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A Vegan’s Guide to Nutritional Deficiencies

A quick disclaimer – Many vegan sources of food, have the nutrients you need to stay healthy.  With that said, there are some that you can’t get from a pure vegan diet and some have issues that cause less than optimal absorption. That’s what I’ll be talking about today.  As always it’s up to you to have a conversation with your doctor and to decide, if you will take any supplements.

Last week’s vegan article about getting enough protein can be found here: A Vegan’s Guide to Getting Enough Protein 

Nutritional Supplements Vegans Need Most

1 – Vitamin B12

If you’re a vegan and you’re going to take any supplement, this is the one.  The reason for this, is because you can not get any B12 from plant sources…aka, no plant-based foods have this vitamin.

In one research paper, they found that over 85% of vegans are deficient in this vitamin.  Deficiencies can be severe and if not taken care of, can result in dementia, nerve issues and the d-word, death.

The good thing is some things vegans will normally use, like almond milk will come with some B12 in it, but it’s usually not enough to get a person out of a deficiency.

The RDA for B12 is 2.4 micrograms (mcg) per day, but taking more can be good for vegans as there is no tolerable upper limit set. In other words, you can take a lot more per day and there aren’t any negative reactions.

2 – Vitamin D

It is hard to get enough vitamin D from foods as it is. If you don’t live in a place that gets a lot of sun (aka, the Northeast) during certain months of the year, then you might consider taking some Vitamin D in supplement form.

Vitamin D is good for boosting your initial line of defense against colds, brain power and has been correlated with lower cancer rates. But from a more practical standpoint, it can help you be a bit stronger, reduce stress fractures, and may also help in recovery from injury.

1000iu of D3 per day should suffice for most people.

3 – Omega 3 Fatty Acids

There are two essential fatty acids in the form of EPA and DHA.  There is a plant based sources of Omega 3 but it comes in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). ALA is found mainly in flax and walnuts, but it has to be converted into EPA and DHA, and conversion rates have been shown to be around 10-15%, which is a dismal conversion rate. 

In the past, there hasn’t been too many options to try and replace that low conversion rate,, but now there is algae sourced DHA (there is now some with EPA also), which can be a bit pricey.  With that said, your best bet would be to take some flax oil (make sure it’s in a dark container, away from light and probably best stored in the fridge, and buy smaller bottles) and maybe an algae sourced DHA.

With the flax oil, take 5g per day (about 1/3 of a teaspoon) and take one algae sourced DHA capsule daily.

4 – A Good Multi-Mineral, specifically for Iron, Zinc, Magnesium, and Calcium

A – Iron
Iron exists in two main forms, heme and non-heme forms.  Vegan diets only have the non-heme form, whereas the heme form is much more easily used by the body.  Therefore, if you’re vegan, you might be deficient in iron.

You can help increase the bioavailability of the non-heme iron form with vitamin C (eat iron containing foods with an orange).

With that said, for men or post-menopausal women, aim for 8 mg/day.  For women who aren’t post-menopausal, aim for 18 mg per day.

Two quick notes about minerals (you can skip this as it nerds out a bit): 

1 – There is a limit of how much calcium, magnesium and zinc can be absorbed at once (800 mg), so if you’re going to take a multi-mineral, split the dose.

2 – There are different absorption rates for different forms of the same mineral. What this means is that, not only are there different types of the same mineral (for example, zinc can be zinc oxide, zinc gluconate, zinc picolinate, zinc citrate), but they can be attached to different amino acids. For example magnesium glycinate is magnesium chelated to glycine. Glycine is an amino acid and chelated means combined with.  Each amino acid has different effects on different tissues in the body. Magnesium glycinate will help with muscles and muscle contractions. Magnesium oxide will help you go to the bathroom (can have a laxative effect) and magnesium L-Threonate crosses the blood brain barrier and can help you relax or get more restful sleep.

B – Zinc

Zinc is important for lots of reasons from immune health, hormone production, mental well-being, and helping in the construction of bodily proteins, but it can be lost in sweat and is sometimes blocked in vegan sources  because of phytic acid (lots of nuts and seeds have this, which is where you will find the highest sources of zinc).

With this, you want to make sure you’re getting a good form of zinc, in the form of gluconate and picolinate, as they are better absorbed than citrate and oxide forms of zinc.

C – Magnesium

Estimates for how much of the US population is deficient in magnesium ranges from 50-85%.  That means more than half the country is deficient in this extremely important mineral. It is used in over 300 reactions within the body, can be used by every cell in the body and is important for everything from muscle contraction, to blood sugar regulation to being able to relax.  Also, you lose more when you sweat a lot or if you’ve puked or had diarrhea.

D – Calcium

Vegan athletes are at a risk for calcium deficiency because they don’t consume any dairy products. Although some almond mils will be fortified with it, and you can get it from plant sources, sometimes it’s a smart idea to get more. This is especially true for women, those who are scared about bone health and people who workout often.

With these last 4 recommendations, they can all be found in one pill, taken once per day, in the form of a good multi-mineral, with iron: Country Life Multi-Mineral (with Iron)

If you’re a guy or post-menopausal woman, take one pill per day.  If you’re a woman, take one in the morning and one in the evening (you will want to split the dose).

Other supplements that vegans may benefit from if they workout both often and with some intensity: Creatine, Taurine, and Carnitine.  I’m not going to expand on these recommendations, because for most of the general population, you won’t have to take those supplements, but if you’re working out and not recovering or feel tired all the time, these are additional supplements you may start to look on.  All of them have been studied, and have benefits specifically for vegans.

Summing Up

If you’ve been vegan for a while or thinking about going vegan, make sure to take some precautions to ensure that you stay healthy and can stick with that style of eating without causing any health issues.

Do take Vitamin B12 and consider taking Vitamin D3 in non-summer months, Algae based Omega 3’s and a good multi-mineral.

If you have any questions for me, please feel free to let me know.