Vegan & Vegetarian Nutrient Deficiencies: What They Are & How To Avoid Them

Updated: Oct 20, 2020

Vegan and vegetarian diets are generally seen as healthy—and when done right, they certainly are. By removing animal products and replacing them with a wide variety of plant-based foods, one is certain to obtain a wide spectrum of macro-and micro-nutrients every day.

However, nutrient deficiency is a real concern for individuals who choose to eliminate animal products. As with any elimination diet, when one is focused more on what to {exclude} rather than what to {include} in their cooking, nutrient deficiencies can develop over time. There are plenty of foods that happen to be vegan; that doesn't mean they will supply you with the full spectrum of nutrition that your body needs.

{In this post, I highlight seven vegan recipes that are good sources of the nutrients I'm about to discuss!}

If you haven't experienced it yourself, you probably have a friend who was vegetarian or vegan for some time, but eventually went back to eating animal products because they began to notice uncomfortable symptoms developing. While I personally do eat dairy, fish, and meat from time to time, I want to support anyone in pursuit of a healthy diet that makes them feel their best: physically, mentally, morally, and spiritually. Here I'd like to discuss what the most common dietary deficiencies are, how they might feel in your body, and how they can be avoided.

***my note on DV (daily value): these percentages are calculated for the average person. Depending on the makeup of the biologically complex miracle that is you, you may need more or less of a given nutrient.***

1. Protein

What deficiency might feel like:

- Feeling constantly or frequently hungry

- Tired muscles or muscle loss

- Depression

- Fatigue

- Hair Loss

- Fluid Retention

Best vegan protein sources:

- 1 cup of firm tofu: 87% DV

- 1 cup of cooked lentils: 36% DV

- 1 handful of pumpkin seeds: 17% DV

Additional vegetarian protein sources:

- 1 16 oz glass of whole milk: 31% DV

- 1 oz of grated parmesan cheese: 20% DV

- 1 large egg: 13% DV

2. Calcium

What deficiency might feel like:

- Coarse/dry hair, brittle nails, dry/scaly skin

- Muscle cramps, especially in the back and legs

- In severe cases; confusion, memory loss, or depression

Best vegan calcium sources:

- 1 cup of firm tofu: 132% DV

- 1 cup of cooked spinach: 24% DV

- 1 cup of cooked soybeans (edamame) : 20% DV

Additional vegetarian calcium sources:

- 1 16 oz glass of whole milk: 46% DV

- 1 cup of plain yogurt: 38% DV

- 1 oz grated parmesan cheese: 26% DV

3. Iron

What deficiency might feel like:

- Extreme fatigue and/or weakness

- Pale complexion

- Brittle nails

- Chest pain and/or rapid heartbeat

- Shortness of breath

- Cold hands and feet

- Sore and/or swollen tongue

- In extreme cases, unusual cravings for non-foods such as ice, dirt, or starch.

Best vegan & vegetarian iron sources:

- 1 cup of cooked spinach: 36% DV

- 1 cup of cooked swiss chard: 22% DV

- 2 teaspoons of cumin: 16% DV

4. Vitamin B12

What deficiency might feel like:

- Numbness in hands, legs, and/or feet

- Muscle weakness

- Fatigue

- Difficulty walking (stumbling, difficulty balancing)

- Swollen, inflamed tongue

Best vegan B12 sources:

- 1 cup of cremini mushrooms: 3% DV

- Fortified foods: nutritional yeast, non-dairy milks, fortified cereals. (Check the label!) Because vitamin B12 is so vital but so rare in non-animal foods, some processed foods are supplemented with a synthetic B12 made from cultured bacteria. Check the nutrition facts—these products often supplement 30-100% of the daily value.

Additional vegetarian B12 sources:

- 1 16 oz glass of 2% milk: 108% DV

- 1 cup of grated parmesan cheese: 58% DV

- 1 cup of plain yogurt: 38% DV

5. Vitamin D

What deficiency might feel like:

- Weak or aching muscles

- Bone pain in lower back and/or legs

- Difficulty walking or impaired physical function in general

Best vegan Vitamin D sources:

- 1 cup of cooked shiitake mushrooms: 10% DV

Additional vegetarian Vitamin D sources:

- 1 16 oz glass of whole milk: 64% DV

- 1 large egg: 11% DV

- Sunshine! Spending anywhere from 15 minutes to a few hours in the sun, we soak up vitamin D through our skin. However, the amount absorbed can vary greatly depending on a variety of factors: the time of day, the weather, the latitude at which one lives, and one's skin tone.

Vitamin D deficiency is common among vegans, vegetarians, and omnivores alike — and because it's so difficult to obtain from non-animal sources (salmon being the best by far), it's often recommended to take a supplement.

The bottom line: if you have experienced any of these severe symptoms recently, or any of the milder ones for months or years, a nutrient deficiency may play a role. The only way to truly know is to work with your primary care doctor or naturopath, who can order the appropriate tests. If you're not feeling symptoms but rather want to prevent them, well, now you know how!


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