Eating a plant-based diet is often recommended, as plants are nutritionally dense and wholesome compared to the average American diet that’s packed with refined sugars and grains. However, vegetarians and vegans (both new converts and lifelong) are susceptible to nutritional deficiencies. There are certain nutrients that cannot be easily obtained directly from eating plants and should be supplemented if pursuing a plant-based diet. Here are signs of eight common nutritional deficiencies among vegetarians and vegans, along with tips that will help you increase your intake of these nutrients in a plant-based diet.
1. Vitamin B12 deficiency
As stated by Dr. Mercola, “Vitamin B12 is known as the energy vitamin”—it is critical in the production of energy, and also for many other important processes. Consequently, vitamin B12 deficiency can result in fatigue. Numbness or tingling sensations in your hands and feet can also develop. While vegetarians can maintain optimal B12 levels by eating eggs and dairy, vegans can only obtain small amounts through seaweed and tempeh. As recommended by Dr. Mercola, vegans who do not incorporate seaweed or tempeh into their regular diets should take a B12 supplement.
2. Protein deficiency
There are four macromolecules that serve as the building blocks for the human body: nucleotides, lipids, carbohydrates, and amino acids. Amino acids, in particular, are the building blocks for proteins, which play a variety of roles (from catalyzing reactions to structural support). Nine of the twenty essential amino acids must be obtained through dietary sources. However, unlike animal sources, vegetarian protein sources do not consist of all nine amino acids, making them “incomplete protein sources” In addition to denying you some of the nine amino acids, low protein intake can also lead to a protein deficiency.
Symptoms include perpetual hunger or insatiability, and weakness. Combat protein deficiency by properly pairing foods to obtain complete sources of protein, and by taking note of your protein intake. Supplements can offer amino acids like beta-alanine and taurine as well.
3. Omega-3 DHA and EPA deficiency
Three fats make up Omega-3 fatty acids: ALA, DHA, and EPA. While flax and chia seeds are great sources of ALA and often have a healthier omega-3 to omega-6 ratio than many animal sources, DHA and EPA—critical fats for brain function—can only be found in seafood. Individuals who lack DHA and EPA may find that they suffer from dry and scaly skin, hair loss, depression, and decreased cognitive capabilities. In addition to taking supplements, consider increasing the consumption of seaweed and other algae to boost DHA and EPA levels.
4. Heme iron deficiency
Like omega-3s, iron is found in different forms: heme and non-heme. Non-heme iron—which is not easily absorbed—is found in plants, while heme iron is found in red meat. Iron is a critical component of hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in the bloodstream, and a deficiency may lead to anemia. To avoid iron deficiency try to increase consumption of plant-based sources of iron, including molasses, dark leafy greens, whole grains, and beans.
5. Sulfur deficiency
Plant-based diets are often promoted through the fact that vegetarians and vegans have lower chances of having heart diseases. However, Dr. Mercola cites a 2012 study that reported “low intake of sulfur amino acids [may lead to] blood clots in your arteries, and the increased vulnerability of vegetarians to cardiovascular diseases.” A lack of sulfur may lead to saggy skin, weak and brittle nails, and joint pains. While most sulfur is found in animal sources, you can look to plant sources, including coconut oil, legumes, kale, garlic, and Brussels sprouts, to prevent a deficiency.
6. Calcium deficiency
Calcium is an important mineral for bone health and preventing osteoporosis. A deficit may increase the likelihood of muscle cramps, brittle hair and nails, and tingling hands. At the same time, do not be so eager to seek out supplements: calcium works in conjunction with magnesium vitamin D, and vitamin K2; it’s necessary to have a proper balance between these four nutrients, and consuming supplements may overload your body with one nutrient, causing an imbalance. Natural food sources—such as almonds, kale, apples, broccoli, and calcium-fortified soy—are safer alternatives.
7. Vitamin D deficiency
As mentioned above, Vitamin D is responsible for proper calcium absorption. Signs of a deficiency include acne-like bumps on your body, obesity, and feeling down. Fortified juices and shiitake mushrooms can add vitamin D to your diet, but the most effective approach is to increase sun exposure.
8. Iodine deficiency
Iodine is an important mineral involved in thyroid health and thyroid hormone production. According to Authority Nutrition, a deficiency often results in an enlarged thyroid gland, along with weight gain, shortness of breath and an increased heart rate. Consider eating seaweed, as it may contain small amounts of iodine.