Many experts have said that plant-based diets are one of the healthiest diets around with the vegan diet standing at the forefront. As a matter of fact, there’s research suggesting how vegans had longer lives even when compared to those who practice other vegetarian diets.
However, it’s not perfect particularly when it comes to nutrients, and figuring out what vitamins and minerals are lacking in a vegan diet all comes down to what’s supposedly present in meat, poultry, and dairy – which, of course, they avoid.
Still, there are a lot of vegans who have sustained their plant-only diet over the years, so you’ve got to be asking:
Can you get all the nutrients you need from a vegan diet?
Of course you can. What some plants lack, others can provide. And when that fails, there’s a variety of vegan-friendly supplements to choose from, as well as fortified food that help you close the gap.
However, the truth is that it’s going to at least be somewhat harder to get a balanced diet with just plant-based options simply because it’s different from the norm.
This is where planning ahead and a knowledge of what nutrients you need to focus on come into play.
To make planning ahead go smoother, I recommend following the portions shown on The Vegan Food Pyramid.
Here’s how The Vegan Food Pyramid prioritizes food groups:
- Veggies and fruits take up most of your plate
- Whole grains come at a close second, followed by
- Beans, seeds, nuts, and fortified dairy substitutes
- And lastly, fats and sweets
Following this pyramid sets you up for a more balanced diet prescribed by the National Health Service (NHS).
But even with this guide, planning ahead won’t work if you don’t know what nutrients to focus on. So…
What are the nutritional deficiencies associated with vegan diet?
The most obvious reason for these deficiencies stem from the avoidance of several food groups which largely shrinks your options.
However, if you’re doing this diet for ethical reasons, you probably don’t mind cutting out animal-based food from your meals. Instead, you might just be a picky eater, or you have a limited budget that also limits your options, or you just don’t have a lot of supply and/or plant-based options available where you live.
Either way, you run the risk of multiple nutrient deficiencies.
Listed below is a list of vitamins and minerals you need to focus on, as well brief descriptions of each and where you can safely get them (Not including supplements. This will come later in the article).
It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman, young or old, research says you at least have some risk of developing vitamin B12 deficiency if you’re a vegetarian.
For vegans, the risk is even higher because this vitamin is usually found in animal meat, fish (and shellfish), milk, and eggs.
Vitamin B12 is crucial to human health because, per the National Institutes of Health (NIH), it helps keep nerve and blood cells healthy and is involved in making DNA. Adults need 2.4 mcg of this vitamin per day.
Vegans, get your B12 from fortified food like breakfast cereals, nutritional yeast, or milk substitutes.
There’s basically 2 kinds of vitamin D you need to know about: vitamin D3 and vitamin D2.
D3 is the kind you get from sunlight and from animals. It’s also far superior than D2 because it’s significantly more bioavailable.
D2, on the other hand, is the kind of vitamin D found in plants and most fortified food. Vegans are at a higher risk for vitamin deficiency because blood levels of vitamin D fall far quicker when you take D2 compared to D3. In other words, D2 is far less potent.
Either way, vitamin D is crucial for bone and muscle health, and adults need around 15 mcg or 600 IU daily (per the NIH).
Mushrooms exposed to UV light are great vegan sources of vitamin D, as well as several milk substitutes (e.g. almond milk, soy milk) and fortified cereal.
To me though, sunlight is still your best bet. There’s no standard for this, so make sure to only expose your bare skin to sunlight for a few minutes a day, perhaps until right before your skin turns pink. Darker skin will also need more sunlight exposure to make enough vitamin D.
Again, there’s 2 types of iron you need to take note of: heme iron and non-heme iron.
Heme iron comes from animal-based food, particularly red meat, while non-heme iron comes from plants. Similar to vitamin D, your body also absorbs animal-sourced iron better than its plant-based counterpart. This is also why vegans and vegetarians are at a higher risk for iron deficiency.
Your body needs iron to make hemoglobin and myoglobin which your body then uses to supply oxygen to your muscles and the rest of your body.
Adult men generally need 8 mg of iron per day whereas adult women need 18 mg (per the NIH). However, vegans need around twice as much because of the inferior bioavailability of plant-based iron.
Nevertheless, good vegan sources of iron include white beans, lentils, spinach, nuts, and fortified cereal.
Perhaps the most commonly known purpose of zinc is its ability to boost the immune system but it also helps a great deal in making proteins and DNA, and it plays a role in wound healing as well as your sense of taste and smell.
While there are plenty of vegan sources of zinc, including beans, nuts, whole grains, and fortified cereals, these same sources typically have phytate – a compound that interferes with the absorption of zinc.
As such, vegans and other people who follow plant-based diets typically need around 50% more zinc in their diets per the NIH. For your reference, the average adult man needs 11 mg of zinc daily while adult women need 8 mg.
Calcium goes hand-in-hand with vitamin D since the latter helps absorb the former, so they’re both crucial for bone health. Furthermore, calcium also plays a role in muscle function, your nervous system, and hormones.
Also, it’s no secret that dairy products are one of, if not the best sources of calcium, so it makes sense that vegans are at a higher risk of calcium deficiency.
Luckily, vegetables like kale and broccoli, as well as grains, fortified breakfast cereals and juice, tofu, and dairy substitutes are great sources of vegan-friendly calcium. Incorporating them into your diet should help you get 1000 mg per day – the recommended daily allowance listed under the NIH.
Your body needs iodine to keep your thyroid hormones running, which are then used to control your metabolism and several other body functions.
Vegans are at a higher risk for iodine deficiency because they cut off seafood like fish and shrimp, milk, and eggs from their diet and they’re one of the best sources of iodine.
However, incorporating breads, cereals, and using iodized salt in your diet can help you get the right amount of iodine (150 mcg per the NIH). Fruits like bananas and strawberries, as well as green leafy vegetables also have iodine but the amount largely depends on the soil they’re planted in.
Omega-3 fatty acids
There’s basically 3 kinds of omega-3 fatty acids:
The good news is that ALA shouldn’t be a problem because you get that mostly from plant oils like flaxseed and soy. ALA also converts to both EPA and DHA.
The bad news is that the conversion rate is downright poor. Per research, only 5% of ALA is converted to EPA while less than 0.5% becomes DHA. So, you’re going to have to eat a lot of ALA-rich food – and that’s just not sustainable.
Even worse is that EPA and DHA, who both play roles in fat and sugar metabolism, mostly comes from seafood, making supplementation the best, and perhaps the only sensible option.
This brings us to the next part of the article…
What supplements do you need on a vegan diet?
Short answer: You’re going to need supplements for the nutrients I just mentioned above.
However, I do understand that keeping track of so many nutrients can quickly become bothersome, so I highly recommend supplements that carry at least 2 of these vegan rarities.
Doing so also addresses the original issue of “what vitamins and minerals are lacking in a vegan diet?” much more efficiently.
What I like about this is that 1 gummy already addresses 2 of the vegan diet’s most blaring nutritional deficiencies.
Also, it’s fairly rare to get a vegan D3 supplement since most of what’s out there are of the inferior D2. Dosage for both D3 and B12 here look pretty good as well. And, from the reviews I’ve read, the gummies must taste incredible and they seem to dissolve faster than some other brands.
Perhaps the biggest downside to MaryRuth’s Vitamin D3 + B12 Gummies, however, is that it’s a bit on the pricier end.
Garden of Life’s Women’s Once Daily Whole Food Multivitamin
Since it’s a multivitamin, you’re getting a whole complex of vitamins and minerals. Of the ones I listed, this supplement includes vitamin D3, B12, iron, and zinc.
With D3 and B12, Garden of Life’s Women’s Once Daily Whole Food Multivitamin gives you more than the recommended daily allowance (RDA) which I think is great.
Iron and zinc, on the other hand, are at 14% and 35% respectively. You might say that’s low but I think that’s actually pretty solid, especially since you should still be trying to get as much of these nutrients from wholefood.
Naturelo’s Whole food Multivitamin For Men
If there’s a vegan multivitamin for women, there’s a version for men, too. I checked out Naturelo’s Whole food Multivitamin For Men and I have to say, I’m impressed.
It’s got vitamin D3, vitamin B12, calcium, iodine, and zinc, as well as a whole complex of nutrients and several other vegan-friendly blends with their own health benefits.
Dosage wise, calcium is the only nutrient in there that doesn’t get at least 100% of its RDA, and even that gets a solid 27% (355 mg).
It can be a little pricey for some though but I think it’s worth it. Also, each serving is 4 capsules. If you’re trying to cut down on pills, that might be an issue.
Naturelo’s Bone Strength Plant Calcium Complex
As the name suggests, Naturelo’s Bone Strength Plant Calcium Complex is all about keeping your skeleton strong and healthy. With a dose of vitamin D3 that satisfies its RDA as well as a solid dose of calcium at 600 mg (46% of the RDA), I think they do just that.
Moreover, this supplement also has several other nutrients (i.e. magnesium, manganese, potassium, boron, silicon, vitamin C, D, and K) that might not only help your body absorb more calcium, they have their own health benefits, too.
As with the previous Naturelo supplement, this can get a little pricey and each serving still consists of 4 vegan capsules.
PlantFusion Vegan Complete Iron
Clearly, iron takes center stage in this supplement. At 25 mg, you certainly get more than the RDA. Unless it’s way too much (which it isn’t), that’s always going to be good in my book.
More than though, PlantFusion Vegan Complete Iron also has incredible dosages of vitamin B12 and folate, making this supplement great for countering the most common types of anemia associated with the vegan diet.
The omega-3 from these pills are sourced from the vegan-friendly algal oil. It also has a 550 mg total of omega-3 fatty acids, including the hard-to-find EPA (150 mg) and DHA (300 mg).
Again, there’s no standard for how much of these 2 fatty acids you need daily but the dosage here should be solid.
To end this, let me just say that while the vegan diet is considered one of the healthiest diets around the world, it’s still not perfect. Actually, from where I’m standing, no single diet is. There’s always some type of drawback to these things.
However, there’s also going to be a way to circle around those flaws which. And, in the case of the vegan diet’s nutritional deficiencies, I believe supplementation, planning ahead, and knowledge of what you need to focus on are key to getting a complete and balanced nutrition without relying on animal sources.
If you’ve got other vegan friends struggling with nutrition or friends who’re thinking about going vegan, share this article with them and help them out.