As a nutritionist, I am often asked about the specific nutrient needs of those who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet. While plant-based diets can provide many health benefits, they do require some extra attention to certain nutrients in order to maintain optimal health. Here are a few key points to keep in mind:
Some people absolutely thrive on a plant-based diet and that is great. However, in clinic, I often see individuals who follow a plant-based diet become deficient in certain nutrients. This is because some nutrients that are abundant in animal products are not as easily found or absorbed from plant-based sources.
Here's a closer look at some common nutrient deficiencies in those following a plant-based diet:
Vitamin D: Vitamin D is primarily obtained through exposure to sunlight. However, in the Northern hemisphere it is impossible to gain vitamin D from the sun from the end of October until the middle of March.
Food sources are largely animal -based products, such as oily fish and beef, but it can also be found in some mushrooms and fortified foods. However, those following a strictly plant-based diet may not get enough vitamin D from these sources, leading to a deficiency.
Symptoms: Vitamin D is crucial for bone health and helps the body absorb calcium. A deficiency in vitamin D can cause weak bones, bone pain, muscle weakness, and increased risk of fractures. It can also lead to extreme fatigue, poor mood, and a weakened immune system.
Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12 is not naturally present in plant foods and is primarily found in animal products. Strict vegetarians and vegans may not get enough B12 without the use of supplements. Vitamin B12 is essential for healthy red blood cells, nerve function, and DNA synthesis.
Symptoms: Low levels of B12 can cause symptoms such as fatigue, breathlessness, brain fog, poor mood, poor sleep and memory loss. In severe cases, a B12 deficiency can lead to anaemia, nerve damage, and even permanent neurological damage.
Iron: While plant-based sources of iron are available, such as legumes and dark, leafy greens, the type of iron found in these sources is not as easily absorbed as the iron found in animal products. This can lead to an iron deficiency, especially in individuals who do not consume enough iron-rich plant foods or who have difficulty absorbing iron.
Symptoms: Iron is essential for carrying oxygen in the blood to our cells and tissues. Low levels of iron can cause fatigue, breathlessness, headaches, and hair loss. In severe cases, anaemia can develop, leading to pale skin, weakness, and increased risk of infections.
Zinc: Zinc is important for a healthy immune system and wound healing, and is found in animal products like meat and dairy. Plant-based sources of zinc, such as whole grains, legumes, and nuts, are not as easily absorbed.
To ensure adequate zinc intake, it's important for vegetarians and vegans to eat a variety of zinc-rich plant foods, however the quantities needed can not always raise zinc levels sufficiently.
Symptoms: Low zinc levels can lead to a range of symptoms and health problems, including:
Protein: Protein is an essential nutrient that plays a crucial role in the functioning of the human body. It is involved in building and repairing tissues, producing hormones and enzymes, and maintaining a healthy immune system.
In terms of mood and hormone balance, protein is important because it helps regulate the release of neurotransmitters, which are chemicals in the brain that regulate mood and emotions. Adequate protein intake is necessary for the production of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, which are neurotransmitters that play a role in regulating mood, energy levels, and stress response.
Protein is also important for hormone balance because it helps regulate the levels of hormones, such as insulin and cortisol, in the body. Insulin, for example, helps regulate blood sugar levels and is essential for overall health and wellness. Cortisol, on the other hand, is a stress hormone that is involved in the body's response to stress and can impact mood and energy levels if its levels become imbalanced.
Symptoms: Low protein intake can result in a range of symptoms, including:
Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for brain and heart health, and are found in high amounts in fatty fish. While it is possible to get some omega-3s from plant sources like chia seeds, flaxseeds, and walnuts, many vegetarians and vegans choose to take a supplement to ensure they are meeting their needs as the quantities of plant based options needed would be very large.
Symptoms: Low levels of essential fats can lead to a range of symptoms, including:
I highly recommend that all vegetarians and vegans have their blood levels checked regularly for vitamin B12, vitamin D, and iron. This is because, unlike animal products, many plant-based sources of these nutrients are not as easily absorbed by the body.
Vegetarian/vegan health check service
As a Clinical Nutritional Therapist, Associate Naturopath and Phlebotomist, I offer a comprehensive health check especially for vegetarians and vegans.
The health check includes a finger-prick blood test that can be done at home, which is then sent to a leading laboratory for analysis. This test helps to identify any deficiencies in essential nutrients that people on plant-based diets may be lacking.
By monitoring these levels, I can help ensure that you are getting all the nutrients that you need to maintain optimal health.
In addition to the finger-prick blood test, the health check also includes a one-to-one consultation with myself. During this consultation, I will review the test results and provide you with personalised recommendations for improving nutrient intake and overall health.
Whether you are looking to optimise your plant-based diet or simply maintain good health, my expertise and guidance can help you achieve your goals.
Zinc is not included in the test as measuring zinc levels through blood is not always an accurate way to determine a person's zinc status. This is because blood zinc levels can fluctuate rapidly and do not always reflect the body's total zinc stores.
Additionally, the body tightly regulates blood zinc levels, meaning that even if a person has low zinc stores, their blood levels may still appear normal. This makes it difficult to accurately assess a person's zinc status through a simple blood test.
For these reasons, measuring zinc levels through a blood test is not considered to be the most accurate way to determine a person's zinc status. Instead, other methods, such as hair or nail analysis, may be more reliable indicators of a person's zinc status.
The test includes:
Regular blood tests can help detect any low levels in these nutrients and allow for early intervention. If levels are low, I can recommend dietary changes or supplements to help bring levels back to normal so that you have more energy, vitality and motivation once again.
Vegetarian & Vegan Screen
Are you vegetarian or vegan and wondering if you are getting things right?
It`s very common for plant based people to go low in key nutrients. It`s also really useful to know your levels so you can supplement appropriately with the right dose.
The veggie/vegan health check will test your key nutrients and your protein levels:
Serum B12, Vitamin D, Ferritin,zinc
Total Protein, Albumin and Globulin
This health check includes all testing and a half an hour 1:1 session, offering advice to help support your health.
It's important to note that these symptoms can also be caused by other factors, so if you are experiencing any of these symptoms, it is important to consult a healthcare provider to determine the underlying cause and receive appropriate treatment.
Are you absorbing your iron? Without enough iron, you will feel, well... pretty terrible. Tiredness, fatigue, low mood, low endurance, pale skin, sore mouth, dizzy... the list goes on...
You could be eating platefuls of iron rich food, but not actually absorbing much of it. Sound familiar? Read on...
Dietary sources of Iron can be categorised as Haem iron and Non- Haem iron.
Good sources of Haem iron are: Red meat, organ meat, poultry, fish and shellfish
Non - Haem iron foods are plant based - broccoli, pumpkin, beetroot, nuts and seeds, dark green veggies, eggs, whole grains, legumes, dry fruits, tomato, guava, paw paw and citrus.
When haem iron is consumed (the meaty one), its absorption is much better than non-haem iron. Non-haem iron is less easily absorbed and its absorption is often affected by the other food components which are eaten alongside it.
Non- haem iron (plant based) provides the largest amount of dietary iron, but only an estimated 10 - 20% of non-haem iron is actually absorbed, because it is inhibited in its absorption by so much.
Phytates, oxylates and polyphenols all prevent non-haem iron from being absorbed. Many “healthy” foods such as spinach, kale, beets, wheat bran, rhubarb, strawberries and nuts contain a high amount of oxylates.
Polyphenols are found in apples, peppermint, herbal teas, spices, walnuts, blackberries, raspberries and blueberries along with cocoa. Polyphenol rich food can reduce your iron absorption by an estimated 60%.
Phytates are found in walnuts, soy, almonds, sesame, beans, lentils, peas, cereals, protein and fiber. Phytates can reduce the absorption of iron by an estimated 50 - 60%.
Along with this, milk is also known to inhibit absorption of iron .
It has also been found that drinking polyphenol rich beverages within an hour of a meal will reduce the iron absorption of that meal by 79 - 94%. This includes tea, coffee, red wine, cocoa and herbal tea.
This has an obvious impact on the average vegetarian/ vegan diet. Whilst the raw constituents of a vegetarian or vegan diet looks to contain a huge amount of iron, the effect of the inhibitory components listed above has massive implications on iron absorption.
So what to do? You`re trying to be be healthy, but the healthy foods you are eating are inhibiting your iron absorption! That`s annoying!
Mmmm... Don`t despair...
There are certain promoters of iron absorption. Ascorbic acid (vitamin C) helps chelate the iron molecule, transporting it across the intestinal lining. Squeezing lemon over food, or drinking freshly squeezed orange with a meal can help your iron absorption.
You definitely want to avoid those dastardly polyphenol drinks and limit beverages with food to water, or freshly squeezed orange.
Have some iron rich snacks away from other foods each day. Cooked meats if you are a meat lover, or dried fruits are a good source for veggies. cook some beetroot up and leave it in the fridge to snack on. You can literally smell the iron in beetroot, it`s such a good source.
I would advise every vegan or vegetarian to take a mulitvitamin WITH minerals every day. Look carefully at the nutrient information. Multi vitamins are often just that ... vitamins. You want the minerals alongside them.
I don`t advocate iron supplements unless you are under the guidance of a professional GP or nutritionist. Unless you have had your iron tested, taking iron supplements on their own can be a dangerous thing to do.
The contents of this blog are for informational purposes only and are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you have regarding a medical condition, and before undertaking any diet, dietary supplement, exercise, or other health program.