As I begin to explain the different deficiencies vegans tend to face, I want to point out that I’m not at all concluding that a vegan diet is prone to deficiencies.
Every diet, healthy or unhealthy, comes with their own set of traps to watch for. People tend to blow them out of proportion to show the “flaws” of a vegan diet, but, the reality is that it’s just like any other diet with restrictions.
And it’s funny because people pride themselves on taking multivitamins, but when a vegan takes a single B12 supplement (more on that in a moment), all the sudden the vegan lifestyle is prone to deficiencies? This can also be explained by the fact that my grandma and grandpa never batted an eye when I was eating nothing but junk and drinking 3 Mtn. Dew bottles a day, but when I became vegan, they became genuinely concerned for my health.. lol
Let’s dive deep in this topic so I can explain why you have nothing to worry about!
You’ve probably heard me talk about long living populations, such as the Okinawans, and the benefits they reaped from adhering to a plant-based diet. To take it one step further, studies show that Adventist vegans (people who are vegan for religious purposes, which makes it easy to get data from due to their strict diets) have an overall 15% less mortality rate than omnivores.
Also, keep in mind that Oxford Academic has proven that vegans get more carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins A, C, B6, B9, potassium, magnesium, manganese, copper, and iron — AND vegans have only half the risk of meat eaters of requiring an emergency appendectomy.
If you still have any doubts, it can be buried by the fact that a vegan diet is sustainable for all phases of life, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
So, let’s hop into the most common deficiencies so you’ll know exactly how to avoid them!
All nutrients, except vitamin B12 and possibly vitamin D (which is ideally sourced from the skin’s exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays), can be found in plants. They’re also packaged with thousands of powerful disease-fighting nutrients that work together in a synergistic relationship to promote optimum health.
Now that we’re on the same page, let’s look at deficiencies to watch for in our modern world.
What is it?
It’s a very important water-soluble vitamin that takes part in maintaining healthy nerve and blood cells and helps in the production of the body’s genetic material.
B12 is mainly found in animal foods while plant foods don’t directly contain it. This is because B12 is synthesized by bacteria, microorganisms, fungi, and algae, but not by plants or animals. The reason animal products contain B12 is because they consume these organism with their food, usually through supplementation.
It’s been agreed upon, by many of the best plant-based doctors, that you should either be supplementing this vitamin, or eating plant foods that are fortified with it, every day. When supplementing, plant-based nutrition experts recommend a total weekly dose of 2000 mcg to 2500 mcg. According to the NIH, this is best done with doses of 400-500 mcg about 5 days out of the week for better absorption.
A B12 deficiency can lead to gastrointestinal issues, megaloblastic anemia, and irreversible neurological disorders. People who aren’t supplementing and infants who are breastfed by vegan mothers who aren’t intaking a reliable source of B12 regularly are both at risk for deficiency.
It never used to be like this..
Many years ago, we drank from pond/lake water, which contained adequate amounts of B12. But, in today’s sanitized world, our filtered water doesn’t supply us with the B12 we were once accustomed to drinking.
So, with our small bodies of water being too dirty to drink from and our water supply being filtered, vegans are left in a tricky spot since we refrain from eating animal products that contain high amounts of supplemented B12.
Personally, I supplement this vitamin because I’m aware that I don’t eat enough fortified B12 foods daily, such as fortified plant-milks, nutritional yeast, or cereals.
This happens to be an ironic topic because some people don’t think it’s “natural” to be supplementing a vitamin, but don’t realize that most of the worlds’ vitamin B12 supplements go to livestock. Animals don’t manufacture this vitamin like some believe, they simply give us an altered version of the B12 they were once supplemented with.
So, you can either eat fortified foods, take a vegan-friendly supplement, or obtain it second hand through animal products that were previously supplemented with it, it’s your choice 😉
Once you know this information, it’s very empowering to say the least!
What is it?
It’s commonly referred to as the “sunshine vitamin.” It plays a key role is managing the calcium in our bones, blood and gut, and makes it easier for your body to communicate with itself.
Vitamin D is synthesized by our skin when ultraviolet rays from sunlight contacts us. But if you live in an area with little sunlight, you must make sure you’re eating foods that contain it or are taking a vegan-friendly supplement.
Since most vitamin D is found in animal products, it’s important to manipulate your plant foods to help make sure you’re in the clear. Mushrooms have a significant amount of this vitamin, especially sun-dried mushrooms. There are also many foods/drinks that are fortified with it, such as most plant milks, cereals, orange juice, etc.
When deficient in vitamin D, people often experience low energy, weaker bones, chronic pain, and even depression.
- Birth to 1 year: 400 IU (international units)
- 1-70 years: 600 IU
- 70+ years: 800 IU
So, to make sure you don’t experience a deficiency, make sure you either get plenty of sun, eat/drink fortified products, or supplement with a vegan-friendly vitamin capsule so your energy and mood stay up!
What is it?
Zinc is an important mineral that is involved in many aspects of cellular metabolism.
The NIH explains how it plays a part in immune function, protein synthesis, wound healing, DNA synthesis, cell division, and more.
Since many plant foods have an adverse effect on zinc absorption, it’s smart to consume slightly more than your recommended daily amount.
- 0-6 months: 2 mg for males, 2 mg for females
- 7-12 months: 3 mg for males, 3 mg for females
- 1-3 years: 3 mg for males, 3 mg for females
- 4-8 years: 5 mg for males, 5 mg for females
- 9-13 years: 8 mg for males, 8 mg for females
- 14-18 year: 11 mg for males, 9 mg for females, 12 mg if pregnant
- 19+ years: 11 mg for males, 8 mg for females, 11 mg if pregnant
Since we should eat slightly for than our RDA, for men, this will be about 16 mg, and about 12 mg for women, which is equal to about one bowl of oatmeal. Other foods that contain zinc are beans, nuts, pumpkin seeds, and most whole grains.
Just in my morning oatmeal bowl, my zinc requirements are EASILY taken care of!
Zinc has been shown that compared to omnivores and vegetarians, vegan had the same levels as the vegetarians and were barely below the average range for omnivores.
In terms of being deficient, there isn’t much to worry about as long as you’re eating an adequate number of calories through whole foods. Zinc deficiencies usually only happen to individuals who are restricting their caloric intake.
So, get enough calories and you should always be in the clear when it comes to zinc!
What is it?
It’s an element that’s present in all cells in the human body and has several vital functions, such as oxygen transports in the blood.
Iron deficiencies often result in tiredness, paleness, headaches, shortness of breath, dry and damaged hair and skin, heart palpitations, mouth sourness, restless legs, and much more.. Iron deficiencies are the most common nutrient deficiency that all people are faced with.
- Birth to 6 months: .27 mg for males, .27 mg for females
- 7-12 months: 11 mg for males, 11 mg for females
- 1-3 years: 7 mg for males, 7 mg for females
- 4-8 years: 10 mg for males, 10 mg for females
- 9-13 years: 8 mg for males, 8 mg for females
- 14-18 years: 11 mg for males, 15 mg for females, 27 mg if pregnant
- 19-50 years: 8 mg for males, 18 mg for females, 27 mg if pregnant
- 51+ years: 8 mg for males, 8 mg for females
People like to point out the fact that plant sources of iron aren’t as bio-available as heme iron (animal sources of iron that are possibly carcinogenic).
People usually aren’t aware that when plant sources of iron are combined with vitamin C, it’s bio-availability increases up to three times, which makes it MORE bio-available than heme iron.
Simply put, everyone is prone to iron deficiencies, not just vegans like some like to believe.
So, now that you know how to hack your iron absorption with some vitamin C, you have nothing to worry about!
What is it?
K2 is an essential nutrient for blood clotting and plays a role in keeping your heart and bones healthy.
Vitamin K deficiencies are considered rare in most healthy adults. But, when deficient in this vitamin, you could be experiencing easy bruising, very heavy periods, increased bleeding, and symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease like indigestion, bloody stool and diarrhea.
- 0-6 months: 2.0 mcg
- 7-12 months: 2.5 mcg
- 1-3 years: 30 mcg
- 4-8 years: 55 mcg
- 9-13 years: 60 mcg
- 14-18 years: 75 mcg
- 19 years and older: 90 mcg
K2 is primarily found in fermented dairy products and is produced by the bacteria in our guts. As a vegan, you’ll be getting all your K2 from converting it from K1, which is found in many different plants such as spinach, kale, broccoli, cabbage, etc.
Sadly, most information found about K2 is on low-carb blogs. They all seem to have a similar theme of implying that higher amounts of K2 have been associated with less risk for heart disease. The thought of K2 being required in our diet is a very weak argument because, as the NIH has clearly shown, vegans have 42% less chance of dying from cardiovascular disease than carnivores because they are more protected against cardiovascular mortality, along with 15% less mortality.
So, when it comes to researching about K2, don’t fall trap to low-carb advocates that are trying to demonize the absence of K2 in a typical vegan diet.
Other than that, you can eat sauerkraut or natto, which are both vegan friendly and contain fair amounts of K2 for those of you who are still skeptical about only consuming K1 through plants.
With that said, don’t stress if somebody questions you about your K2 intake because now you know the statistics of vegan population studies that show, even though vegans consume little to no K2, they aren’t more susceptible to cardiovascular events like most low-carb advocates like to claim.
So, eat your leafy vegetables that are high in K1, or get your K2 through fermented sauerkraut or natto. Other than that, there isn’t anything to worry about!
What is it?
It’s an omega-3 fatty acid that is a primary structural component of the human brain, cerebral cortex, skin, sperm, testicles and retina.
People mainly consume this fatty acid through fish, which get it from algae. Vegans tend to get most of their DHA through ALA, which is found in plants. Your body converts ALA to DHA, so as a vegan, you should either be eating enough ALA, or supplementing a DHA algae supplement.
Your body can only convert a limited amount of ALA to DHA, so if you don’t plan on supplementing, you need to make sure you’re getting enough through your foods. The U.S. National Library of Medicine concluded that the normal conversion rate is 3.8%, so, to get your daily DHA requirement of 150-300 mg, you must consume about 5000 mg of ALA.
One of my favorite sources of ALA is chia seeds. One serving of chia seeds will give you about 5,400 mg, which will convert to about 200 mg of DHA, on average.
Personally, my morning oatmeal bowl with chia seeds takes care of this requirement by itself! And if you don’t like eating chia seeds, you can get adequate amounts of ALA through hemp seeds, flax seeds, brussels sprouts, and walnuts.
So, you can either eat your recommended amount of ALA, take a DHA algae supplement, or obtain DHA second hand through fish. The first option will certainly be your best bet!!
Final Thoughts About Nutrient Deficiencies
I know it may seem like a lot of information at once, but just remember, these topics WILL be brought up by friends, family, colleagues, etc., and if you’re not confident in how you respond to their concerns, you’re forfeiting your power of persuasion and influence..
The environment is in desperate need of persuasive vegan advocates! As I’m typing this, I’ve been a vegan for almost two years and my influence and advocacy of the vegan lifestyle has only increased throughout time.
However, if I couldn’t answer my friends and family’s nutritional questions, my credibility would diminish immediately. Luckily, that hasn’t been the case and I’ve managed to enlighten many friends and family on the subject. This enlightenment helps them consider the diet, the rest is up to their willingness to change lifelong eating habits.
With that said, I don’t recommend that you start randomly flooding your family and friends with this nutritional information. People will shy away when you flood them with random data and statistics. It’s always better to explain to people WHY you made the changes that you’ve made, THEN you can tell them the data if they’re still concerned.
People’s minds change due to emotion, not logic. So, after you explain your emotional reasons for becoming vegan, then you’ll be able to seal the deal with logical explanations!
Being able to logically explain yourself will be the determining factor to whether somebody listens to what you have to say.
Am I saying that you should be a nutritionist before you start recommending that people follow a plant-based diet? Of course not.
All I’m saying is that most people will show a ton of interest when you tell them that you’re a vegan, but when you can’t logically explain yourself and your reasoning behind your lifestyle choices, they quickly jump to the conclusion that you have no idea what you’re talking about, or that the vegan diet is another “fad diet.”
This is why I created an entire chapter called Thriving Beyond Yourself in my e-book Going Vegan. It talks about the importance of being able to represent your beliefs and the importance of knowing the facts and science behind the things you’re advocating. If you’re a vegan that’s struggling with building influence, this is a major key! In terms of personal branding, this will be the most important aspect of your success while advocating about the vegan lifestyle!
So, take this advice and become a well-educated vegan before you try to convince someone to join the movement.
Surviving on a vegan diet is easy.. The goal here is to THRIVE and share!!
I hope this post helped clear up some of your confusion when it comes to the possible deficiencies on a vegan diet.
Contact me here if you have ANY questions and want to subscribe to my email list, I’d be glad to help you! I create blog posts about nutrition frequently and will gladly do posts over recommended topics, so just let me know what you’d like to learn about!
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Much Love, Dakota Mays