Many people have adopted vegan lifestyles and, while going vegan has benefits, it is not without risk. Some vegan diets can be deficient in vital nutrients, and these deficiencies can cause serious health problems. We asked nutrition advocate and certified natural chef Rachel Begun, MS, RDN, to elaborate.
“A well-planned vegan diet can absolutely meet all nutrient needs,” says Begun. “However, ‘well-planned’ are the operative words. It takes smart and savvy meal planning to get the nutrients needed on a vegan diet.”
“Vegans are more likely to miss out on omega-3 fatty acids, iron, zinc, iodine, and vitamins B12 and D,” explains Begun.
“Supplementation is personal,” says Begun. “Supplement needs depend on the individual’s particular diet and physiological needs. Talk to a registered dietitian who can evaluate what you are and are not getting enough of through diet, and who can then make recommendations for dietary changes and/or supplements to meet nutrient needs.”
“Consumption of the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA are usually low in vegans, but these nutrients can be made by the body from ALA, which can be found in chia and flax seeds, as well as in walnuts and their oils,” says Begun.
Iron, Begun says, can also be derived from plant sources — namely, legumes, soy, nuts, seeds, and leafy greens. Though the iron in these foods can be difficult for the body to absorb, Begun says that eating iron-rich foods with other products containing vitamin C can increase iron’s availability.
Zinc, she says, can be found in soy products, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds, while iodized salt and sea vegetables are the best way for vegans to get iodine in their diet. Vitamin D can be found in fortified beverages, juices, and grain-based foods.
One vitamin vegans often need most is B12. “B12 is derived from animal-based foods,” says Begun. “While vegan sources such as nutritional yeast are touted, it’s likely that most vegans will need to meet their B12 needs with fortified foods and/or supplements.”
“The effects of deficiencies aren’t known for all essential nutrients,” explains Begun. “Vitamins and minerals are the compounds that facilitate the millions of functions our bodies do every single day. Small deficiencies may not be apparent at all or lead to subtle symptoms such as fatigue, poor concentration, or poor digestion. Significant deficiencies can lead to more serious functional issues such as peripheral neuropathy with B12 deficiency, or low bone density with lack of vitamin D.”
“I believe nutrition is as personal as fingerprint,” says Begun. “Each of us thrives on our very own diet based on a wide variety of factors, including family and medical history, cultural background, and personal preferences and lifestyle. It is my job as a health professional to help people find the best approach for them. Sometimes that means making fine adjustments to meet nutrition needs and other times more significant recommendations may be required.”