianism, however. For example, a pescatarian is someone who doesn’t eat meat products except for fish and seafood. A flexitarian, sometimes called a semi- or pseudo- vegetarian, is someone who is eating meat less often, but doesn’t eliminate it completely. A lacto-ovo vegetarian eats no meat (and yes, meat includes lamb!) but will include eggs and dairy products in their diets.
On the other hand, not everyone really understands what it means to be a vegan. And those who do understand it, even practice it, don’t always agree on the definition.
Vegans will proudly tell you that being vegan is a philosophical lifestyle that goes beyond the strict adherence to a no-meat, no-seafood, no-dairy, no-milk, no-eggs and no-cheese diet. In addition, vegans do not eat honey—although that conversation may stir up a hornet’s nest of ethical controversy—because vegans don’t eat products produced by animal labor and bees are considered animals. Vegans are protective of animals’ rights, refraining from practices that are considered as cruel to, or exploitive of, animals.
That is why vegans extend their practice beyond diet. For example, vegans (or true vegans, as some label them) will not wear clothing or carry handbags or sit on furniture that is made from animals—no leather, no fur, no wool, no silk, no goose down. Products that are tested on animals—from cosmetics to medicines—are problematic in the vegan world.
Like all philosophies, there are true believers who adhere to the broadest of rules, and others who pick and choose. Even The Vegan Society leaves some room for leeway, with a mission statement that qualifies itself with the words “as far as is possible and practicable.”
Are Vegan Nutrients of Concern a Thing?
This vegan influencer cites four different types of vegans:
- Ethical vegans—they hold strong moral beliefs about all animals having a right to live and live cruelty-free; these considerations extend to their concerns about factory farming.
- Environmental vegans—they believe that being vegan is not only good for themselves (see #4) and for animals, but also for the planet. They are focused on living a greener a life, including eating a vegan diet which will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce pollution.
- Religious vegans—their spiritual beliefs based on their interpretation of their religions’ teachings lead them to vegan principles.
- Health vegans—they choose veganism for the health benefits that they believe—and plenty of science shows—are offered up by a plant-based diet.
It’s the fourth category that begs these questions:
- Are there nutrients that vegans are missing that could be detrimental to their health?
- Do vegans get enough B12?
- Do vegans lack calcium?
- Do vegans get enough zinc?
- Is there such a thing as vegan nutrients of concern?
We’ll get to answers, but first a few other things to think about.
Bad News, Good News
So, while vegans are carefully avoiding animal-based foods and dairy products seeking a potentially healthier option, cutting out main categories of food may actually put their health at risk with undesirable nutrient shortfalls.
Here are two pieces of good news: more and more supplement companies are recognizing the need for vegan supplement options. A vegan supplement should contain only plant-based ingredients, and no animal products, as well as no animal byproducts. Even the delivery method of the supplement is important. As an example, this article explains, if you’re taking a supplement in soft gel form, you want to be sure it’s not made with gelatin, which is an animal byproduct. Instead look for that supplement in a veggie soft gel or a veggie cap.
Some supplement companies choose to have their supplements independently certified as vegan by companies or organizations such as NSF, BeVeg, The Vegan Society and many others. Not all certifications are equal so do your research.
Another thing vegans should consider when thinking about nutrient shortfalls and how they can be avoided is finding out whether or not you are actually deficient or insufficient in that nutrient. Fortunately, there are simple tests, either ordered by your doctor or done at-home, including those from OmegaQuant, that can put you on the right path.
5 Nutrients of Concern for Vegans
You’ve heard us talk before about the Dietary Guidelines for Americans citing nutrients of concern, those that people are falling short in. Vegans need to be extra careful about nutrient shortfalls, because some of the foods they’re not eating are the foods most likely to contain the following five nutrients.
- Vitamin B12
Why you need it: B12 produces the genetic material (DNA) in your body’s cells and is needed for healthy blood and functioning nerve cells. It also converts food into usable energy, and some research shows B12 may support brain health, heart health, and bone health. B12 deficiency can result in weakness, fatigue, constipation, and certain anemias.
Why vegans may not get enough: The richest sources of B12 are found in animal-derived foods and plant foods don’t manufacture B12, leaving vegans with fewer food choices to consume this key vitamin. Vegans can look to fortified food options, such as nutritional yeast, breakfast cereals, meat substitutes and soy, almond, or other non-dairy milk. Vegan supplements are also a good option to consider.
What else: This study found that vegans have lower vitamin B12 concentrations than vegetarians and omnivores. Half of the vegans were categorized as deficient in vitamin B12. Consequently, a vitamin B12 supplement may be warranted. Test first to get your baseline, then test again in a few months to see if your B12 status improves over time.
Why you need it: Calcium is a mineral that promotes and protects your bones and teeth. It also plays a role in blood clotting, regulating heart rhythms and muscle contraction.
Why vegans may not get enough: Plant-based diets are lacking in dairy products, like milk and cheese, that are good sources of calcium. But if you’re determined, there are other ways for vegans to get calcium. Tofu, broccoli, almonds, tahini and chickpeas add to your calcium intake as do leafy green vegetables like kale, spinach, collard greens and bok choy. And don’t forget calcium-fortified breakfast cereals and calcium-fortified drinks such as orange juice and soy or almond milk.
What else: Make sure to get enough vitamin D—a vegan supplement is a good option here—because vitamin D helps your body better absorb calcium.
- Vitamin D
Why you need it: Vitamin D helps with calcium absorption for starters, thereby playing a role in bone health. Other research reveals that adequate or optimal vitamin D also has a role in immune health, heart health, brain health and more.
Why vegans may not get enough: It’s not just vegans who have trouble getting enough vitamin D from their diets. Vitamin D deficiency is common and some studies have shown that upwards of 40% of Americans have a vitamin D deficiency. Vegans can get some vitamin D2 from fortified foods or mushrooms, but vitamin D3 can only be obtained from supplements, of which there are vegan options.
What else: You can try getting out more in the sunshine, but in the winter months, experts say you will need an hour or two daily. And remember that without proper sun protection which may inhibit sun absorption, you put yourself at increased risk for skin cancer. A vegan vitamin D supplement may be the best answer along with testing to help identify and maintain your levels.
Why you need it: EPA and DHA are key polyunsaturated nutrients for cardiovascular health and inflammation reduction. In addition, other science suggests that these nutrients are potentially beneficial for brain health, eye health, pregnant moms-to-be, the newborn, and even for post-partum depression. Omega-3 EPA and DHA are among the world’s most researched nutrients, with over 40,000 published studies.
Why vegans may not get enough: The problem for vegans is that the richest source for EPA and DHA comes from fatty fish, like salmon. There are some plant-based options for vegans but they travel a complicated road. The plant-based form of omega-3s is ALA which is then converted into EPA and DHA in the body, but the conversation rate is low. Still, good sources of AHA include leafy greens, flax and some other seeds, walnuts, wheat germ and soybeans.
What else: There are algae-based omega-3 supplements and algae are vegan. Testing first to check your omega-3 levels and following up with vegan omega-3 supplements as needed is a smart approach for helping ensure vegans get their fill of this nutrient.
Why you need it: Iron is an important mineral that makes hemoglobin which in turn transports oxygen throughout your blood cells. If you’re not getting enough iron, your body may not get enough oxygen, leaving you low in energy, prone to headaches, and brittle hair and nails and dry, pale skin. You may even end up with anemia.
Why vegans may not get enough: There are two kinds of iron—heme iron which is better absorbed than non-heme iron. Unfortunately for vegans, heme iron is mainly found in animal-based foods including red meat and poultry. Plant-based foods that contain non-heme iron include whole and enriched grain products, raisins, chickpeas, lentils, tofu and broccoli. Vitamin C-rich foods (or a vitamin C supplement) may help increase iron absorption.
What else: Since non-heme iron is not as easily absorbed, vegans may need more iron intake than others. If you’re low in iron, consider taking a supplement, but don’t overdo it. If you’re able to get enough iron from your plant-based diet, an iron supplement shouldn’t be necessary. (Also be aware that calcium may hinder iron absorption—so separate, timewise, your iron and calcium intake.)
Bottom Line: Vegans looking to lead healthier lives combined with ethical purpose can help ensure they’re not short-changed of the nutrients they need with careful dietary planning, including consideration of supplements.