Going vegan comes with its difficulties - finding plant-based friendly restaurants, having to repeatedly explain your choice to judgy friends and family, and ensuring that you don’t fall short of your daily quota of nutrients.
The exclusion of two major food groups - meat and dairy - can leave you open to developing certain deficiencies and so supplementation can serve as a useful way to up your stores when they’re at risk of running dry.
What are the most important potential nutritional deficiencies to be aware of when beginning a vegan diet? We found out plus, the best ways to meet any potential shortfalls.
This is one of the most important nutrients for vegans to monitor explains nutritional therapist Jackie McCusker , due to its role in the formation of red blood cells, DNA regulation and the healthy functioning of the nervous system and brain. However, it’s only found in animal foods (though a small amount can be made by healthy bacteria in the gut) such as fish and eggs. A deficiency can lead to severe cognitive decline, depression and anxiety so as a first port of call, Jackie recommends seeking out foods fortified with the vitamin (such as cereals, some plant milks and soy) and to supplement this with at least 10 micrograms of B12 daily.
There are two types of iron : haem (which animal sources are rich in) and non-haem (which plant sources, such as spinach, lentils, soy beans, tofu, sunflower seeds and blackstrap molasses are rich in). Jackie explains that because non-haem isn’t as absorbable by the body as haem iron, it could therefore be well worth taking an iron supplement if you’re a vegan. Deficiency can lead to fatigue and a weaker immune system.
Omega 3 essential fatty acids
These are crucial for hormone function, mood, skin and hair. “They’re also anti-inflammatory so an adequate intake is very important,” says Jackie. However, as the body can’t make them, diet or supplementation play vital roles.
Getting enough is especially tricky for vegans though. “While some plant-based foods are very rich sources in omega 3s, namely walnuts and chia seeds, some us don’t have the enzyme necessary to convert them properly,” Jackie explains. “The essential fatty acids from oily fish are already converted, so the enzyme is not required.”
Iodine’s crucial for healthy thyroid function and metabolism regulation. Good sources of iodine include sea fish and shellfish, and cereals and grains for those on a plant-based diet. “Low levels are associated with fibrocystic breast conditions, infertility, tiredness and depression,” Jackie cautions. Iodine deficiency is prevalent across the population however, it’s especially a problem for vegans. “The issue with vegan sources is that there is no easy way of knowing how much iodine is in plant foods as it’s dependant on the soil that the plant is grown in.” Try H ealthspan MulitVitality Gold £5.95.
The body needs vitamin D to regulate the levels of calcium and phosphate in the body. This, in turn, keeps bones, teeth and muscles healthy. As with B12, dietary sources of vitamin D are by and large animal-based. What’s more, because vitamin D is primarily produced in the skin by sun exposure, supplies can be especially lacking in the winter months. Therefore, Jackie recommends considering taking a supplement, in addition to increasing your intake of fortified foods like cereals, some plant milks and soy.
Calcium, zinc and magnesium
Although widely available in plant foods such as green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds and grains, Jackie highlights that they can be poorly absorbed by the gut. “Many plant-based foods (like grains, soy, nuts and seeds) contain natural chemicals called phytates and oxalates that bind to minerals such as iron, zinc , calcium and magnesium and prevent their absorption,” she explains. She recommends upping your intake of foods that are fortified with calcium such as plant milks, juices and some tofu, as well as steamed green leafy vegetables for calcium and magnesium. “Cooking and soaking help to reduce the oxalate content,” she says. Supplementation is handy here too for bumping up levels.
What to take
This is a good starting point. Jackie recommends looking out for one that contains all of the key nutrients and the minerals iron, calcium, zinc and iodine. Her top pick is Cytoplan Cyto Gold Multi-Vitamin and Mineral Formulation , £18.90. “It contains 800iu/20mcg of Vitamin D3 and its important co-factor, Vitamin K2 . K2 directs the proper deposition of calcium into the bones where it is needed and not into the arteries where it would cause significant problems.”