As a healthy living coach, I’m often asked my opinion on vegan diets. If you know me personally, or even follow That Salad Lady here or on social media, it’s no big shocker that I’m all about plant-forward eating. Eating primarily plant-based foods undoubtedly protects against chronic diseases and supports a healthy environment. So, my quick answer is that I’m all for vegan diets. But let me clear – I don’t personally follow a vegan diet, at least not anymore.
After close to three years of following a vegan diet, I chose to transition back to eating animal-based foods for health purposes. As a marathoner at the time, I regularly engaged in highly intense endurance exercise and had started to develop classic symptoms of iron-deficiency anemia and eventually experienced amenorrhea. My symptoms completely reversed within just a month of reintroducing animal-based foods into my diet.
Though I no longer follow a vegan diet, my past adoption of this eating style changed my dietary habits for the better.
For me, plant-based eating is essentially a way of life. I generally take in 15-20 servings of veggies, fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds and other plant-based foods on any given day. I’ve never felt better. I just incorporate seafood, poultry, eggs, quality dairy foods and occasional meats into my diet for added nutrition. The key word here is “nutrition,” which is crucial to overall good health, whether your diet is vegan or all-inclusive.
The Importance of Meeting Your Nutritional Needs
If you’re vegan-curious or a novice adopting this style of eating for weight loss or general health-related purposes, it’s important to understand that eating vegan requires much more than blindly giving up animal-based foods. While all vegan diets eliminate animal-based foods, not all vegan foods are healthy foods.
Vegan foods aren’t all created in an environmentally friendly manner either. This holds especially true for a lot of the faux meats, grains, pastas and other heavily processed foods marketed towards vegan eaters, many of which are sold in large health food chains. For good nutrition, vegan meals should be carefully planned and well-balanced to account for all essential nutrients.
From both my personal and professional experiences I can assure you that this isn’t to be taken lightly. Whether macronutrient or micronutrient inadequacies, some of the more common nutritional shortcomings of poorly planned vegan diets can severely impact your health and wellbeing. Luckily, the process of planning out vegan meals doesn’t have to be a difficult one.
In the following paragraphs, I’ll discuss six highly effective strategies to help prevent common nutrient deficiencies often associated with vegan diets.
1. Wisely Planning Out Your Proteins
Let me start by saying that protein is for everyone, not just athletes, body builders and fitness enthusiasts. Our bodies need it to build, repair and maintain practically every cell, tissue and organ in the body – from bone and muscle to skin and blood.
While a common concern is that vegan diets lack sufficient protein, with careful planning, you can get more than enough. However, in order to carefully plan, it’s important to understand that proteins aren’t all created equal. Proteins themselves are made up of smaller units called amino acids. The body produces some of these amino acids (“nonessential”) while others must come from the diet (“essential”).
Foods containing all ‘essential’ amino acids are classified as “complete” proteins while those foods containing some (but not all) are termed “incomplete.”
Complete protein sources are generally referred to as “high-quality” proteins. These include animal-based foods like meats, poultry, seafood, eggs and dairy foods. On the flip side, most plant-based foods are incomplete protein sources. The only exceptions are whole soy foods, certain grains (quinoa and amaranth) and certain seeds (hemp and chia seeds).
Still, you can strategically pair ‘incomplete’ proteins to form ‘complete’ ones. For instance, combining grains with legumes or nuts (rice and beans, whole grain bread with nut or seed butter, or pita bread and hummus) is a classic way to create complete proteins from incomplete sources. When following a vegan diet, you’ll just have to be a little creative. Above all, be open to trying a wide variety of foods. A diet well-rounded in protein is what’s most important.
2. Eating Plenty of Calcium-Rich Foods
Calcium deficiency, mainly due to dairy avoidance, is one of the biggest risks associated with a poorly planned vegan diet. Since 99% of calcium is naturally stored in our bones, regular intake is critical for preserving bone strength and integrity. Calcium is also important for muscle health and proper functioning of the heart, blood vessels and nerves.
A mild calcium deficiency can easily go unnoticed as the body basically strips calcium from bone whenever it’s lacking. Tooth decay (oftentimes with bleeding gums) is one of the earliest signs of this. As calcium deficiency becomes more severe, different groups of symptoms may arise. A severe deficiency can eventually cause decreases in bone density and mass. This can ultimately lead to rapid bone loss, fractures and even disability.
Nevertheless, with careful planning and adequate supplementation, you can certainly avoid calcium deficiency on a vegan diet. Many non-dairy, vegan-friendly foods contain calcium. These include dark leafy green vegetables, whole soy foods and fortified beverages (soy, almond and rice milks).
However, it’s important to understand that the calcium housed in these foods isn’t fully absorbed by the body. So, you’ll need to take in a lot more to match that which is contained in dairy foods. With greens like kale and spinach, for instance, it’ll take about three 1-cup servings to match the amount of calcium contained in a cup of milk.
3. Maintaining Healthy Vitamin D Levels
As with calcium, vitamin D deficiency is another big risk of a vegan diet. Largely housed in oily fish, egg yolks and dairy foods, Vitamin D is critical for calcium absorption and metabolism. Even with sufficient calcium intake, insufficient Vitamin D levels can have adverse effects on calcium-related functions. In fact, deficiencies have been linked to bone disease, muscle weakness, metabolic disorders, heart disease and even cancer.
Our bodies acquire large amounts of vitamin D from sunlight exposure. That’s why it’s called the “sunshine vitamin.” But a good amount of vitamin D is needed through the diet. It’s entirely possible to get enough of it on a vegan diet so long as you’re mindful of the foods you eat. Consuming fortified beverages (which are generally calcium fortified) is one of the simplest options when following a vegan diet. Another option is taking daily vitamin D supplements.
It’s important, however, to check with your healthcare provider before supplementing. Taking in too much vitamin D can cause unhealthy levels of calcium to build up in the bloodstream.
4. Ensuring You’re Getting Enough Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 (cobalamin) deficiency is one of the greatest nutritional concerns with vegan diets, as this important water-soluble vitamin is almost exclusive to animal-based foods. While most experienced vegan eaters consume enough B12 to avoid deficiency, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of adequate intake. The vitamin itself plays a major role in nerve tissue health, brain function and metabolism.
It’s especially vital for the production of red blood cells which are largely responsible for transporting oxygen throughout the body for energy production. Through its energy-promoting effects, vitamin B12 inherently supports weight loss and long-term weight control by improving endurance and the ability to engage in exercise and other forms of physical activity. Classic signs of deficiency include a lack of energy, extreme fatigue and general weakness.
Fortified foods are one of the best possible options for getting in good amounts of vitamin B12. These come in the forms of fortified beverages (soy, hemp and cashew milks), yeast extracts (nutritional yeast) and meat substitutes. Other possible options include vitamin B12 shots, patches and sublingual supplements. It’s important to discuss these options with your healthcare provider in advance.
5. Being Mindful of Iron-Deficiency and Anemia
Iron is an essential mineral that’s critical for healthy blood production. Notably, it’s a chief component of hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is a protein in red blood cells that’s largely responsible for transporting oxygen from the lungs to the cells, tissues and organs of the body. Animal-based foods like red meat, liver and other organ meats, seafood and egg yolks are all rich sources of iron. Obviously, vegan eaters don’t consume any of these foods.
Needless to say, the risk of iron deficiency among vegan eaters constantly lurks. As anemia is one of the most common side effects of iron deficiency, it presents yet another risk. But the risks of iron deficiency and anemia aren’t at all exclusive to vegan diets. Iron deficiency is actually quite common among meat eaters alike and is the most prevalent cause of anemia worldwide.
While vegan diets can make it a bit more difficult to keep your iron levels high, it’s still possible to obtain more than adequate amounts of iron on a vegan diet. Just ensure you’re regularly taking in plenty of plant-based iron sources including whole soy foods, dark leafy green vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds. Soybeans, spinach, lentils, olives and sesame seeds are among the richest sources.
Now, it’s important to understand that the “non-heme iron” housed in plant-based foods isn’t as readily absorbed as the “non-heme-iron” animal-based foods contain. So, you’ll need to take in twice as much non-heme iron than what’s generally recommend. For this reason, many healthcare providers suggest iron supplementation for vegan eaters, especially athletes and females, as both are inherently at a higher risk for iron deficiency.
This is something I’ve personally dealt with as a female athlete on a vegan diet, so I highly encourage you to be mindful of your iron status and intake.
6. Taking in Adequate Amounts of Zinc
Zinc is an important antioxidant mineral that influences various aspects of immune health. It’s especially crucial for normal development and function of white blood cells, which are responsible for destroying and removing harmful bacteria, viruses, and fungi from the body. Through its powerful antioxidant effects, zinc also plays a key role in controlling inflammation.
Deficiencies in zinc can significantly impair immune function and increase the risk of infections. Other consequences include anemia, delayed growth and developmental issues, brain and nervous system impairments, hair loss, skin lesions and even poor wound healing. Since meats and seafood primarily contain zinc, following a vegan diet does come with a risk of deficiency. But, similar to iron, many meat eaters experience zinc deficiency as well.
Fortunately, you can get plenty of zinc from plant-based foods including legumes, nuts and seeds so there’s absolutely no need to become deficient. Some of the best sources include lentils, pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds so I recommend eating these foods religiously.
Eating Enough Variety is Half the Battle
While vegan diets come with possible nutritional drawbacks, for most people the benefits far outweigh the risks. However, eating a well-balanced diet with lots of different plant-based foods is essential in order to get all the nutrients your body needs. This is half the battle for many people, especially very picky eaters, individuals who don’t like to cook, or those who just struggle with trying new foods.
Again, not all vegan foods are healthy foods. You don’t want to fall in the rut of eating a bunch of vegan junk food. There’s little point in moving from a processed animal-based food diet to a primarily processed plant-based diet.
Following a vegan diet is a real lifestyle change and it will take some work on your part. If you’re considering a vegan diet, be sure to speak with a registered dietitian or other qualified professional before you even think of going this route, so you fully understand what a vegan lifestyle entails. From there, test the heck out of different plant-based recipes, explore different food preparation techniques and challenge yourself to try new foods.
It’s also important to get regular checkups with routine blood testing to make sure you’re not deficient in any of the key nutrients I’ve discussed here. The goal is to improve your health with a vegan diet, not hinder it.