Vegan and Vegetarian Nutrition: Avoiding Deficiencies

Stefanos Rokos "After Dinner" 2007, www.stefanosrokos.gr/‎

Stefanos Rokos “After Dinner” 2007, www.stefanosrokos.gr/‎

When you are in the process of growing a human being inside you, you become much more conscious of what you put into your body. At least this was the case for me. I have read vegan pregnancy books and plant-based diet books and I knew that, in order to enjoy a healthy pregnancy, I would have to make sure to take specific supplements. Researching specific nutrients more and more however, it turned out that it was a good idea for N. -who also follows a plant-based diet 90% of the time, with the occasional egg or slice of cheese- to take those supplements too.

Even though every vegan knows that a B12 supplementation is a wise move, there are other nutrients we might be lacking, that are not so well-known or talked about. With this post I want to share with you a few basic facts about these nutrients. It is then up to you to talk with your doctor (or, even better, nutritionist) and decide if you need to supplement and how much. Remember that I am just a curious writer and nutrition geek, but I do not have a medical degree, so you need to ask the professionals before making any changes to your diet.

Ok, let’s get started…

Vitamin B12

The issue here is that vitamin B12 can not be found in plant based foods that have been washed. It is created by bacteria that live in the ground. It can be found in trace amounts on the dirt found on vegetables. Therefore, you could get some B12 if you chose to eat unwashed organic produce. This practice however is dangerous, as it can not provide you with a consistent amount of the vitamin and it might not even be the adequate amount. If you just went vegan a couple of months ago and are thinking “Oh, that is nonsense. I am feeling just fine!”, it is because our bodies can store B12 for a long time (we are talking about years!). But once your stores are depleted, you will start experiencing B12 deficiency symptoms. You don’t want to mess with your B12. It is crucial for your nervous system, as well as a ton of other functions. But the nervous system suffers a great deal without vitamin B12. Especially if you are pregnant, you want to make sure that you get enough B12 and absorb it as well. Ask your doctor to order some B12 blood tests, because there are people who eat products rich in B12, but still have a deficiency, due to malabsorption.

In order to get enough B12, the best way is to get a supplement. Ask your doctor for a reputable source. Don’t worry, B12 supplements are vegan, as they come from bacteria. Just make sure to get one that does not contain milk, whey or gelatin. The easiest ones to absorb are the sublingual ones. And if a deficiency is already detected, don’t panic. You can get a B12 shot that will fill your stores in no time. If you do not feel comfortable swallowing pills, make sure to consume products fortified with vitamin B12, like vegan milk alternatives, mock meats, orange juice and cereals. Nutritional yeast is also rich in B vitamins, but not all brands contain B12, so make sure to check.

Keep in mind that even if you are a vegetarian, it is still a good idea to get a B12 supplement. Eggs do contain it, but in significantly smaller amounts than meat.

Vitamin D3

I will try and keep this as simple as possible. There are two types of vitamin D: D2 (called ergocalciferol) and D3 (called cholecalciferol). In order to make vitamin D, we need the sun. Some plants, like seaweed, and mushrooms create vitamin D2 when exposed to UV radiation. Animals -humans included- produce D3 when their skin comes in contact with UV radiation. If you live in a sunny country, not too far away from the equator, you are most likely covered. If, however you live a bit further north (like we do), you only get the right type of sunlight to produce D3 for 6 months a year or less, which is not enough. This is why nutrition is important. You get vitamin D3 and D2 via your food. Seafood and fortified milk and cereals often contain vitamin D3, but they might be fortified with vitamin D2 as well.

What is the problem if there is D2 instead of D3 in my fortified food, you ask. Well, the problem is that your body might not be able to use D2 as efficiently as it uses D3. And I only started researching that after my midwife ordered a blood checkup and found that my D levels where low. I was really surprised as I have been taking my vegan prenatal for about 6 months before even starting to try to get pregnant, in order to get my body ready. And my prenatals had tons of vitamin D in them. So what was wrong? I found out that my midwife prescribed D3 and my prenatals contained D2.  Hmm. Now, keep in mind that vitamin D3 supplements come from lanolin, which is not vegan. It is actually derived from sheep wool. The only vegan D3 supplements that I am aware of are these ones. I found out about them only after I realized that the D3 I was prescribed was not vegan and I would not risk leaving my body and our little one without vitamin D for the 3 weeks that shipping usually takes.

DHA & EPA

I first read about DHA and EPA (Docosahexaenoic Acid and Eicosapentaenoic Acid) in my vegan pregnancy books. They are omega 3 fatty acids and the authors recommended getting an omega 3 – DHA supplement, that is crucial for brain development. And you probably already know that omega 3 fatty acids are very beneficial for cardiovascular health as well. So I went ahead a bought my self 4 months worth of vegan DHA capsules. This was the one I got. Then at some point a vegan pregnant friend told me that she gets her omega 3 from chia seeds and I loved the idea, since I don’t like getting my nutrition from pills. But then I did some googling and realized that chia seeds are very rich in ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) but do not contain DHA or EPA. Our body can convert ALA in DHA but the rate is 0-8% depending on the individual. This means that I might not be able to make the conversion at all! Women are more efficient in this transformation, but you cannot be sure about the rate and it means that you would need to consume great amounts of ALA to have adequate DHA. Great vegan sources of ALA are: chia seeds, ground flax seeds and walnuts.

The issue here is that plant-based foods do not contain DHA or EPA, with the exception of some types of seaweed. The rest of the plants only contain ALA. If you are a vegetarian, you get some DHA from egg yolks, especially if you go for the special omega 3 eggs. If you are vegan, the best option is to get a DHA-EPA supplement made of algae, just to be sure. Especially if you are pregnant, do not risk a DHA deficiency.

So, are you saying that being vegan is not healthy?

Let’s get something straight. Being vegan is not about us. It is about the animals and the planet. It happens to be a very healthy diet as well, if planned correctly, to avoid deficiencies. If you think about it, even an omnivorous diet requires planning, because if you eat too much meat or dairy, you end up with tons of health issues, that are much harder to deal with than a vitamin D deficiency. Every diet requires balance and this balance is achieved in different ways, depending on the diet you choose.

If you follow a vegan diet and make sure to supplement, then you can be much healthier than the average omnivore.

NOTE: If you are one of those always cheerful “carnivore” trolls, ready to say “If you need pills, your diet it not natural!”, then I will have to remind you that neither is spending your whole day in front of a lap top or driving a car, if you define “natural” in the sense that “it does not happen in nature, in the wild, away from the cities”.

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4 responses to “Vegan and Vegetarian Nutrition: Avoiding Deficiencies

  1. I just did a post about mood lifting foods and B12 is definitely a big factor for vegans (along with iron), but it can easily be remedied. I am a semi-vegan and think that I am getting all my nutrients (I hope!).

    • Dear Ani, that you for your comment! I read your article and found it very informative. Great job! A lot of practical tips on what to eat as well, and not just cold science.

      Just one note on the term “semi-vegan”: a lot of people could get upset about it, as veganism is not a diet, but a lifestyle focused on not harming other species as much as possible.
      I found out about the frustration that using the word “vegan” can cause to people, when you are not yet fully vegan, the hard way. People tend to focus on lecturing you about all the ways in which you are not in fact vegan, instead of supporting you, to fully transition into the lifestyle and diet.
      Therefore, I think phrases like “I eat a plant-based diet most of the time” or “I am a transitioning vegan” are safest choices (unless you enjoy being attacked on vegan forums 🙂 )

      P.S.: I really enjoy your blog! Read a few more posts and they are full of practical tips.

      • Thank you! I really hate labels and I just bounce around using different verbage. I wish people would get off their soapbox and just respect each person for their individual choices.

  2. Yes, labels can be so-so restricting! Having an open mind and extending a helping hand can be so much more helpful than trying to fit everyone into boxes.
    On the other hand, it is convenient to use labels some times, just to save time. For example, I would define myself as a strict vegetarian or transitioning vegan, but it is easier to just tag my recipes “vegan” (instead of “plant-based”), so that people can find them easier.

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