These days many people are becoming either vegans or vegetarians. These are the individuals consuming only plant-based food products. However, unlike vegans, vegetarians might consume some animal products like dairy products.
A vegetarian diet has some benefits. It can help prevent and even manage metabolic disorders. It also has a low environmental footprint. It is also about not killing animals for food, kindness, and spirituality.
A well-planned vegetarian diet can be pretty healthy. Generally, people living in societies where vegetarianism has been traditionally practiced are less likely to develop any nutritional deficiencies.
Nonetheless, a vegetarian diet is not perfect. Some nutrients are pretty difficult to get through a vegetarian diet. For example, some micronutrients are almost absent in such a diet. Thus, anyone switching to a vegan or plant-based diet or vegetarianism must know about these issues. Nevertheless, one can often prevent nutritional deficiencies through proper dietary planning or the intermittent use of supplements.
Nutrients that are deficient in plant-based foods
- Vitamin B12 – vegetarians are highly likely to develop vitamin B12 deficiency. It is almost absent in plant-based food. However, it may be present in some fortified foods. This vitamin is essential for the formation of red blood cells, DNA synthesis, and nerve health. Hence, it is strongly recommended that vegetarians should intermittently supplement this vitamin.
- Vitamin D3 – vitamin D is one of the most important vitamins that play a role in almost every metabolic process, from bone health to cell growth. Its deficiency considerably increases the risk of metabolic disorders, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular ailments, and cancers.
Vitamin D is present in small amounts in mushrooms and fortified milk.
However, plant-based products have vitamin D2, which has very poor bioavailability and is also readily metabolized. Thus, vegetarians have too many options for preventing vitamin D deficiency, either using vitamin D3 supplements ( a highly bioavailable form of vitamin D) or preventing more time in the sunshine.
- Iron- almost 90% of the iron in the human body is present in the blood as hemoglobin. However, iron is also needed for physical growth, neurological development, synthesis of many hormones, and many cell functions.
Iron is widely present in plant-based products but in tiny amounts. For example, a person needs 8 mg of iron a day. However, half a cup of green peas barely contains 1 mg of it. But that is not all. Iron in plant-based foods has very poor bioavailability. Whereas heme iron, present in animal foods, is a highly bioavailable form of dietary iron.
All this means that those on a vegetarian diet are more likely to develop iron deficiency. In addition, women of childbearing age on a vegan diet are especially at risk. Fortunately, iron supplements can help quite well in preventing the deficiency.
- Iodine – is a trace element that is especially needed for the production of thyroid hormones and thus regulation of metabolism. It is also vital for the functioning of the nervous system and skeletal muscles.
Iodine is abundant in many seafood products. However, it is present in minute amounts in plant-based products. Fortunately, iodine deficiency is rare nowadays as most people consume iodized salt and iodine-fortified foods. Nevertheless, vegetarians should keep an eye on their thyroid health due to a high risk of iodine deficiency.
- Omega -3 fatty acids (EPA & DHA) are necessary for many body functions, from cardiovascular to brain health. As a result, people living with its deficiency are more likely to develop metabolic disorders, brain diseases, heart diseases, and more.
Most people have heard that omega-3 fatty acids are abundant in chia seeds and flaxseed. But, they must know that plant seeds have an omega-3 fatty acid called ALA, but not EPA & DHA.
ALA is also an essential fatty acid. The human body can produce some EPA and DHA by converting ALA to these fatty acids. However, this conversion is not enough to fulfill their requirement. Thus, EPA and DHA are conditionally essential fatty acids.
It means vegetarians are at significant risk of developing EPA and DHA deficiencies. EPA helps lower systemic inflammation and prevent heart diseases, whereas DHA deficiency can increase the risk of brain disorders.
It means that vegetarians must consider supplementing EPA & DHA omega-3 fatty acids. There are many vegan supplements rich in these fatty acids.
- Zinc- participates in more than 100 enzyme systems. It is essential for cellular metabolism, immunity, regenerative processes, and even DNA synthesis. It is in very low amounts in vegetables or fruits. However, it is present in legumes. Thus, vegetarians must consider zinc supplements to avoid its deficiency, especially if they do not consume many legumes.
- Calcium- is the most abundant mineral in the human body. It is not just needed for bone formation but also for nerve conduction, working of the brain, maintaining fluid and electrolyte balance, working of the cardiovascular system, and more.
Calcium is widely present in various plant-based products. However, the problem is that humans need it in massive amounts. For example, a cup of boiled spinach may contain more than 100 mg calcium. However, adults need 1000 mg a day.
Although vegetarians may not develop severe calcium deficiency, they might develop mild calcium deficiency. Hence, it is a good idea to use calcium supplements intermittently.
A plant-based diet has many health benefits, like reduced risk of obesity, blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and more. It is also suitable for the environment and helps prevent cruelty against animals.
However, a vegetarian diet is not perfect. It is deficient in some nutrients, particularly in vitamin B12, vitamin D3, iron, iodine, zinc, and more. Thus, one should know about the risk of these nutritional deficiencies. Fortunately, all these are micronutrients, which means that one can intermittently use multivitamin and mineral supplements to prevent their deficiencies.