Here are the two sides of the coin with going vegan or vegetarian.
People eating more fruits and vegetables. Plus.
People switching to eating only fruits and vegetables without much awareness of the nutritional gaps they need to fill when you stop eating meat? Minus.
That’s why I want to talk about how a well-intentioned diet that eliminates animal products can not only be unhealthy, but can even be dangerous if one isn’t careful.
Just as a reminder, a well-planned vegan or vegetarian diet can absolutely be just as healthy as a meat-inclusive diet...with proper planning.
So, where do these issues come from?
As I’ve touched on in the past about plant proteins, some proteins are better absorbed by the body than others when it comes to animal products vs. plants. Well, the same is true for some nutrients.
It’s a fact every dietitian can agree with: eating more fruits and vegetables is one of the best ways to get in much-needed antioxidants and nutrients. However, for anyone thinking of limiting their animal foods to just eggs and dairy or cutting them out altogether, they should be aware of the risks.
There are several nutrients the human body needs that can either only be found in animal foods, are difficult to find in plant foods or are just poorly absorbed from plants. Below, I’m going to list what nutrients to be aware of and give some tips and sources to help you prevent deficiency and stay healthy
This is the most concerning of the bunch.
Normally vegan diets, especially when they contain plenty of whole grains, would have no trouble at all providing enough B vitamins.
Vitamin B-12 is a special case
This is because there are no natural, bioavailable sources of vitamin B-12 found in plants. This vitamin is only naturally present in animal foods.
So, if you are a vegetarian who is fine with eating eggs and dairy, you should still not have issues getting enough B-12. However, vegans will almost definitely have to take a supplement or have injections.
Since B-12 is stored in the liver, deficiency symptoms may not show up for months or even years. So, some people may be on a vegan diet for a very long time and feel totally fine without any symptoms of deficiency.
However, when they do, they can be very damaging to the body and even irreversible. Vitamin B-12 deficiency comes with macrocytic anemia, fatigue, nerve problems such as tingling and muscle weakness as well as brain imbalances such as memory loss and depression.
If you are a woman of child-bearing age, you want to pay special attention to getting enough B-12. If you are deficient and become pregnant, you put your child at risk for having birth defects and, unfortunately, this may not be able to be fixed depending on your level of deficiency vs. the stage of development of the baby.
The good news is that some processed vegan foods may be fortified with B-12, so you’ll want to read your labels to meet your needs.
Adults need 1.8 mcg and pregnant women need 2.4 mcg.
Listen up, athletes!
This is the first nutrient to get me sweating when an athlete hints at going vegan.
That’s because iron is the nutrient that helps form the part of our blood cells that carries oxygen. And if you’re an active person who does a lot of training, you REALLY need oxygen to be carried throughout your body efficiently.
If we don’t get enough iron from food, all body processes suffer. A mild deficiency usually only results in some fatigue, but as anemia sets in, you may see more extreme fatigue, headaches, brittle nails and general weakness.
Some of you may be thinking, “but Destini, plenty of vegetables have iron!”
Well, you’re not wrong.
Let me explain.
Out of the two types of iron, heme and non-heme, heme is the most absorbable by the body (by a rate of 15% to 35%), but it can only be found in animal foods, notably red meat and seafood. Non-heme iron is only absorbed at a rate of 2 - 15% and is more sensitive to other components of the diet like calcium-rich foods, tea, coffee and beans, foods that block the absorption of iron.
However, consuming iron-containing plant foods along with Vitamin C-rich foods can reduce the effects of these inhibitors. Plant sources of iron include beans, nuts, seeds, whole/enriched grains and leafy vegetables. Vitamin C containing foods include citrus fruits, bell peppers, mangos and strawberries. Try to pair them in the same meal or snack to get the most of your non-heme iron.
Calcium and Vitamin D
As we all learned in health class, we need both calcium and Vitamin D for bone health, but both also play a role in muscle function and nerve impulse transmission. Calcium is more easily found in plant foods than the nutrients covered above, you just have to know where to look.
This is because some plant foods touted as “great calcium sources” such as spinach and swiss chard are high in oxalates and phytates that inhibit the absorption of calcium.
You’d be in better shape seeking out more readily absorbed sources of calcium which include leafy greens like kale, collard, broccoli, almonds and tahini.
Vegan/vegetarian sources of Vitamin D (a nutrient needed for calcium to be absorbed) include fortified soy milk, fortified orange juice and sun-dried mushrooms.
Zinc works in our body to keep our immune system strong, heal wounds and to support our smell and sense of taste.
Therefore, anyone who thinks cheese pizza is actual pizza must be zinc deficient.
If you eat animal products, you don’t have to worry about meeting your zinc requirements.
However, as with other nutrients mentioned, plant sources of zinc are poorly absorbed, which increases the zinc needs of vegans and vegetarians by 50%. Without being careful to choose good sources, you could see deficiency symptoms such as a weakened immune system, slow wound healing and appetite loss. More severe symptoms could include altered smell and taste, hair loss and lethargy.
Plant sources of zinc include beans, nuts, seeds and whole grains.
Omega 3s - Omega 3s are nutrients we have to get from food and play a major role in heart health, brain health and controlling inflammation in the body. New studies imply that Omega-3s can also play a role in helping with muscle growth for all of you lifters and athletes out there.
Anyone who is not getting at least 3 servings of fatty fish in a week can find Omega-3s in plant sources such as walnuts, hemp and flaxseeds.
The bottom line?
As you can see, if you don’t trust yourself to be mindful of choosing the right foods to get in all of your nutrients or you already have trouble with deficiencies, cutting out meat and other animal products just might not be the right move for you.
There are serious health implications of following a poorly planned diet that include little or no animal products. Search for guidance from a nutrition professional before making a serious diet change so you can be sure your body is getting all of the nutrients it needs to function at its very best.