With a vegan diet or only eating vegetarian food you get plenty of antioxidants, fiber, some essential fatty acids, flavonoids and other good nutrients, but there are nutritional elements that may be lacking from these diets. Whether you follow a vegetarian food plan or a vegan diet on principles related to animal rights or just because you believe it is healthier, you can get all the nutrition you need with a little planning and attention. First it makes a difference what type of vegetarian you are. Some people refer to themselves as vegetarian if they eat a mostly plant based diet but also include dairy products. Then there are those that include dairy with the exception of eggs. Vegans on the other hand do not include any dairy and don’t include eggs or any other foods from animal sources. There are also people that fall somewhere in between the definitions by eating mostly vegetarian with or without dairy and eggs and occasionally include fish or poultry in their diets.
What Nutrition You May Be Missing
Whichever diet you follow, there are certain deficiencies that can exist in a mostly plant based diet to be aware of. You can find plant based alternatives for most of these including possible dietary supplements as long as you know there may be a chance you are not getting the amount needed for good health. Here are some of the nutritional elements to consider when looking at your diet to make sure you are getting adequate amounts. You may also want to consult your health care provider or nutritionist for advice on the diet you adhere to and any nutritional deficits it may have.
The kidney and liver produce some amounts of creatine that is needed for cells to store energy for when the body needs it, and for certain brain, muscle and bone functions. Food sources for creatine are usually meat, eggs and fish. If you do not have these foods in your diet, then you may not be getting the creatine your body needs. There are opinions and research that advocate the use of creatine supplements if a vegetarian diet is followed because the body does not make enough on its own and there are those that report the body makes enough for normal activity. Creatine is a necessary amino acid and this may be a case where consulting your healthcare provider or nutritionist can help you decide if you need more than you are getting from your diet or not.
Calcium and Vitamin D
Calcium is of course needed for bone health and teeth and usually comes from dairy foods. If dairy foods are not included in your diet, there are other sources for calcium including dark green leafy vegetables like kale, broccoli, rhubarb, AFA bluegreen algae, turnip greens, cereals, tofu, and juices that are fortified. There are also alternative milk sources that contain calcium such as soy milk, rice milk and almond milk. Vitamin D is also an important nutrient for bones. Vitamin D gets the calcium from the intestines and kidneys into the bloodstream. Without this nutrient, even if you get enough calcium, it can just end up leaving the body as waste and not being used to strengthen bones. Our bodies create Vitamin D mainly from our exposure to sunshine so getting outdoors a little bit every day is important. Vitamin D is available in cow milk, but there are also soy and rice milks and some cereals that you can get it from. Check the labels of foods for vitamin D or check with your health care provider to see if you need a vitamin D supplement.
Animal products are one of the best food sources for iron which is needed for red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout the body. Plant based sources include dark green leafy vegetables, beans, peas, lentils, AFA bluegreen algae, enriched cereals, Swiss chard and tofu. Iron from plant sources is not as easily absorbed by the body however so it is often recommended that vegetarians need twice as much as meat eaters. Along with iron, foods rich in vitamin C are needed to help the body convert the iron into a form it can use. Vegans and vegetarians probably are already eating foods rich in vitamin C such as strawberries, citrus, tomatoes, and broccoli. Just be sure to eat some of these at the same meal with your iron sources.
Vitamin B12 (cobalamin) is important to health for energy production (red blood cell production), a healthy nervous system, a strong digestive system, vibrant hair, skin and nails, brain functions and antioxidant protection. Unfortunately B12 is also one of the vitamins that is very difficult to get from plants. If your diet is exclusively a plant based diet, chances are that you are not getting enough B12. Just taking a B12 supplement isn’t necessarily a solution either because your body can only absorb B12 in the biologically active form of cobalamins. So taking any random store-bought B12 pill may not help you much. There are natural sources of vegan food plants that have high levels of biologically active B12 easily absorbed by the body. One of these sources is blue-green algae, specifically AFA (aphanizomenon flos aquae) blue-green algae from Klamath Lake. Compared to spirulina and chlorella, this AFA algae has a higher content of biologically active B12. There are also vitamin enriched cereals and fortified soy products that have vitamin B12 or if you do dairy in your diet then milk, yogurt, cheese and eggs are good sources.
The body needs protein for healthy organs, muscles, skin, and bones. If you are not getting protein from meat sources, but do include dairy in your diet, then eggs and dairy products can also be good protein sources. Plant based sources of protein include lentils, legumes, nuts, AFA bluegreen algae, seeds, soy products, whole grains, broccoli, kale, spinach, and squash. Some protein powder drinks may be another alternative for those on a mainly plant based diet.
Zinc is important for cell division, aids in the development of white blood cells that are a part of your immune system that destroy foreign invaders such as bacteria and viruses, forming proteins, and strengthening the intestinal lining. If you are a meat eater, then eating lean beef, pork, oysters and poultry will add zinc to your diet. Vegetarians can get zinc from lima beans, AFA bluegreen algae, Swiss chard, fortified cereals, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, oats, wheat germ and miso. Miso, a soybean paste, is an especially good choice because it also has protein and B12. If you include dairy in your diet then milk and yogurt can also be sources of zinc for you.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3s are needed for your brain to function, help hydrate skin, aid in healthy hair growth and retention, supporting heart health and nervous system health, reducing inflammation and may improve blood pressure. If you include seafood in your diet, the best food sources are coldwater fish like cod, mackerel, tuna, herring, lake trout and salmon. These cold-water fish are high in omega-3 fatty acids because they, in turn, eat a lot of blue-green algae which is high in omega-3s. If you do not include seafood in your diet then you can get omega-3 fatty acids from fresh fruit, dark-green leafy greens like spinach and kale, AFA blue-green algae, seeds and nuts, edamame, wild rice, chia seeds, flaxseeds, flax oil, soybean oil and olive oil.
After considering these possible nutritional deficiencies in your diet, you may want to re-think the type of diet you currently follow. In the past if you did not include dairy, meat or seafood you may want to define why you made that decision and see if current research or sustainable food sources available in your area may make a difference. Many types of processed meats are full of things you don’t want and the animals they come from treated inhumanely, but there are animal food products that have certifications assuring animals have been treated humanely and grass-fed or wild meats do have some nutritional value that is hard to get from plants alone. If you feel strongly about not including animal sources in your diet, then just make sure you are getting the nutrients that are often lacking in that type of diet. Whatever you decide works best for you physically, mentally and spiritually, find the highest quality food sources available in the area you live in and research what food supplements you might need to add to your particular diet to fuel your body for optimal health.