Switching to a vegan diet can deliver some real health benefits. Compared to a typical omnivorous diet, a vegan diet is generally lower in fat, especially saturated fat. Vegans also usually eat more health-promoting fruits and veggies than omnivores, and they don’t have to worry about the scary carcinogens that may form when meat is cooked.
Many vegans therefore have a cavalier attitude about nutrition, reasoning that they eat a far healthier variety of foods than they did as omnivores. While this may in fact be true, it’s nevertheless quite possible to develop a variety of nutrient deficiencies on a vegan diet. What’s worse, some of these deficiencies can creep up on you—they may take years to manifest, and by the time you realize something’s wrong, irreversible damage may have occurred.
This is not a comprehensive book on vegan nutrition, and I have no credentials concerning the subject. My intention in writing this chapter is to tell you some of the most important things to watch out for, and to direct you to reliable sources of information about nutrition. It’s indeed the case that anyone who puts some time into studying vegan nutrition can construct a diet that is vastly healthier than what the typical omnivore eats. The first step to understanding vegan nutrition is to learn which nutrients merit special attention.
So let’s look at the main deficiencies that can develop on a vegan diet:
- Vitamin B-12. The 800 pound gorilla of potential nutrient deficiencies for vegans. There is essentially no B-12 present in any vegan food, so supplements or B-12 fortified foods are absolutely necessary. The scariest thing about B-12 deficiencies is that they can take years to develop. But once symptoms of a B-12 deficiency appear, the effects can be devastating and can even involve permanent nerve or neurological damage. Believe me, this is one nutrient you need to take seriously, and you need to make sure you take it every day. Luckily, there are a number of vegan B-12 supplements, and some foods are also fortified with substantial amounts of B-12. You’ll occasionally run into people who will assert that you can get B-12 from unfortified vegan foods; ignore these people at all costs.
- Calories and Protein. If you eat a lot of low-calorie foods, like fruits and vegetables, you might have trouble getting adequate calories. And while its rare for vegans to get insufficient protein, this can occur on certain diets, especially those that are very low in calories. Some protein-rich vegan foods are: beans, peas, nuts, tofu, and tempeh.
- Iron. Many vegan foods, including leafy greens and certain kinds of beans, are abundant in iron. However, menstruating women may have trouble obtaining adequate iron through food alone, and may need to take a supplement.
- Omega-3 and DHA. Since fish provide most of the omega-3 fatty acids in a typical omnivorous diet, vegetarians and vegans must seek out other sources of this nutrient. To cover your omega-3 needs, Jack Norris, RD recommends taking a daily capsule of 200 to 300 milligrams DHA (there are several vegan brands on the market). He further recommends also taking a small amount of omega-3s each day, in any of the following ways: 3 walnut halves, ¼ teaspoon flaxseed oil, 1 teaspoon canola oil, or 1 teaspoon ground flax seeds.
- Vitamin D. Many Americans don’t get enough Vitamin D, and since most Westerners get much of their Vitamin D from fortified milk, vegans can develop a deficiency here unless they find a reliable source. This might include fortified soymilk or a multivitamin. You should be aiming to consume 25 micrograms of Vitamin D every day. If you get a lot of exposure to direct sunlight, you can also meet your Vitamin D needs that way—but be wary of overdoing sun exposure, since it can prematurely age skin and lead to skin cancer.
- Iodine. An essential nutrient that can be in short supply in a vegan diet. Courting an iodine deficiency is not something you want to mess with unless the idea of a large goiter forming on your neck sounds appealing. Most Westerners get their iodine either from iodized salt or from milk—it’s pretty scarce in other foods, with the exception of seaweed. So if you follow a vegan diet containing non-iodized salt and no sea vegetables, you can easily get into trouble. It’s wise to take a daily multivitamin containing iodine, and to boost your intake by eating some form of seaweed at least a few times a month.
- Calcium. A poorly-planned vegan diet may provide insufficient calcium. Fortunately, many green leafy vegetables are loaded with calcium, as is broccoli. Calcium-fortified orange juice and soymilk are two more great sources of this nutrient. Vegan calcium supplements are a valuable option if you are unable to meet your calcium needs through food.
- Zinc. It’s sensible to take a daily multivitamin that contains zinc, since obtaining adequate amounts of this mineral from vegan foods can be difficult.
I hope the material I’ve presented in this chapter has persuaded you that nutrient deficiencies can happen to anyone, even vegans. So if you’re going to be vegan, it’s well worth your time to spend at least an hour or two reading about nutrition. In a relatively short amount of time, you’ll learn enough to optimize your diet—and to cut out the risks of developing a deficiency. Isn’t it worth a little reading to make sure your diet is the best it can be?
So where do you go to learn more about vegan nutrition? The best single source I’ve found is the VeganHealth.org website, which is run by Jack Norris. Jack’s a registered dietitian who focuses his practice on studying the nutrient deficiencies vegans may be prone to, and he offers comprehensive advice on how to avoid these deficiencies. His website has a couple dozen heavily footnoted articles covering every nutrient of concern to vegans. One of the best things you can do for yourself is to bookmark VeganHealth.org and make a point of reading every article there. Doing so might take you fifteen minutes a day for a couple of weeks, but the things you’ll learn from this small effort will benefit you for a lifetime.
If you want to read a book on vegan nutrition, Becoming Vegan by Davis and Melina is by far the most popular title, and it’s a worthwhile read. If you read Jack’s site plus Becoming Vegan, you’ll know more about nutrition than 99 percent of Americans, and you’ll be able to construct a diet that’s amazingly healthy.
As we’ve seen in this short chapter, a bit of time spent reading up on nutrition can pay big dividends. This is one occasion where ignorance is not bliss—why put yourself needlessly at risk of developing a nutrient deficiency? Even if you don’t care about your health, it’s worth eating right for the animals: there’s nothing that dairy industry flacks love more than to publicize occurrences of vegans who develop nutrient deficiencies.
Finally, keep in mind that nutritional needs are especially important during pregnancy, infancy, and childhood. And, at these times, following a vegan diet may pose unique challenges. It’s therefore vital for couples wanting to have children to read up on vegan nutrition, and to make sure their children receive every possible advantage from the moment they are conceived.
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