Thinking about starting a vegetarian or vegan diet? Or already adopted one? Then, you need to be extra careful on what you put in your plate! Let us give you all the secrets to have a healthy diet and avoid the 5 most common deficiencies!
Truth is, having a healthy and balanced vegetarian or vegan diet can be pretty tricky…
It’s not just about keeping meat, fish, and/or dairy products out of your plate! You have to adapt your meals to get the essential nutrients your body needs and was getting from those foods you’re not eating anymore.
Not planning your meals adequately or getting the proper supplements will put you at risk of many deficiencies. Those will leave your body feeling tired, weak, and can even lead to depression. The goal of any diet is to be healthier, not the contrary!
That’s why you need to pay a close attention to what you put (and remove) from your plates to get all those nutrients your body needs. You’ll see that having a healthy vegetarian and vegan diet is not that complicated, you just have to know the tricks 🙂
Let’s dig right into it! Start below with all the info to keep a healthy vegetarian or vegan diet, plus the 5 nutrients you NEED to monitor and balance in your meals to avoid those 5 most common deficiencies.
First: What’s the difference between a vegetarian and vegan diet?
A vegetarian usually excludes meat, poultry, and any type of seafood from his diet. However, many types of vegetarian diets exist depending on what food is included or excluded. Most commons are:
Lacto-vegetarian diet – aka strict vegetarian
Excludes meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs but includes dairy products
Excludes meat and poultry but includes fish, dairy products, and eggs – note: most of the vegetarians in the US, Europe, and Canada fall into this category
Excludes meat, poultry, and seafood but includes dairy products and eggs
The vegan diet takes it a step further by avoiding all products coming from animals, such as eggs, dairy products (yogurt, milk, cheese), and honey.
Being a vegetarian or vegan: Pros and Cons
Being a vegetarian or vegan is easy. You simply need to stop eating meat, fish, or any other animal products in your meals. However, having a healthy vegetarian or a healthy vegan diet involves a lot more than that. You have to be extra careful about what you eat and plan your meals to give your body what it needs.
That’s right! When you stop eating some type of food (either meat, poultry, or dairy products), you need to get all the proteins and nutrients you were getting from those in other foods. Otherwise, your body won’t have the necessary nutrients and you can feel really tired, stressed, and even depressed.
The tricky part for a healthy vegetarian or vegan diet with no deficiency, is that meat, poultry, and fish are complex foods with a lot of different proteins and nutrients. They can’t be replaced by just one type of food.
For example, sayings like “I’ll just eat beans instead of red meat as they also have proteins” is completely FALSE and dangerous for your health. You’ll have to eat a mix of different type of foods in order not to suffer from the most common deficiencies in a vegetarian diet. Other simple solution is to take some specific supplements to give your body the nutrients it needs.
Can a vegetarian or vegan diet be healthy?
The good news is that a healthy vegetarian or vegan diet is definitely possible but there is one main condition to be vegetarian and with any food deficiency. You NEED to eat a sufficient amount of a wide variety of foods.
Vegetarians or vegans often suffer from the lack of the same nutrients as they exclude the same type of food from their diets. Let’s dive right into it and check out below all those nutrients you need to take extra care in order to have a healthy vegetarian or vegan diet and avoid the most common deficiencies!
The 5 key nutrients vegetarians NEED to monitor to avoid the most common deficiencies:
#1- Best PROTEIN sources for vegetarian and vegan
Proteins are needed by your body for a great number of tasks. They are essential to build and repair tissues, balance fluids in our body, transport essential nutrients, and are also major components to metabolise hormones, enzymes, and antibodies. The recommended daily intake of protein is about 0.8 g of complete proteins per kg each day.
For all vegetarians who consume dairy products and/or eggs (lacto-ovo-vegetarians and ovo-vegetarians), you’re lucky! You can get all the proteins you need in dairy products and eggs and avoid any protein deficiencies.
On the contrary, vegans have higher risks of experiencing protein deficiency if they do not balance their amino acids. The fact is that proteins are not all the same. Plant proteins are incomplete as they lack one or more essential amino acids.
It was previously thought that we needed to get all our amino acids in a single meal but we have then discovered that amino acid intake can be balanced over multiple days! The science behind it is that your liver can break down its own proteins to supplement a particular amino acid that was missing from your meal and then load up in this specific amino acid later when you consume it in another meal.
Your liver is a fantastic amino acid monitor but let’s help him by following a simple strategy: Pair together complementary proteins!
The great news is that this concept is easy to grasp and even easier to apply. As we mentioned earlier all plant proteins lack one or more essential amino acids. Therefor to make sure you don’t lack any amino acids, you simply need to put together foods that complete each other and give you all the amino acids that your body need.
Let’s go over a quick example: Cereals are characterized by a very low presence of lysine, one of our beloved amino acids, while legumes lacks a bit of methionine. The easy fix is then to pair them together in order to give your body the same mixture that you would get from a complete protein food. This is not difficult at all to do as there are tons of great meals or snacks combining those 2 food sources.
Why not prepare a delicious rice and beans casserole for a healthy meal or a small peanut butter sandwich for a quick fix? Alternatively you can eat those complementary food groups during different meals as we’ve mentioned earlier that your liver naturally regulate the necessary amino acids in your body. For example, you can have some muesli or porridge for breakfast and a vegetable stir-fry for lunch or dinner. See how it’s easy? 🙂
Best vegetarian proteins sources to mix and match:
- Grains (rice, flour, quinoa, etc.)
- Nuts and seeds (sunflower seeds, almonds, cashews, etc.)
- Legumes (beans, soy, lentils, spinach, etc.)
- Dairy products (milk, cheese, yoghurt, etc.) – to avoid for vegan diet
Secret of healthy vegetarian or vegan diet is variety in your food source! Make sure you get at the very least 2 of those food groups a day and you should be able to get your necessary amino acids intake.
Easier option: if you miss breakfast or don’t have time to plan your meals accordingly, you should definitely get a protein supplement. It will give your body all the essential nutrients it needs so that you don’t suffer from any deficiency.
Note: Keep out of diets based on a single kind of food source as it will inevitably induce protein deficiency.
#2- Vegetarian and vegan VITAMIN B12 options
Another nutrient to look for, especially for a healthy vegan diet, is vitamin B12. This nutrient is present in sufficient quantities in milk, eggs, clams, and some seafood but rare in plant-based diet. You’ll need at least 2.4 mcg of vitamin B12 per day to stay healthy.
So why is this particular vitamin so important? The physiological functions requiring this vitamin are really diverse. It is an essential part of red blood cells production and help folates in preventing anemia, it is also a cofactor for several enzymes, and is needed to maintain the myelin sheaths protecting your nerve fibres. As you can see, it is of the utmost importance for your body and can be the source of irreversible damage for your health. And one last important point to note is that vitamin B12 promotes growth so it is even more important for children and pregnant women.
To get a sufficient amount of this essential nutrient, vegans should turn toward products fortified in vitamin B12. A great source is fortified soybean milk but you can also get fortified versions of breakfast cereals, cereal bars, or nutritional yeast. Another great option is supplement containing vitamin B12 that will give you instantly the daily intake your body needs.
Note: Some people recommend fermented soy, spirulina, nori or algae as sources of vitamin B12. Those are NOT viable sources as they are only B12-like nutrient that do NOT act as vitamins for humans.
To have a balanced vegetarian or vegan diet, you need to have your daily intake of vitamin B12. Otherwise, you may suffer from fatigue, weakness, tingling and numbness of hands and legs, vertigo caused by anaemia. But also psychiatric disorders such as depression, memory loss, paranoia, and disorientation due to the alteration of the protective covering around your nerves.
#3- Vegetarian and vegan IRON options
You often hear about iron deficiency as both vegetarian/vegan and non-vegetarian may have difficulties meeting their daily intake of iron. Iron is required to form hemoglobin and myoglobin which are needed to store and transport oxygen in your body. This is why iron deficiency is the leading source of anaemia. Iron is also essential for the energy metabolism in the mitochondria as well as enzymatic reactions needed notably to make collagen and a variety of neurotransmitters. It is also needed for a properly working immune system. Men should get about 8 mg of iron per day while women need 18 mg per day.
Even if everyone is at risk regarding iron deficiencies, vegetarians and vegans will need to take extra care. Many vegetarians or vegans don’t understand this as the nutritional fact of red meat and spinach both present the same amount of iron (roughly 2.7 mg per 100g). The reality is that all iron sources are not absorbed equally by our body!
We categorized iron in two forms:
- Heme iron is found in meats, fish and poultry
- And non-heme iron is found in fruits, grains, and vegetables
When your body is low in iron, heme iron is absorbed at about twice the rate of non-heme iron. The difference in absorption rate increases drastically as your body reaches its normal iron store. In fact, heme iron absorption will be around 15% of intake while non-heme iron absorption will only be about 2-3% of intake when your body is storing reserves of iron.
In short, to have a healthy vegetarian or vegan diet, you’ll need 2 times more non-heme iron than heme iron to reach a normal level of iron in your body and 5 times more non-heme iron than heme iron to get extra stores in your body after reaching normal stores of iron in your body.
Heme iron is the most absorbable source of iron so storing sufficient amount of iron can be problematic to have a balanced vegetarian or vegan diet. Even vegetarians consuming dairy products can have difficulties replenishing their body iron stores as milk and dairies are poor source of iron.
So in order to get your daily intake and have a healthy vegetarian or vegan diet, if you do not eat fish, the best is to include plenty of leafy green vegetable (spinach, kale, etc.) and legumes in your diet. Another recommendation is to complement your diet with enriched and fortified whole grains as well as dried fruits. If you don’t have time to plan all your meals and are suffering from an iron deficiency, the easiest option is to take iron supplement that will give your body all the nutrient it needs.
Note: An easy fix to supercharge your food in iron is to cook acidic foods in iron cookware as this will result in some of the iron to be assimilated in the food.
#4- Vegetarian and vegan ZINC options
As for iron, zinc is necessary for a great number of enzymatic reaction and crucial to your energy metabolism. Your body also require zinc to create proteins and insulin. The best sources of zinc are meats, dairies, and seafood, so vegetarians should monitor their zinc intake. Men have a recommended zinc intake of 11 mg per day while women should get about 8 mg per day.
If you do not eat dairy products or seafood, your zinc will most likely comes from whole-grain cereals, cereal products, and legumes. Cereals contains a lot of zinc but it is important to note that they contain high content of phytates and fibres. Those two elements inhibit part of your zinc absorption as they tend to bind with free zinc forming new complexes far less absorbable by your intestines. When it comes to cereals, always prefer whole wheat or whole grain over refined flours as zinc is not part of the enrichment process.
To get enough zinc and have a healthy vegetarian or vegan diet, make sure to include plenty of legumes, nuts, beans, and whole grains. Otherwise, a supplement including zinc is perfect to load up your body with this essential nutrient.
#5- Vegetarian and vegan CALCIUM options
You probably already know that calcium is necessary to have healthy bones and teeth. But calcium also play a crucial role when it comes to regulating muscle contraction (including your heart), having a healthy blood pressure, as well as maintaining proper nerve function. When it comes to recommended calcium intakes, teens need about 1300 mg per day while adults need 1000 mg per day.
As for iron and zinc, vegetarians and vegans are at risk of calcium deficiency if not planning their meals well. Strict vegetarians and vegans diets tend to be low in calcium if not consuming any dairy products. One of the fact accentuating the risks of deficiencies is that as for iron and zinc, the bioavailability of calcium is reduced by the consumption of fibre, phytates, oxalates, and tannins. Most of the best sources of calcium for vegetarians contains some of those elements.
For example whole-grain cereals are high in phytic acid and green leafy vegetables are high in oxalates. On the other hand, milk and dairies product contain vitamin D, lactose, and casein phosphopeptides who have all been proved to positively impact calcium absorption.
So you might ask yourself: How to do to get an adequate amount of calcium? An easy solution is to turn toward Calcium enriched foods such as calcium fortified bread or fortified orange juice (also a great way to get your vitamin D to boost even further calcium absorption). But on top of that you should include low oxalate leafy greens such as kale, turnip, or bok choy. Other top choices of calcium sources are white beans, almonds, and tofu made with a calcium based coagulant (simply check on the label). Another good option is to take calcium supplements when you don’t have time to shop and prep all your meals.
What is the best option to avoid the most common deficiencies in a vegetarian or vegan diet?
Life can get on the way. Sometimes you skip breakfast, don’t have time to prep all your meals, order take outs for lunch and diner… we’re all the same 😉 Don’t worry, a healthy vegetarian or vegan diet with no deficiency is still possible!
Good news is: There’s one simple solution! You can opt for a all-in-one protein and vitamins supplement that will give you all the nutrients you need. This way, you won’t suffer from any deficiency and have a balanced vegetarian and vegan diet, with no worries!
THE BOTTOM LINE
Whether you’re thinking about changing to a vegetarian or vegan diet or you’ve been one for years, keep these general healthy tips in mind in order to avoid the most common deficiencies:
- Pair together complementary protein such as grains, nuts & seeds, legumes, and dairy products to get all the energy your body needs
- Get enough B12 vitamin with fortified food products: soybean milk, breakfast cereals, cereal bars, or nutritional yeast
- Take your daily intake of iron with plenty of leafy green vegetable (spinach, kale, etc.) and legumes in your diet. You can also add to your meals enriched and fortified whole grains as well as dried fruits.
- Add zinc to your diet by including plenty of legumes, nuts, beans, and whole grains.
- Eat plenty of calcium enriched foods, such as fortified bread or fortified orange juice, low oxalate leafy greens such as kale, turnip, or bok choy. Other good calcium sources are white beans, almonds, and tofu.