The number of people following a vegan diet went up by 600% in 3 years. This has led to an influx of vegan foods at grocery stores and restaurants. Whether you’re newly vegan or have been avoiding animal-derived ingredients for years, one common concern with vegan diets is whether you’re meeting all of your nutritional needs.
Some people adopt a vegan diet to improve their health, for ethical reasons, and/or to support the environment. No matter the reason you’ve chosen to go vegan, here are key nutrients you’ll want to focus on when following a vegan diet.
Common Nutritional Deficiencies
A vegan diet does not include any animal foods or products. Although plants contain all three macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats, and proteins) and essential nutrients, vegans may be vulnerable to certain nutritional deficiencies. Let’s look at which nutrients are key when eating only plants.
Vitamin B12 is essential to any healthy diet. But since this water-soluble vitamin is primarily in animal foods, it’s a leading concern for vegans. Studies have found vegans consume significantly lower amounts of B12 than those who eat animal foods.
Vitamin B12 plays a vital role in metabolism, red blood cell formation, nervous system functions, and DNA creation. A deficiency may lead to anemia, stroke, cognitive impairment, and more.
Although we typically associate B12 with animal products, it actually comes from the microbes in soil and plants. Plus, we’re able to fortify foods with this nutrient, making it possible for vegans to consume it.
The amount of vitamin B12 you need varies depending on your age and other factors. Most healthy adults require 2.4 mcg per day. Pregnant and breastfeeding women require up to 2.8 mcg/day.
Look for foods that contain vitamin B12, like:
- breakfast cereals
- nutritional yeasts
- plant-based milks
If you struggle with eating foods rich in vitamin B12, consult with a dietitian about adding a supplement to your daily routine.
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin. It’s related to both calcium intake and adequate sun exposure. This nutrient plays an essential role in keeping bones, teeth, and muscles healthy. It also supports immune health, mood, and memory.
A lack of vitamin D is not just a concern for vegans. More people are vitamin D deficient than ever before. Part of the reason may be that few foods naturally contain vitamin D and vegan foods that are fortified with it may not be enough to meet daily needs.
Food sources for vitamin D include breakfast cereals, oats, and non-dairy milk. Check the nutrition label to ensure your food choice has added vitamin D.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
A lack of omega-3 fatty acids may be more common among those avoiding animal foods. Omega-3 fatty acids include alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA is the only essential omega-3 fatty acid that we need to get from our diet, as our bodies make the other two from ALA.
Don’t worry about the specific names of the fatty acids, as you won’t see them listed on nutrition labels. It’s more important to remember the foods that are rich in ALA.
Omega-3 fatty acids support brain health, reduce inflammation, and help our mood and memory.
The good news for vegans is there are several plant foods that contain ALA, including:
- Flax seeds
- Chia seeds
Iron is a mineral that is a critical component of red blood cells. Iron-deficient anemia is a common deficiency around the world and vegans are at a higher risk. Some people may not experience any symptoms of anemia. While some may struggle with dizziness, headaches, restless legs syndrome, and fatigue when they have low iron.
Good plant sources of iron include:
- Dark leafy green vegetables
- Dried beans and peas
- Enriched cereals
Our bodies don’t absorb plant sources of iron as easily as it does when getting iron from animal sources. Thus, the recommended intake of iron is higher for vegans than for non-vegans.
To improve iron absorption, eat foods rich in iron with foods that are high in vitamin C (citrus foods, strawberries, potatoes, and broccoli).
Zinc is another mineral that is not as easily absorbed from plant foods as it is from animal sources. This essential nutrient plays a role in cell division, helps form proteins, and supports your immune system. For most people, zinc deficiency is rare, but following a vegan diet increases your risk.
Symptoms of zinc deficiency include diarrhea, thinning hair, decreased appetite, changes in mood, slow wound healing, and fertility issues.
Common vegan foods that are excellent sources of zinc include:
- whole grains
- wheat germ
Iodine is an essential mineral that is needed to make thyroid hormones. Some studies have shown that vegans are at higher risk of iodine deficiency and have up to 50% lower levels of iodine in their blood than omnivores.
The recommended amount of iodine for adults is 150 mcg per day (half a teaspoon of iodized salt). The recommended amount increases to 220 mcg per day for pregnant women and 290 mcg per day for breastfeeding women.
Soil content affects the amount of iodine in plant foods. Ocean water increases the amount of iodine in the soil and plants that come from oceans, like seaweed, are a good source of iodine.
Individualized Well-Planned Vegan Diets
Despite certain nutritional challenges, a vegan diet is appropriate for all stages of life. Adopting and maintaining a vegan lifestyle starts with creating a plan that works for you. Choose plant foods that you enjoy and are easily accessible.
In your plan, try to emphasize foods that are rich in vitamin B12, vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids, iron, zinc, and iodine to maximize your food choices.
Choosing a variety of foods can help you get all the nutrients you need and prevent deficiencies. Vegan food is delicious, nutritious, and more available than ever. Keep in mind that a transition to a vegan diet may take some time and extra planning. And if you’ve been following a vegan diet for some time and you notice any negative signs or symptoms, it may be worth talking with a dietitian or health care provider to look for any nutritional deficiencies.