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Vegan? Vegetarian? Here are 7 Nutrients to Watch Out For

Veganism and vegetarianism have been on the rise this past decade. With the increase in social awareness and affordable food options being offered at restaurants and supermarkets, it’s easy to understand why. Moreover, veganism and vegetarianism has been associated with many health benefits, including reduced blood pressure, reduced blood cholesterol levels, and lower rates of obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers (1,2). While there are many benefits to these animal-friendly diets, their limitations make including certain essential nutrients in everyday meals slightly more difficult. This article discusses nutrients to watch out for when planning out you vegan or vegetarian meals.

WAIT—Why does excluding animal products from my diet put me at risk for nutrient deficiencies?

 

Many animal products, such as milk, eggs, and meat, provide are the main source of many essential nutrients, including proteins, iron, vitamin B12, calcium, vitamin D, zinc, and/or omega-3 fats for non-vegetarians. With many or all of these foods out of the picture for vegetarians and vegans, vegetarians and vegans have to make sure they plan their meals to include alternative sources to these nutrients.  

 

PROTEIN

 

Protein is needed for all bodily functions, including healthy development and the maintenance of your blood, muscle, and immune system.

 

The building blocks of proteins are called amino acids (aa’s). Essential aa’s are aa’s our bodies’ need but cannot make. These aa’s need to be consumed through foods. All animal sources of protein, including meats, eggs, and animal milks and cheeses are complete proteins, protein sources which contain all of the essential amino acid. 

 

Only a few vegan sources, such as soy beans and quinoa, are considered complete proteins. Many vegan source of protein, such as beans, lentils, and other pulses, are considered incomplete proteins, meaning they only contain some but not all of the essential amino acids. To “complete” these protein source, many vegans/vegetarians opt to pair these proteins with rice, couscous, or other grains which tend to provide the remaining aa’s. (Yes! Grains can provide proteins as well! Just not as much as meat alternatives!) This technique is called protein complementation.

 

IRON

 

Iron is mineral key for maintaining a healthy immune system and healthy blood. It forms the part of your blood cells responsible for carrying oxygen breathed in throughout your body.

 

There are two types of iron: heme-iron, which can be found in animal sources, and non-heme iron, which can be found in non- animal source of proteins, such as those mentioned above. Aside from their sources, one major difference between the two iron types is that heme-iron is much better absorbed by the body than non-heme iron. As a result, vegetarians and vegans much each about twice as much non-heme iron as they would heme iron.

 

One way to make non-heme iron easier to absorb is to couple source of such iron, such as spinach and kale, with sources of ascorbic acid or vitamin C,  such as lemon juice, lime juice, snow peas, and leafy greens.

Note that many source of protein are source of iron. So if you plan your meals wisely, you can include both nutrients in your meal at once!

 

VITAMIN B12

 

Vitamin B12 is a vitamin key to the maintenance of nerve cells, blood cell creation, and the breaking down of fats.

 

Vitamin B12 is a vitamin which comes almost exclusively from animal products. (Aside from store-bought vitamins, the only non- animal source of vitamin B12 is chlorella, a type of algae.) With that, many vegan products, such as tofu, tempeh, veggie burgers, yeasts, and non-dairy milks are fortified with vitamin B12. With this, many health professions recommend vegetarians and vegans take a vitamin B-12 supplement.

 

(Rebecca Suggests: 25 mcg per day to supplement.)

 

CALCIUM

 

Calcium is a mineral key for the bone development, bone maintenance, and muscle contraction. In order for calcium to be absorbed, it must be coupled with vitamin D (mentioned below). Many animal products, such as cow milk, offer both calcium and vitamin D together. However, many vegan and vegetarian options, such as almond milk, are supplemented with both calcium and vitamin D. (More about types of vitamin D below)

 

VITAMIN D

 

As mentioned above, vitamin D is a vitamin key for the absorption of calcium as well as phosphorus, minerals key to develop and maintain strong bones.

 

There are two types of vitamin D: vitamin D2, which is plant-based, and vitamin D3, which is animal based.  Vitamin D3 is also the vitamin D made in our bodies when our skin is exposed to sunlight.  Of the two forms, vitamin D3 is better absorbed by the body. With that in mind, many vegetarian and vegan foods are fortified with the plant-based version of the vitamin instead. Hence, many health professionals recommend vegans/vegetarians not consuming any animal products to take vitamin D3 supplements. The is especially the case in Canada where Canadians do not receive enough sunlight to make vitamin D3 for the majority of the year.

 

ZINC

 

Zinc is a mineral required for development, wound healing, and maintaining a strong immune system.

 

OMEGA-3 FATS

 

Omega-3 fats are essential “healthy” fats which helps maintain low blood pressure levels and are crucial for nerve and brain development.

 

 

Here are some good sources of these nutrients: 

 

1) Protein

Animal sources include:

  • Meats ( Beef, Chicken, Pork, Lamb, Fish)

  • Egg

  • Milk

  • Cheese

Complete plant sources include:

  • Soy beans and soy products (e.g., tofu, tempeh, etc).

  • Quinoa

Incomplete plant sources include:

  • Black, white, and kidney beans

  • Chickpeas

  • Lentils

  • Nuts

  • Seeds

2) Iron

 

Animal sources include:

  • Meats ( Beef, Chicken, Pork, Lamb, Fish)

  • Egg

Plant sources include:

  • Spinach

  • Kale

  • Potato with skills

  • Whole grains

  • Prune juice

  • Dried apricots

  • Soy beans and soy products (e.g., tofu, tempeh, etc).

  • Quinoa

  • Black, white, and kidney beans

  • Chickpeas

  • Lentils

  • Nuts

  • Seeds

3) Vitamin B12

 

Animal sources include:

  • Meats (e.g., Beef, Chicken, Pork, Lamb, Fish)

  • Egg

  • Milk

  • Cheese

Other sources: 

  • Vitamin B12 supplement

  • Vitamin B12 fortified foods (e.g., tofu, tempeh, veggie burgers, yeasts, and non-dairy milks)

4) Calcium

 

Animal sources include:

  • Cheese

  • Milk

  • Yogurt

  • Canned fish with bones

Plant sources include:

  • Soy beans

  • Navy and white beans

  • Tofu (prepared with calcium sulfate)

  • Fortified soy milk

  • Bok choy

  • Spinach

  • Okra

  • Figs

  • Fortified orange juice

5) Vitamin D

 

Animal sources include:

  • Egg yolks

  • Fatty fish (e.g., salmon, carp, mackerel, etc).

  • Vitmain D fortified milk, cheese, and yogurt

Other sources:

  • Vitamin D fortified non-dairy milks (e.g.,  almond milk, soy milk, etc).

  • Non- hydrogenated margarines.

6) Zinc

 

Animal sources include:

  • Seafood

  • Meats ( e.g., Beef, Chicken, Pork, Lamb)

Plant sources include:

  • Soy beans

  • Tofu

  • dried pulses (e.g., beans, peas, and lentils)

  • Pecans

  • Cashews

  • Peanuts

  • Pumpkin seeds

  • Sesame seeds

  • Whole grains

  • Fortified cereals

7) Omega- 3 Fats

 

Animal sources include:

  • Eggs

  • Fatty fish (e.g., salmon, carp, mackerel, etc).

  • Caviar

Plant sources include:

  • Flaxseeds

  • Soy beans

  • Tofu

  • Walnuts

  • Canola oil

If you are a vegetarian who either consumes eggs, fish, or eggs, take advantage of these nutrient rich sources and integrate these foods into your daily meals! If you are vegan and are unsure if you are meeting all your needs, it is highly recommended you seek out the professional help of a Registered Dietitian. 

 

Want to learn more? Visit the Dietitians of Canada website today or ask your dietitian today!

 

  1. “Vegan Sources” Source: https://www.dietitians.ca/getattachment/c8c30477-aad8-4283-9164-079855fabb6d/FACTSHEET-Guidlines-for-Vegans.pdf.aspx

 

Works Cited

 

  1. https://www.dietitians.ca/getattachment/c8c30477-aad8-4283-9164-079855fabb6d/FACTSHEET-Guidlines-for-Vegans.pdf.aspx

 

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