Those of you who either know or follow me are probably aware that I was formerly an avid vegan. I personally decided to adopt this style of eating following years of haphazard meat consumption to almost toxic levels. Although I’m no longer a vegan, my past adoption of this lifestyle has truly changed my general dietary approach for the better. For me, plant-based eating is essentially a way of life, as I can effortless consume in excess of 15-20 servings of fresh veggies, fruits, and legumes on any given day.
The only difference now is that I regularly incorporate seafood, poultry, and occasional red meat into my diet as well.
Interestingly enough, today I’m not the biggest fan of vegan diets, unless of course they are implemented for reasons related to environmental welfare, animal rights or religion. Although the plethora of nutrients contained in vegetables, fruits, legumes and other plant-based foods can considerably reduce the risk of obesity and numerous other chronic diseases, it is increasingly possible for vegans to lack some of the essential macronutrients and micronutrients the body needs to function optimally.
From both my personal and professional experiences I can assure you that this isn’t to be taken lightly.
If you’re vegan-curious or a novice vegan adopting this lifestyle for weight loss or general health-related purposes, it is important to understand that becoming a vegan requires much more than blindly giving up animal-based foods.
For optimal health, vegan meals need to be carefully planned and well balanced so that all essential nutrients are accounted for. This can be quite difficult to do without counsel from a registered dietician or seasoned nutritionist. Some of the more common nutritional shortcomings of vegan diets may severely impact your health and overall well-being. I’ll touch on them in the following paragraphs.
Low Intake of Complete Proteins
Protein deficiency is one of the most common risks associated with vegan diets due to the total restriction of meats, poultry, seafood, eggs, milk, and cheese. Since these food sources contain all essential amino acids they are generally classified as complete (“high-quality”) proteins. Adequate intake of high-quality proteins is needed to build, repair and maintain practically every tissue and organ in the body from bone and muscle to skin and blood.
Given such vital bodily functions, it’s no wonder that protein deficiency is associated with bone and muscle wasting, hair loss and poor wound healing, amongst other effects.
In spite of a higher risk of deficiency, it is possible for vegans to obtain sufficient amounts of complete proteins by consuming high-quality soy foods like tempeh, tofu, and soybeans. In addition, plant-based food sources comprised of incomplete proteins (legumes, grains, cereals, nuts and seeds) can be strategically combined to make complete proteins. But, this does require a general understanding of which amino acids are housed in the respective foods, which may be a challenge for novice vegans.
Deficits in Dietary Calcium
Calcium is by far the most abundant mineral in the body. Since 99 percent of the body’s calcium is naturally stored in bone, regular intake is critical for preserving the strength and integrity of this hard and rigid tissue. Because dairy foods are essentially restricted, calcium deficiency is quite common amongst vegans. Even worse, most are unaware of it, as the body basically strips calcium from bone whenever dietary calcium is lacking. Tooth decay (oftentimes with bleeding gums) is one of the earliest signs of this.
Over time, a calcium-deficient diet can cause bone density and mass to decrease leading to rapid bone loss, fractures, and, ultimately, disability.
With careful planning and adequate supplementation vegans can certainly avoid calcium deficiency. There are many non-dairy, vegan-friendly foods that contain calcium including dark leafy green vegetables, high-quality soy foods, and fortified beverages (soymilk and rice milk). Problem is, the calcium housed in some of these foods is not fully absorbed by the body so there is often a need for vegans to take in a lot more to match that which is contained in dairy foods.
Reduced Vitamin D in the Diet
Vitamin D is needed for intestinal absorption and metabolism of calcium making it crucial for the formation and maintenance of strong bones and teeth. Large quantities of this vitamin are generally acquired from sunlight exposure but it must also be obtained from dietary sources. Since vitamin D is chiefly housed in oily fish, egg yolks, and dairy foods, vegans can easily become deficient.
This is not a good thing as prolonged deficiency can lead to a host of health problems including bone disease, muscle weakness, metabolic disorders, heart disease and even cancer.
The risk of deficiency is best avoided with regular intake of fortified foods including soymilk. Supplementing with vitamin D is another possible option. However, it’s important to check with a health care provider before starting any vitamin D regimen, as taking in excessive amounts (“megadoses”) can cause unhealthy levels of calcium to build up in the bloodstream.
Shortages in Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is another common deficiency amongst vegans, as it is naturally found in animal-based foods including meats, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy products. This essential water-soluble vitamin plays a major role in production of red blood cells, which are responsible for transporting oxygen throughout the body for energy production. Through its energy producing effects, vitamin B12 can support weight loss by improving endurance and the ability to engage in exercise and other types of physical activity.
Insufficient amounts of vitamin B12 can lead to inadequate macronutrient metabolism and consequently a lack of energy, extreme fatigue, and general weakness. In severe cases, deficiencies can impair proper functioning of the brain and nervous system. Vegans can greatly minimize the likelihood of deficiency by supplementing with vitamins or fortified foods, which may come in the forms of soy beverages, meat-substitutes, and yeast extracts.
Most seasoned vegans consume enough B12 to avoid deficiency. Still, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of regularly consuming fortified foods or supplements for optimal health.
Insufficient Iron Consumption
Iron is an essential mineral that’s critical for healthy production of red blood cells. It is a chief component of hemoglobin, which is 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 rich sources of iron, none of which are consumed by vegans.
Anemia is one of the most common side effects of iron deficiency and vegans are at increased risk due to abstinence from iron-containing animal-based foods.
It is possible for vegans to obtain more than adequate amounts of iron by regularly consuming a wide array of soy foods, dark leafy green vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds. Soybeans, spinach, lentils, olives and sesame seeds are among the richest sources. However, it’s important to understand that the type of iron housed in these foods (non-heme iron) is not as readily absorbed as that contained in animal-based foods (heme-iron).
Inadequacies in Dietary Zinc
Zinc is an important micronutrient that influences various aspects of the immune system. It is 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. Zinc also plays a key role in inflammation. Notably it functions as a powerful antioxidant, helping to prevent free-radical damage during the inflammatory process.
Deficiencies in zinc can 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 poor wound healing.
Since zinc is primarily contained in meats and seafood, vegans are especially susceptible to deficiency. But, interestingly, zinc deficiency affects a lot of people who consume animal-based foods as well. Fortunately, with careful planning vegans can obtain ample amounts of zinc by consuming a large variety of legumes, nuts and seeds. Some of the best sources include lentils, pumpkin seeds, and sesame seeds.
So, as you can see, vegan diet-related nutrient deficiencies are the real deal! This is why I can’t stress enough the importance of approaching the vegan lifestyle with a preplanned set of dietary strategies.
Now, don’t get me wrong here. Although adopting vegan diets can increase the risk of macronutrient and micronutrient deficiencies like the ones I’ve described, for many, the benefits can greatly outweigh the risks. Vegans generally have lower body weights, cholesterol levels, blood sugar levels, and blood pressures, all of which can greatly reduce the risk of disease.
With careful planning and follow-through vegan diets can be well balanced in all the vital nutrients required for good health. Still, I highly recommend doing so under supervision from a registered dietitian, nutritionist or other trained health professional.
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Disclaimer: The information provided is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. Any reader who is concerned about his or her health should contact a physician for advice.