Whilst the vegan diet boasts many benefits for health, the environment and for our furry friends, it’s incredibly important that people choosing to eat this way are aware of some vital nutrients they MAY BE missing out on in their food.
I fully support and admire individuals who are on this path, prioritising the welfare of our silenced friends, however it may not always be the healthier choice for a particular person and individuals that adopt this lifestyle purely because of its health benefits only should probably do a little more research first. In saying that, the vegan diet can definitely be done well!
I encourage any vegan eater to work closely with a practitioner at the beginning to ensure all their nutritional requirements are being met and so that healthy habits can be created. People assume protein is the biggest problem vegans face, however it is not the case. Plants provide adequate amounts of protein and it is easy to acquire protein from non-animal sources. It is these three nutrients below that are of real concern when not consumed in the diet.
Heme-iron: Heme-iron is a type of iron found only in meat. It is much better absorbed than non-heme iron which is only found in plant foods. The reason plant sources of iron is so poorly absorbed is because non-heme is heavily affected by anti-nutrients such as phytic acid, which are compounds that block the absorption of minerals. For this reason, vegetarians and vegans are more prone to anemia than meat eaters.
This is not to say that people on the vegetarian and vegan diet cannot have optimal iron levels - it just needs close monitoring. Your body needs iron to make a protein called hemoglobin. This protein is responsible for carrying oxygen to your body’s tissues, which is essential for your tissues and muscles to function effectively. When there isn’t enough iron in your blood stream, the rest of your body can’t get the amount of oxygen it needs. Iron deficiency can also cause fatigue, dizziness, pregnancy complications, and compromised immune function.
DHA: DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid) is an essential omega-3 fatty acid. Scientific evidence indicates that DHA benefits mental health and brain function in all stages of life. DHA constitutes 20% of the total fatty acids in the cerebral cortex, the layer of the brain responsible for processing information, memory and attention.
DHA is also particularly important for the eyes. Our neuronal cells, which are responsible for our vision, actually have more DHA than any other cells in the body.
DHA has also been found to promote a healthy immune response and support internal repair systems that operate in response to stress and injury.
The body has the ability to convert the omega-3 fatty acid ALA, into DHA, which is found in high amounts in flaxseeds, chia seeds and walnuts. However, the conversion is inefficient and it will not provide the amount required for proper health.
DHA can be found in certain fish such as salmon, herring, anchovies, mackerel and tuna. Egg yolks also contain a lesser yet still sufficient amount of DHA.
Vegans can get this essential fatty acid by taking supplements made from certain microalgae.
Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12 is an essential nutrient found in hardly any plant foods.
Also known as cobalamin, vitamin B12 is a water-soluble nutrient involved in the development of red blood cells, supporting brain function and the maintenance of nerves.
Vitamin B12 is also one of the main vitamins indicated in treating mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression.
The risks associated with not consuming Vitamin B12 include fatigue, impaired brain function, a variety of neurological disorders, psychiatric disorders and neurological disorders in babies of breast-feeding mothers.
Nori Seaweed is considered a suitable source of vitamin B12 for vegans, however its content is negligible and vegans would not meet their dietary requirements with this food alone. Tempeh also contains traces of Vitamin B12 however its amount is almost negligible.
The moral of the story is, as always, know what you’re putting inside your body and make sure you prioritise making yourself as knowledgeable as possible about the effects of nutrients. As I always say, it is the most valuable and relatable thing you will ever teach yourself! Eat good quality real food. Be balanced. Seek advice where needed and prioritise ensuring your nutrient intake is exactly where it needs to be!