A Vegan’s Guide To Avoid Common Vegan Deficiencies

learn how to counter common vegan deficiencies

Believe it or not, it’s not uncommon to see individuals become nutrient deficient. That applies to everyone, not just vegans. The rumor suggesting that vegans are the only spectrum of humans running around with nutrient deficiencies is preposterous.

While a few studies show that vegans, on average, don’t get the recommended daily intake of three nutrients: calcium, iodine, and vitamin B12.

The same argument can be made for omnivores. Omnivores are, on average, deficient in seven nutrients, which also include calcium and iodine. This isn’t surprising at all since calcium in kale and broccoli can be absorbed nearly twice as well as the calcium in milk.

This being said, the reason you’re able to find vegan with a nutrient deficiency is in great part due to mistakes like limiting their diet to toast & avocado and never diversifying the foods based on the micronutrients they provide. 

This is what leads to most calcium and iodine deficiencies, otherwise, I don’t see vegans being nutrient deficient at all.

Vitamin B12 Deficiency

To better understand why vegans would be B12 deficient without a supplement, we need to put into perspective the reasons why B12 is not naturally available.

It’s a fact vitamin b12 is not obtained via plants, but it’s also a fact animals don’t produce vitamin b12. Vitamin b12 is made by microbes that inhabit the earth.

These bacteria grow in the guts of animals, and that’s the reason why their bodies are a source of b12. In addition to that, given how most animals are fed synthetically produced soy, farmers inject them with B12 supplements.

Primates, on the other hand, acquire their source of vitamin b12 by eating bugs, feces, and dirt. There’s also a very compelling argument pointing to water as a great source of vitamin b12. But since water is chlorinated, all the bacteria are erased, including vitamin b12 and cholera — which is obviously positive.

We can’t forget the fact we live in a world where the soil is exploited, and most crops are nurtured with pesticides and chemicals, which surely must have an impact on the quality of the soil over time.

Why You Should Take A Vitamin B12 Supplement

While you can find vitamin B12 in fortified plant foods such as tempeh, tofu, seaweed, and organic produce, they’re not as reliable.

You may not notice it instantly, but over time if you limit b12 ingestion, there’s a high-chance dire health difficulty may follow.

One of the earliest studies in vegan history found a connection between vitamin b12 deficiency, nerve damage, and dementia.

This one and many other recent studies dispelled the vitamin b12 myth suggesting that vegans could live without vitamin B12.

Vegans do require vitamin b12. Any vegan health professional will tell you.

Vitamin B12 Supplement

There’s no way around it.

This is probably the only vitamin vegans are incapable of absorbing naturally. In part, because of the societal transition into the sanitized world.

The cheapest and most effective way of acquiring vitamin b12 is by getting 2500 mcg sublingual, chewable, or liquid supplement of cyanocobalamin once a week.

Vitamin b12 is so cheap to manufacture that it’s sad to see some companies selling 60 tablets for $15. Fortunately, Amazon sells a reasonably priced source of vitamin B12.

It’s actually a bargain. 2500 mcg, and 75 tablets. If you take it once a week, it should last you one year and five months. Plus, you don’t have to think about it every day.

Why 2500 Micrograms?

The recommended dietary allowance is 2.4 micrograms.

This number was set based on a study with 7 people in 1958. With the progression of science, new findings came about suggesting that the current dietary allowance is low.

A recent study points to 4 and 7 as being the new numbers we should follow.

As such, a vitamin b12 supplement with 2500 mcg allows us to achieve the daily intake of 4 mcg with the least amount of effort.

When we ingest vitamin b12, we have receptors that become saturated with only 1.5 mcg.

However, an additional 1% is allowed into the bloodstream via our gut. As a result, if we take 2500 mcg, we know 1.5 mcg fill up our receptors, and 1% of the remaining 2498.5 mcg is instantly propelled into our bloodstream through the gut.

1.5 plus the 1% result in 26.5 mcg per week, which averages about 4 mcg per day.

There’s no need for higher quantities of vitamin b12 unless your body has difficulty absorbing it. A problem that may arise with age.

Calcium Deficiency

Are vegans prone to calcium deficiency?

We shouldn’t really look at this as a vegan problem when it’s actually relevant to everyone. Most people don’t consume enough calcium to prolong bone health.

While there’s no shortage of calcium foods in a vegan diet, new vegans may not know about these foods and ignore them

Let’s not forget that each ingredient has different calcium absorption rates.

For fortified foods like plant-based milk and calcium-fortified tofu, the absorption rate is 30%. However, for certain green vegetables, the absorption is quite high.

Depending on what you eat, you may be prone to calcium deficiency or not.

Look For Good Sources Of Calcium.

The best sources of calcium are Chinese cabbage, turnip greens, mustard greens, collards, calcium-fortified tofu, and fortified plant milk. With just two cups of leafy greens per day, you can avoid calcium deficiency. Make it three if you’re over 50 years old.

However, don’t think you’re limited to leafy greens and fortified milk.

There are other great sources at your disposal. Beans, almonds, oranges, and tahinis are other interesting sources of calcium you can rely on to diversify your diet.

This being said, there are also other vitamins you should keep in check if you wish to prevent calcium absorption impairments.

The Importance of Vitamin D

Vitamin D is equally important for healthy bones. While calcium helps build and maintain the bones, Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium.

Therefore, if you are vitamin D deficient, that may also result in lower calcium levels.

As you know, we can find a natural source of vitamin D in the sun. When we expose our skin to sunlight, our body produces vitamin D. However, that may not be a reliable approach in today’s modern world. Smog, clouds, and sunscreen all interfere with the production of vitamin D, and the professions we have nowadays are carried out in enclosed spaces.

As such, a reliable source of vitamin D is paramount.

In some European countries, vitamin D supplements are recommended, especially in winter where sunlight is too weak to promote vitamin D synthesis. This is especially important for older people and individuals with darker skin that have a reduced ability to absorb vitamin D. 

If you don’t want to search hard for a vitamin D supplement, here’s a surprisingly cheap one I bought containing a full-year supply (365 tablets).

The Change In Dietary Intake

The current guidelines set by the Institute of Medicine is 400-800 IU per day.

However, recent research suggests that those numbers are incorrect and that the real amount of vitamin D we should consume sits between 1000 and 4000 IU. In fact, different studies point to that same conclusion. (12, 3)

A respected physician that goes by the name of Dr. Michael Greger created a short 4-minute video to elaborate on that fact:

For this reason, I also take a vitamin D supplement with 2000 IU.

Tread Carefully With Alcohol

Alcohol has an impact on the amount of calcium your body can absorb.

In fact, having more than 2 or 3 ounces of alcohol a day will interfere with the pancreas and its ability to absorb calcium and vitamin D.

On top of that, alcohol also affects the liver, which is a precursor for vitamin D activation.

Are Vegans Iodine Deficient?

Iodine is an essential mineral commonly found in seafood, and it’s extremely important for the normal functioning of the thyroid gland. It’s also worth noting, that ingesting too much iodine can have the same effect as being iodine deficient.

Controlling Iodine intake is a balancing act. Besides actually ingesting iodine, you should also be very conservative when doing so.

Both iodine deficiency and iodine excess can cause severe issues. Symptoms like goiter, hypothyroidism, or impairments to your ability to learn and remember are common for people suffering from iodine deficiency and toxicity.

Pregnant vegans, in particular, are at risk of iodine deficiency, and thus should find a health professional to help them achieve optimal Iodine intake.

Should Non-Pregnant Vegans Supplement Iodine?

Franky, I don’t believe that is required.

Rather than using natural sea salt to season your food, use iodized salt, as it’s a reliable source of iodine. If for some reason you can’t consume salt, the next best source is sea vegetables (or potentially a multivitamin, normally containing low doses of iodine).

Seaweed, in particular, is an interesting source of iodine because it inhibits cancer cell growth. However, if you’re not conservative in its consumption, you can actually risk having excess iodine in your body.

There are also other ingredients you can try such as nori, dulse, wakame, and kelp.

(Note: A two-ounce bag of kelp is enough to last you five years.)

Are Vegans Omega 3 Deficient?

According to the World Health Organization and the European Food Safety Authority, we should get 0.5% of our calories from the short-chain omega-3 ALA.

These are essential fatty acids produced when dietary fiber is metabolized by bacteria in the colon. Through this process, butyrate is created.

The role of butyrate in our body is to prevent the growth of bad bacteria, increase the absorption of calcium and iron, and help control our appetite. On top of that, it also helps suppress inflammation in the body, and significantly reduces the risk of colon cancer.

To effectively achieve the daily intake of short-chain omega-3 ALA, a tablespoon of ground flaxseeds or chia seeds is all you need.

When you consume short-chain omega-3 ALA, our body then converts it into long-chain omega-3s EPA and DHA.

Long-Chain Omega 3s Don’t Come From Fish.

One big misconception I’ve recently learned about is that most people believe EPA and DHA are Omega 3s created by fish. That is definitely not the case.

Fish are sources of EPA and DHA because they consume algae. In other words, EPA and DHA are long-chain fatty acids contained in sea vegetables. If you ever needed a source of EPA and DHA, you could just eat sea vegetables (and not fish).

Are Long Chain Fatty Acids Needed?

It’s true that short-chain fatty acids get converted into long-chain fatty acids, but can our bodies convert enough for optimal health?

A video released by nutritionfacts.org dives deep into the subject:

“Take fiber, for example.

A convincing body of the literature showed an increased heart disease risk when diets were low in fiber. So, the Institute of Medicine came up with a recommendation for about 30 grams a day, which is an intake observed to protect against coronary heart disease and reduce constipation.

Thus, just as the cardiovascular disease was used to help establish an adequate intake for dietary fiber, it was used as a way to develop a recommendation for EPA and DHA.

So, with reviews published as late as 2009 suggesting fish oil capsules may help with heart disease, nutrition authorities recommended an additional 250mg a day of preformed EPA and DHA, since evidently, we were not making enough on our own if taking more helped.

So, in addition to the one or two grams of ALA, it was suggested that we should take 250mg of preformed DHA/EPA, which can be gotten from fish, or algae.

However, in that same video, an argument is made for the number of pollutants inside fish (and fish oil). Pollutants such as dioxins, PCBs, pesticides, and heavy metals that are likely to cause more harm than good.

In fact, a study points out that dietary exposure to PCBs leads to an increased risk of stroke, which may also be related to results in different US studies, that concluded that a single serving of fish a week may significantly increase one’s risk of diabetes.

In addition to that, a similar study reached the conclusion that long-chain omega 3s don’t help with preventing or treating heart disease.

So, should you take long-chain omega 3s via supplement?

From the research I’ve done, it’s not 100% clear.  

In a different video, nutritionfacts.org goes over the potential benefits of long-chain omega 3s for improving brain function, and there was a mix of results, in which 4 randomized trials showed nothing, 1 showed a potential benefit and 1 showed potential harm.

However, a later study revealed that long-chain omega 3 fatty acids improve brain function and structure in older adults. In fact, supplemented groups showed a significant improvement in brain function, as well as less brain shrinkage compared to placebo.

Therefore, there may be an important role for long-chain omega 3s in our brain, and yes, we may have to supplement ourselves with a DHA supplement.

The good news is, we don’t need to eat fish since DHA is naturally present in algae. In fact, a reliable contaminant-free EPA and DHA source can be found in algae-based supplements.

This being said… as a young guy, I haven’t found the need to take any algae-based supplements, but that’s purely based on my age. When you get way older, this may become a necessity, because our brain gradually shrinks and its function diminishes. And long-chain fatty acids help preserve its state.

The same goes for a pregnant vegan. While your body may produce enough long-chain fatty acids from the short-chain fatty acids — it may not be enough for when you get older… and in a pregnancy state, where you need to feed two brains.

To learn more about this topic, please visit nutritionfacts.org.

Are Vegans Iron Deficient?

As a vegan, you know how meat is heavily associated with increased risk of cancer, heart disease, and a reduced lifespan.

But what is it that meat contains that may increase mortality?

And what does that have to do with Iron deficiency?

Well, there’s a form of iron in meat called heme-iron.

This element is found in blood and muscle. Too little of it may lead to anemia, and too much of it, and you run the risk of having cancer and/or heart disease.

The reason it’s so dangerous is that our body doesn’t have an expelling mechanism that removes excess iron. Our body is only able to control absorption based on how much iron we have in our system. For instance, if we’re low on Iron, it boosts absorption. If we have excess Iron, the absorption is decreased but never ceased.

And this little mechanism is only valid for non-heme iron found in plant foods. In other words, once we have sufficient iron, our body is capable of blocking excess iron from plant-based foods, but it’s inefficient when it comes to iron derived from meat. This is maybe the reason why meat is constantly attributed to cancer and heart disease.

In general, people on a vegan or vegetarian diet consume more iron, but since iron in plant-based foods is not as easily absorbed, this may lead to menstruating women losing more iron than the one they take in. This being said, data doesn’t point to vegan women having lower levels of iron than women on a meat diet, but menstruating women should definitely ensure they’re consuming iron in the right amounts.

How To AVOID Iron Deficiency

There’s no secret to avoiding Iron deficiency.

You have to eat the most iron-filled ingredients in the world. Ingredients such as spinach, lentils, beans, amaranth, fortified cereals, and you can even throw calcium-fortified tofu in there. 

And what you need to do to increase iron absorption is to eat these iron-rich foods alongside sources of Vitamin C. These sources include: oranges, broccoli, bell peppers, cauliflower, mango, papaya, sweet potatoes, tomatoes and more.

What About An Iron Supplement?

Let me tell you this: If you have an iron deficiency, talk to a doctor. But ask him (or her) if you can treat it with a diet, instead of relying on iron supplements.

There’s an unpleasant risk associated with iron supplements.

Just like Iodine — Iron is also a balancing act, and you must give your body Iron in the right amounts. Why? Because high iron intake is associated with many diseases that could change your life forever.

(i.e: Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, arthritis and more)

This happens because of a reason I’ve mentioned before: Our body does not have a mechanism to rid itself of excess iron.

Studies also mention that only someone with a confirmed diagnosis of iron deficiency should consider taking an iron supplement… but even then it’s quite risky.

A different study suggests that “blind” iron supplementation should be avoided because it was verified an increase in oxidative stress in the body of women taking iron supplements.

Tread carefully, and always consult a professional.

What About Zinc Deficiency?

The short answer is no.

A zinc deficiency only happens if you don’t eat enough whole grains, beans, and nuts.

However, if an iron deficiency is particularly relevant for menstruating women, a zinc deficiency is relevant for sexually active men losing a lot of semen.

Yes, because zinc can be expelled via semen.

Since zinc in plants is not as easily absorbable as the zinc present in flesh, you may be required to eat a higher amount of zinc-rich ingredients.

These ingredients include fortified cereals, hemp seeds, tofu, lentils, oatmeal, pumpkin seeds, quinoa, green peas, black beans and more.

In other words, as long as you follow a well-planned whole-food, plant-based diet, you can maintain the equilibrium your body desires and avoid any potential deficiencies.

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About the Author: Alexandre Valente

Hey there! My name is Alex and I've been vegan for more than three years! I've set up this blog because I'm really passionate about veganism and living a more eco-conscious life. Hopefully, I can use this website as a channel to help you out on your own journey!