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What nutrients vegans lack the most and how to supplement them?

Vegan and vegetarian diet is becoming more and more popular, however the choice of purely plant food sources in combination with a lack of knowledge about nutrition can cause a deficiency of some vital nutrients. Find out what are the most risky nutrients and substances that vegans lack the most and how to avoid this deficiency.  

What nutrients vegans lack the most?

What nutrients vegans lack the most?

Despite the fact that plant-based diet is truly healthy, there is a certain group of nutrients that you simply can not get without eating animal products. Or if so, then only in a small amount. Check out what nutrients you should supplement if you are a vegan. [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6]

Vitamin B12

The first and very often deficient nutrient is vitamin B12, ie cobalamin, which occurs naturally in meat, fish, but also in eggs, milk or liver. No wonder you can´t easily find it in vegan diet. At the same time, this B vitamin has really beneficial effects on the body. It is important for many bodily processes, including protein metabolism and red blood cells production that transfer oxygen in the body. It also plays an important role in the health of nervous system and it is important also for proper functioning of the immunity.

Too little of vitamin B12 can lead to:

  • to anemia, 
  • to damage of the nervous system,
  • to infertility,
  • to bone or heart diseases.

Symptoms of deficiency include fatigue, weakness, constipation, loss of appetite and weight loss. The signs of deficiency of vitamin B12 can also include tingling in the arms and legs, depression, confusion or memory or balance problems. [7] [8]

Vegans are lacking vitamin B12

The recommended daily intake of vitamin B12 is 2,4 μg for adults, 2,6 μg during pregnancy and 2,8 μg during breastfeeding. The only scientifically proven way for vegans to reach this levels is to eat foods rich in vitamin B12. These include plant milks, soy products, breakfast cereals, spirulina, chlorella and nutritious yeast. However, it should be also added, that you would have to take daily really high amount of these foods to reach desired values. Therefore, the most effective way how to supplement vitamin B12. You can choose from separately sold vitamin B12, but you can also find cobalamin in B-complex. Thanks to it, you will get all kinds of B vitamins into the body in their optimal daily dose. [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6]

Zinc

Zinc is a mineral that our body, unfortunately, can´t produce by its own. Therefore it is very necessary to supplement it through diet or supplements. Zinc is essential for the activity of more than 300 enzymes, which influence the metabolism, immune functions and the repair of body cells. It is exceptionally essential also for the skin health, DNA synthesis and protein production. Its insufficient intake can cause serious damages in the body. It can lead to:

  • developmental problems, 
  • hair loss,
  • diarrhea,
  • delayed wound healing. [9] 

Most of the zinc can be found in animal foods such as mussels, meat, fish or eggs. Only very few plant foods contain a high amount of zinc. In addition, the absorption of zinc from several plants is limited due to their content of plant compounds – phytates. You can therefore get zinc from legumes, whole grain foods, mushrooms, seeds and nuts.

Vegans are lacking zinc

To achieve the optimal dose of zinc, you should take 8 mg (women) or 11 mg of zinc (men) daily. The dose is increased in pregnant women to 11 up to 12 mg and in breastfeeding women to 12 up to 13 mg. To reach these values as a women and vegan, you would have to eat at least 800 g of lentils daily. It contains only 1 mg of zinc per 100 g. For comparison, 100 g of mussels contain up to 61 mg of zinc, which is more than 700 % above the level of optimal daily dose.

A recent review of 26 studies showed that vegans have lower zinc intake and lower zinc level in the body than omnivores. [10] To maximize its intake, you should focus on wide range of foods rich in zinc. In many cases, despite your best efforts, it will be insufficient and that is why it is recommended for vegans to supplement the level of zinc with nutritional supplements. [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6]

Iron

Iron is mineral whose main purpose is to carry oxygen in the hemoglobin of red blood cells, so the cells can produce the energy. Too little iron in the body can lead to anemia and its accompanying symptoms such as fatigue and decreased immune function. Even though the iron in the food is commonly available, some groups of people may suffer from its acute deficiency. Those include small children, adolescent girls and pregnant or breastfeeding women. The main reason why iron deficiency affects women is menstrual cycle. Along with the blood and waste products, a proper dose of iron is washed out from the body. In children, increase iron intake is needed due to the development of brain functions.

Here is a brief overview of how much iron each group of people should take during the day: [11]

GENDERAGERECOMMENDED DAILY DOSE OF IRON
Children1 up to 3 years7 mg
ChildrenFrom 4 to 8 years10 mg
ChildrenFrom 9 to 13 years8 mg
Men14 up to 18 years11 mg
Women14 up to 18 years15 mg
Men19+8 mg
Women19 up to 50 years18 mg
Women51+8 mg

Another vulnerable group that can suffer from iron deficiency are vegans. The body is able to absorb two or three times more iron from animal sources than from plant sources.

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Vegans with a low iron intake should try to eat more foods rich in iron such as leafy vegetables, beans, peas, dried fruit, nuts, seeds, wholegrain foods or pastry and bread. Effective aid is supplementation of iron. However, you should consult the iron deficiency with your doctor. It is possible that your body is able to absorb sufficient amount also from the sources you are offering. Excess iron in the body can do more harm than good. Extreme high level can harm the cells, prevent the absorption of other minerals, cause convulsions or even lead to organ failure. [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6]

Vegans are lacking iron

Omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3 is a group of essential fatty acids that plays an important role in the body and can provide many health benefits. The most important types of omega-3 are ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). The body can not produce these acids on its own and that is why they should be take from the diet. The most common sources are fatty fish, which have truly unique amount of omega-3 fatty acids. We know already for a long time that omega-3 fatty acids are not only found in animal diet. Rich sources are also chia seedswalnuts, algae, flax seeds or soybeans.

Why should you pay attention to have enough omega-3 in the body? These fatty acids, especially DHA, are vital for the health of brain, heart and eyes. They are especially beneficial for pregnant and breastfeeding women, because enough DHA can influence the health and proper development of the child. Even though these theories need to be further explored, several studies show that omega-3 fatty acids can protect from various diseases, including breast cancer, depression, ADHD and various inflammatory diseases. [12]

Vegans are lacking omega-3 fatty acids

But how it is possible that despite the wide range or plant sources ofomega-3, vegans may lack them? Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, so DHA and EPA, are found only in animal sources. On the contrary, ALA is rich in plant foods. Although the body can produce DHA and EPA in the small amount through ALA, but as the study from 2017 shows, human body has very limited capacity to convert ALA to DHA or EPA. [13]There is also solution to this problem for vegans, which is supplementation of algae oils, which are also a source of EPA and DHA due to the presence of fish in the sea and rivers. You can read more about the need to supplement omega-3 in the article Omega-3 fatty acids: do you consume enough of them and in the right proportion to omega-6?. [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6]

Vitamin D

The most effective and the best source of vitamin D is the sun. Several experts claim that already a 10- to 15-minutes stay in the direct sunlight is enough for the body to get enough vitamin D. It is extremely important, because:

  • maintains bone health,
  • strengthens immune system
  • helps to regulate the mood
  • helps to absorb other nutrients such as calcium and phosphorus. [14]
Vegans are lacking vitamin D

But what if you live in a country with limited sunny days or it is autumn or winter? You can find vitamin D also in mushrooms or soy milk. But there is very little of it in it. For example, 100 g of salmon contains 526 IU of vitamin D, while some types of mushrooms can provide only 130 up to 450 IU of vitamin D per 100 g. The recommended daily dose of vitamin D is from 600 to 800 UI. Taking vitamin D supplements is therefore really important for vegans. You can read more about its benefits and proper dosage in the article Vitamin D and everything you should know about it[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6]

Calcium

Calcium is mineral that is essential for building, maintaining and proper development of bones. Its best source is undoubtedly milk products, which are not a part of vegan diet. Vegans should therefore find other sources such as cabbage, kale, broccoli, soy, chickpeas, black beans, almonds or plant milks. Plant sources of calcium are not absorbed as well in the body as animal, which can lead to its deficiency. Low content of calcium can increase the risk of weak bones and osteoporosis over time. [15]

vegans are lacking calcium

Several studies agree that most of the vegans do not have enough calcium in the body. Vegans often argue that they do not use this mineral to neutralize the acidity caused by the diet rich in meat, so they do not need it in such amount as omnivores. There are very little relevant sources that prove this theory. The evidence shows that vegans who consume less than 525 mg of calcium daily, tend to have increased risk of bone fractures. 

The recommended daily intake of calcium is set as 1 000 mg daily for most adults and increase to 1 200 mg daily for adults over 50 years. If you are vegan and you want to ensure the health of your bones, you daily intake of calcium should be more than 525 mg. [15] 100 g of chia seeds contain 631 mg of calcium, what would solve the problem with its deficiency. Be honest, who of you consume daily 100 g of chia seeds? If you are not able to supplement calcium through diet, you should consider its supplementation. [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6]

Creatine, carnosine and beta-alanine

Vegans are lacking creatine

The best molecule for building the muscle mass and increasing the strength is definitely creatine. It is usually stored in muscles, but a significant amount of creatine is in the brain. It is therefore beneficial not only to increase the strength, but also to strengthen brain functions such as memory.

The only food source to supplement creatine is animal diet. Although creatine is naturally produces in liver, many studies show that without proper animal diet rich in creatine, you will not have it enough in the body. The only way how vegans can get enough amount of creatine it its supplementation. 

It was proven, that vegetarians or vegans taking creatine supplements, are able to take advantages of its effects more than people eating meat who do not supplement creatine. This is why vegans taking creatine supplements can experience significant improvement in brain function and increasing the strength. [6] [16] If you are not sure which creatine is the most suitable for you, then click on following articles and get to know everything about its forms, dosage and proper intake: A guide to creatine for maximum muscle mass growth and Everything you should know about creatine and its forms.

Antioxidant carnosine is the same caseIt is very important for functioning of the muscles and its high level in the muscles is associated with reduced muscle fatigue and improved performance. Carnosine can be taken from animal diet or through supplementation, but the most effective way is to take it from beta-alanine.

Food sources of beta-alanine can significantly contribute to higher muscle level of carnosine, but its main food sources are meat, poultry and fish, which are definitely not vegan. Supplementation of beta-alanine is therefore a great way how to increase the level of carnosine in the muscles, improve endurance and increase muscle mass. You can read more about beta-alanine and its use in the article Beta alanine and its use in sports[5] [6] [17] [18]

Vegans are lacking creatine

There are only two solutions how to get these nutrients into the body. The first one is to prepared a detailed vegan menu in advance, in which you will focus on ensuring that you get enough of each nutrient. The second one, and for sure the more comfortable one, is to take nutrients through certified nutritional supplements. It is up to you which path you will choose.

Do you supplement the missing nutrients in your diet with nutritional supplements? Share your experiences in the comment. If you liked the article and you know it should be beneficial for somebody else too, share it.

Sources:

[1] Vincent C. Giampapa, M.D., FACS – 8 IMMUNE-BOOSTING SUPPLEMENTS FOR VEGANS – https://www.healthycell.com/blog/vegan-immune-boosting-supplements

[2] Tina Donvito – 8 Nutrients You May Be Missing If You’re Vegetarian or Vegan – https://www.thehealthy.com/nutrition/vitamin-deficiency-vegetarian-vegan/

[3] Kate Barrington – THE TOP 5 NUTRIENT DEFICIENCIES ON A PLANT BASED DIET – https://www.naturespath.com/en-us/blog/the-top-5-deficiencies-on-a-plant-based-diet/

[4] Atli Arnarson BSc, PhD – 7 Nutrients That You Can’t Get from Plants – https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/7-nutrients-you-cant-get-from-plants#1

[5] Alina Petre, MS, RD (NL) – 7 Supplements You Need on a Vegan Diet – https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/7-supplements-for-vegans

[6] Matt Frazier and Matt Tullman – Vegan Supplements: Which Ones Do You Need? – https://www.nomeatathlete.com/supplements/

[7] Fumio Watanabe – Vitamin B12 sources and bioavailability – https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17959839/

[8] Roman Pawlak, Scott James Parrott, Sudha Raj, Diana Cullum-Dugan, Debbie Lucus – How prevalent is vitamin B(12) deficiency among vegetarians? – https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23356638/

[9] Melissa L Zastrow, Vincent L Pecoraro – Designing hydrolytic zinc metalloenzymes – https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24506795/

[10] Meika Foster, Anna Chu, Peter Petocz, Samir Samman – Effect of vegetarian diets on zinc status: a systematic review and meta-analysis of studies in humans – https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23595983/

[11] Iron – https://www.eatright.org/food/vitamins-and-supplements/types-of-vitamins-and-nutrients/iron

[12] Philippe Guesnet, Jean-Marc Alessandri – Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and the developing central nervous system (CNS) – Implications for dietary recommendations – https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20478353/

[13] Bonny Burns-Whitmore, Erik Froyen, Celine Heskey, Temetra Parker and Gregorio San Pablo – Alpha-Linolenic and Linoleic Fatty Acids in the Vegan Diet: Do They Require Dietary Reference Intake/Adequate Intake Special Consideration? – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6835948/

[14] Michael F Holick, Tai C Chen – Vitamin D deficiency: a worldwide problem with health consequences – https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18400738/

[15] Peter Clarys, Tom Deliens, Inge Huybrechts, Peter Deriemaeker, Barbara Vanaelst, Willem De Keyzer, Marcel Hebbelinck and Patrick Mullie – Comparison of Nutritional Quality of the Vegan, Vegetarian, Semi-Vegetarian, Pesco-Vegetarian and Omnivorous Diet – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3967195/

[16] David Benton, Rachel Donohoe – The influence of creatine supplementation on the cognitive functioning of vegetarians and omnivores – https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21118604/

[17] Inge Everaert, Antien Mooyaart, Audrey Baguet, Ana Zutinic, Hans Baelde, Eric Achten, Youri Taes, Emile De Heer, Wim Derave – Vegetarianism, female gender and increasing age, but not CNDP1 genotype, are associated with reduced muscle carnosine levels in humans – https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20865290/

[18] Wim Derave, Mahir S Ozdemir, Roger C Harris, Andries Pottier, Harmen Reyngoudt, Katrien Koppo, John A Wise, Eric Achten – beta-Alanine supplementation augments muscle carnosine content and attenuates fatigue during repeated isokinetic contraction bouts in trained sprinters – https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17690198/