Veganism is en vogue. The prevalence of this lifestyle, which promotes an avoidance of all foods and products derived from animals, has grown exponentially in recent years. According to a survey conducted by the Vegetarian Resource Group, the number of vegans in this country has doubled since 2009. Vegans now compose 2.5% of the population; that’s a whopping 7.5 million Americans consuming an animal-free diet and living the lifestyle!

Why Choose To Be A Vegan

Veganism benefits the environment, animals, and human health. Raising animals for food takes a massive toll on the environment. Livestock are responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions, a major contributor to climate change. Animals raised on large factory farms are often forced to live in cramped, diseased conditions. These conditions lead to illness and the necessity for antibiotics, which are then passed to humans through meat consumption. Lastly, vegan diets are typically rich in fiber, folate, potassium, magnesium, and vitamins C and E, while being low in saturated fat and cholesterol. Research confirms that most vegans have lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, making veganism protective against heart disease.

Potential Nutritional Deficiencies With Veganism

Many proponents of veganism believe this lifestyle is not only a diet, but a moral obligation. However, anyone considering veganism must understand that careful planning is needed to prevent malnutrition. Without the consumption of animal products, vegans are particularly susceptible to nutritional deficiencies, including low levels of protein, omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, iron, zinc, and vitamins B12 and D.

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Protein
Protein is always a hot topic when discussing the vegan diet. Many argue that vegans cannot consume the protein needed to promote the growth and maintenance of bodily cells and tissues (.8 grams/kilogram body weight, daily). This is not true. However, careful planning is required to ensure proper protein intake.

Proteins are composed of amino acids. Eight of these amino acids are essential, meaning humans must consume them through diet. Most animal products contain all essential amino acids, making them “complete proteins.” Vegans must combine proteins to create complete proteins. A couple of examples of good combinations include beans and rice or sprouted grain bread with nut butter. There are also a few plant-based complete proteins that should be incorporated into the vegan diet such as quinoa, buckwheat, and soy.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids play an essential role in cellular function, blood clotting, and the reduction of inflammation. Research shows adequate omega-3 fatty acid consumption (approximately 3 grams per day) may protect against arthritis, heart disease, and certain cancers.6 Fish are the richest source of omega-3 fatty acids. However, many vegan sources of omega-3 fatty acid exist as well, including flaxseed oil, flax seeds, vegetable oils, walnuts, and leafy greens.

Calcium
Calcium aids in the formation and maintenance of teeth and bones. Adults require 1,000 to 1,200 milligrams of calcium per day to maintain skeletal health and prevent osteoporosis, a disease characterized by weakening of the bones. While milk has a reputation as the best source of calcium, many plant-based options are abundant in this mineral, including collard greens, broccoli, kale, edamame, and oranges.

Iron
Iron intake should be a primary concern for vegans, particularly in women who menstruate. This mineral aids in the formation of hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that delivers oxygen throughout the body. Iron also helps muscles store and utilize oxygen, and is a crucial ingredient in many proteins and enzymes. Men require 8 grams of iron per day, while women under 50 years of age should consume 18 grams per day. After the age of 50, both men and women require 8 grams of iron per day.

Ensuring adequate iron intake is particularly difficult for vegans. Animal foods contain heme-iron, an easily absorbed form of iron, while plant sources contain non-heme iron, which is not easily absorbed. Approximately 7%-35% of non-heme iron can be absorbed by the body, yet only 2%-20% of non-heme iron can be absorbed. The best sources of non-heme iron include legumes, nuts, seeds, and dark leafy greens such as spinach, kale, and Swiss chard. To increase the absorption of non-heme iron, vegans should consume iron with vitamin-C rich foods, such as tomatoes, bell peppers, strawberries, oranges, and cantaloupes.

Zinc
Zinc, another essential mineral, plays a role in immunity, metabolism, and wound healing. Adult males require 11 milligrams of zinc daily, while females only require 8 milligrams. Zinc is primarily found in animal products. However, beans, cashews, chickpeas, oatmeal, and peas are rich sources of zinc that should be regularly incorporated into the vegan diet.

Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is another nutrient often lacking in the vegan diet, as this vitamin is not naturally found in plant-based foods. However, vitamin B12 aids in brain function and the creation of red blood cells and DNA, making it vital to bodily health. Adults require 2.4 micrograms of vitamin B12 daily, and vegans should consume vitamin B12 in the form of fortified foods, such as breakfast cereals.

Vitamin D
Vitamin D is a unique vitamin, as the body can produce this nutrient when ultraviolet (UV) rays contact the skin. Unfortunately, obtaining the recommended daily allowance of 600 IUs of vitamin D from the sun alone can be timely and damaging to the skin, as sunscreen prevents the penetration of UV rays. Vegans should supplement their sun time with orange juice and breakfast cereals fortified with vitamin D.

Vegans, Just Remember To Plan Your Diet Carefully

Veganism is enormously beneficial to the environment, animals, and human health. However, vegans often fall back on packaged and processed foods for nourishment. After all, Oreos ARE vegan! Given some of the limitations around the vegan diet, careful planning is necessary to prevent nutritional deficiencies. Fortunately, by consuming a plentiful amount of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes, healthy fats, and vitamin B12 and D-fortified foods, vegans can prevent nutritional issues and fully reap the benefits of the vegan lifestyle.

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