Many experts believe that plant-based diets are among the healthiest diets available, with the vegan diet at the forefront. In fact, there is evidence that vegans live longer lives than those who follow other vegetarian diets.
However, it is not perfect, especially in terms of nutrients, and determining what vitamins and minerals are lacking in a vegan diet all boils down to what is supposedly present in meat, poultry, and dairy – all of which they avoid.
Still, there are many vegans who have maintained their plant-only diet over the years, so you have to wonder:
Can a vegan diet provide all of the nutrients you require?
You certainly can. What some plants lack, others can make up for. When that fails, there are a variety of vegan-friendly supplements as well as fortified foods to help you bridge the gap.
However, simply because it is different from the norm, getting a balanced diet with only plant-based options will be somewhat more difficult.
This is where forethought and knowledge of which nutrients to prioritize come into play.
I recommend following the portions shown on The Vegan Food Pyramid to make planning ahead easier.
The Vegan Food Pyramid prioritizes food groups as follows:
- The majority of your plate is made up of vegetables and fruits.
- Whole grains are a close second, followed by beans, seeds, nuts, and fortified dairy alternatives.
- Finally, there are fats and sweets.
Following this pyramid will help you to prepare for a more balanced diet, as recommended by the National Health Service (NHS).
Even with this guide, you won't be able to plan ahead if you don't know which nutrients to prioritize. So…
What nutritional deficiencies are associated with the vegan diet?
The most obvious cause of these deficiencies is the avoidance of several food groups, which limits your options significantly.
However, if you're following this diet for ethical reasons, you're probably not bothered by eliminating animal-based foods from your diet. Instead, you may be a picky eater, have a limited budget that limits your options, or simply do not have a lot of supply and/or plant-based options where you live.
In either case, you risk deficiency in a variety of nutrients.
Below is a list of vitamins and minerals to focus on, as well as brief descriptions of each and where you can get them safely (excluding supplements). This will be addressed later in the article).
It doesn't matter if you're a man or a woman, young or old; if you're a vegetarian, you're at least at risk of developing vitamin B12 deficiency.
Vegans are at a higher risk because this vitamin is commonly found in animal meat, fish (and shellfish), milk, and eggs.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), vitamin B12 is essential for human health because it helps keep nerve and blood cells healthy and is involved in DNA formation. This vitamin is required by adults in the amount of 2.4 mcg per day.
Vegans should get their B12 from fortified foods such as breakfast cereals, nutritional yeast, or milk substitutes.
There are two types of vitamin D that you should be aware of: vitamin D3 and vitamin D2.
D3 is the type found in sunlight and in animals. It's also far superior to D2 because it's far more bioavailable.
D2, on the other hand, is the type of vitamin D found in plants and the majority of fortified foods. Vegans are at a higher risk of vitamin deficiency because blood levels of vitamin D fall much faster when D2 is used instead of D3. In other words, D2 is significantly less effective.
In any case, vitamin D is essential for bone and muscle health, and adults require approximately 15 mcg or 600 IU daily (per the NIH).
Mushrooms exposed to UV light, as well as several milk substitutes (e.g., almond milk, soy milk) and fortified cereal, are excellent vegan sources of vitamin D.
But, in my opinion, sunlight is still your best bet. There is no standard for this, so limit your bare skin exposure to sunlight to a few minutes per day, perhaps until your skin turns pink. Darker skin will also require more sunlight exposure to produce adequate vitamin D.
Again, there are 2 types of iron to be aware of: heme iron and non-heme iron.
Heme iron is derived from animal-based foods, particularly red meat, whereas non-heme iron is derived from plants. Similar to how your body absorbs vitamin D, your body absorbs animal-sourced iron better than plant-based iron.
This is also why vegans and vegetarians are more likely to suffer from iron deficiency.
Iron is required by your body to produce hemoglobin and myoglobin, which are then used to supply oxygen to your muscles and the rest of your body.
Adult men require 8 mg of iron per day, while adult women require 18 mg (per the NIH). Vegans, on the other hand, require roughly twice as much due to the lower bioavailability of plant-based iron.
White beans, lentils, spinach, nuts, and fortified cereal are all good vegan iron sources.
Zinc's ability to boost the immune system is perhaps its most well-known function, but it also aids in the production of proteins and DNA, as well as wound healing and the senses of taste and smell.
While there are many vegan sources of zinc, such as beans, nuts, whole grains, and fortified cereals, these same sources often contain phytate, a compound that interferes with zinc absorption.
As a result, according to the NIH, vegans and other people who eat plant-based diets require approximately 50% more zinc in their diets. For reference, the average adult male requires 11 mg of zinc per day, while adult females require 8 mg.
Calcium and vitamin D go hand in hand because the latter aids in the absorption of the former, so they are both essential for bone health. Calcium is also involved in muscle function, the nervous system, and hormone production.
Also, it's no secret that dairy products are one of the best sources of calcium, if not the best source, so it stands to reason that vegans are at a higher risk of calcium deficiency.
Fortunately, vegan-friendly calcium sources include vegetables like kale and broccoli, grains, fortified breakfast cereals and juice, tofu, and dairy substitutes. Incorporating them into your diet should help you get 1000 mg per day – the NIH's recommended daily allowance.
Iodine is required by your body to keep your thyroid hormones functioning, which are then used to control your metabolism and other bodily functions.
Vegans are at a higher risk of iodine deficiency because they avoid seafood such as fish and shrimp, milk, and eggs, which are among the best sources of iodine.
However, including breads, cereals, and iodized salt in your diet can help you get enough iodine (150 mcg per the NIH). Fruits like bananas and strawberries, as well as green leafy vegetables, contain iodine, but the amount varies greatly depending on the soil in which they are grown.
Omega-3 fatty acids
There’s basically 3 kinds of omega-3 fatty acids:
The good news is that ALA should not be a problem because it is primarily found in plant oils such as flaxseed and soy. ALA can also be converted to EPA and DHA.
The bad news is that the conversion rate is pitiful. According to research, only 5% of ALA is converted to EPA, while less than 0.5 percent becomes DHA. So you'll have to eat a lot of ALA-rich foods – which is simply not sustainable.
Worse, EPA and DHA, which both play roles in fat and sugar metabolism, are mostly found in seafood, making supplementation the best, and possibly the only, sensible option.
This leads us to the next section of the article…
What supplements are required for a vegan diet?
Short answer: You'll need supplements for the nutrients I just mentioned.
However, I recognize that keeping track of so many nutrients can quickly become tedious, so I strongly recommend supplements that contain at least two of these vegan rarities.
This also addresses the original question, “What vitamins and minerals are lacking in a vegan diet?” much more effectively
What I like about this is that one gummy already addresses two of the most obvious nutritional deficiencies in the vegan diet.
Furthermore, it is uncommon to find a vegan D3 supplement because the majority of what is available is of inferior D2. The dosages for D3 and B12 appear to be adequate as well. And, based on the reviews I've read, the gummies must taste fantastic, and they appear to dissolve faster than other brands.
The most significant disadvantage of MaryRuth's Vitamin D3 + B12 Gummies is their high price.
Women's Once-Daily Whole Food Multivitamin from Garden of Life
Because it is a multivitamin, it contains a wide range of vitamins and minerals. This supplement contains vitamin D3, B12, iron, and zinc, among other things.
Garden of Life's Women's Once Daily Whole Food Multivitamin provides more than the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of D3 and B12, which I think is fantastic.
Iron and zinc, on the other hand, are at 14% and 35%, respectively. You might think that's low, but I think it's pretty solid, especially since you should still try to get as many of these nutrients from wholefood as possible.
Men's Whole Food Multivitamin by Naturelo
If there is a vegan multivitamin for women, there must be one for men as well. I tried Naturelo's Whole Food Multivitamin For Men and must say, I'm impressed.
It contains vitamin D3, vitamin B12, calcium, iodine, and zinc, as well as a complex of nutrients and several other vegan-friendly blends that each have their own set of health benefits.
Calcium is the only nutrient in there that does not receive at least 100 percent of its RDA, and even that only receives a solid 27 percent (355 mg).
It can be a little pricey for some, but I believe it is worthwhile. In addition, each serving contains four capsules. If you're trying to cut back on pills, this could be a problem.
Bone Strength Plant Calcium Complex by Naturelo
Naturelo's Bone Strength Plant Calcium Complex, as the name implies, is all about keeping your skeleton strong and healthy. I believe they accomplish this with a dose of vitamin D3 that meets the RDA as well as a solid dose of calcium at 600 mg (46 percent of the RDA).
Furthermore, this supplement contains a number of other nutrients (such as magnesium, manganese, potassium, boron, silicon, vitamin C, D, and K) that may not only help your body absorb more calcium but also have their own health benefits.
As with the previous Naturelo supplement, this can get pricey, but each serving still contains four vegan capsules.
PlantFusion Vegan Complete Iron is a vegan iron supplement.
Clearly, iron is the star of this supplement. You certainly get more than the RDA at 25 mg. Unless it's far too much (which it isn't), that's always a good thing in my book.
More than that, PlantFusion Vegan Complete Iron contains high levels of vitamin B12 and folate, making it ideal for combating the most common types of anemia associated with the vegan diet.
Vegan Omega-3 from Sapling
The omega-3 in these pills is derived from vegan-friendly algal oil. It also contains 550 mg of omega-3 fatty acids, including the difficult-to-find EPA (150 mg) and DHA (100 mg) (300 mg).
Again, there is no standard for how much of these two fatty acids you should consume on a daily basis, but the dosage here should be adequate.
To conclusion, while the vegan diet is considered one of the healthiest diets in the world, it is far from perfect. Actually, from where I stand, there is no such thing as a single diet. There is always some sort of disadvantage to these things.
However, there will be a way to work around those flaws as well. And, in the case of the vegan diet's nutritional deficiencies, I believe that supplementation, planning ahead of time, and understanding what you need to focus on are critical to obtaining a complete and balanced diet without relying on animal sources.
If you have other vegan friends who are struggling with nutrition or who are thinking about going vegan, please share this article with them and assist them.