By Lily McCann
Guest Writer for Wake Up World
There are many myths, misconceptions and misunderstandings when it comes to the nutritional health of those consuming a vegetarian or vegan diet.
In essence, all vitamins and minerals necessary for the human body to be healthy and vibrant can be found from natural, non-animal sources; however certain nutrients are more difficult to source due to the production methods of modern food. The best way to avoid encountering dietary deficiencies when eating a vegetarian or vegan diet is to consume an abundant amount of fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, and nuts. Eating a balanced and varied diet consisting of foods which are naturally abundant in vitamins and minerals will give your body a high level of nutrition.
The Protein Myth
One of the most common myths about those eating a vegetarian diet is that you are likely to become protein deficient. This is due to the widespread misunderstanding of protein sources, and the role of protein in our diets. In actual fact, protein is found in just about every single food source imaginable, and too much protein in the diet is more of a problem in the western world than protein deficiency. Some of the most abundant sources of plant based protein include quinoa (11g per cup), lentils (17.9g per cup), and beans (12-15g per cup).
Common Dietary Deficiencies
Vitamin B12 is one of the most common deficiencies that can occur from eating a vegan or vegetarian diet. Vitamin B12 is naturally found in the soil, and consequently it is absorbed into the food chain when animals eat the grass etc. Throughout history vegetables also provided a source of B12 if they were not washed thoroughly and still contained trace amounts of soil. With modern farming and shopping practices requiring extreme cleaning of the vegetables, this is now largely eradicated from the diet.
The most common way for vegetarians and vegans to avoid a vitamin B12 deficiency is by taking supplements. The recommended daily intake of B12 is 3mcg, which is easy to attain with vitamin supplements. Other dietary sources of B12 include products that have been fortified with the vitamin, such as breakfast cereals and milks, but large amounts of these would be required to reach the RDA without supplements.
Zinc is a vital mineral for the immune system, neurological system, and skin. A Zinc deficiency is linked to numerous health conditions as the immune system is not able to function correctly and consequently cannot fight off infection as it should. Zinc deficiency affects a high number of people, and this problem is not restricted to those eating a vegetarian diet. Apart from the obvious issue of not consuming enough zinc in the diet, other deficiency causes include overcooking of food which destroys the mineral, and a lack of other vitamins such as vitamin A, which aid with zinc absorption into the body.
Zinc can be found in a whole host of natural plant based foods, and adapting your diet to include many more of these foods will certainly assist in raising zinc levels. Nuts, wholegrains, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, lentils, swiss chard, beans, tahini and tofu all contain high amounts of zinc. The recommended daily intake is a minimum of 15mg per day, with the ideal amount being more than double this figure – a single serving of the foods listed above contain between 2-5mg.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
There is often a large amount of confusion surrounding omega 3 fatty acids, as in fact a considerable amount of people, vegetarian or not, are deficient in these vital nutrients. Omega 3 fatty acids play a key role in the nervous system, fighting infection and inflammation. As well as this they help to lower blood pressure, treat depression, and prevent heart disease.
Flax seeds are considered to be the best source of omega 3 in a vegetarian diet and they also contain many other fantastic health benefits. Flax seeds need to be crushed or broken prior to consumption otherwise they travel through the digestive system without releasing any of the nutrients. Flax seeds are an extremely tasty and versatile food which can be added into sweet or savory dishes, and even sprinkled on top of salads or soups. Walnuts are another great source of omega 3 fatty acids that can be added into your diet to reduce the likelihood of becoming deficient.
Iron is essential for a healthy body as it is an integral part of hemoglobin, which is what helps to transport oxygen around the body. Iron deficiency is a large scale problem in many parts of the world, particularly among young women and children. Only one(non heme) of the two forms of iron are present in vegan food sources, and non heme iron is also harder for the body to absorb than heme iron. This means that vegetarians and vegans need to be especially careful to ensure that they are consuming an iron rich diet. As well as monitoring iron intake, it is important to ensure that you are getting enough vitamin C in the diet, as this aids the body to absorb and use iron effectively.
There are an abundance of plant based sources of iron, including lentils, swiss chard, black strap molasses, tofu, potato, beans, spinach, kale, pumpkin seeds, quinoa, green beans, oats, peanuts, bananas, blueberries and raspberries to mention just a few.
Calcium is important for the body to build strong bones, and although there are an abundance of excellent plant based sources of calcium available, many people are simply not eating enough of them on a regular basis to ensure an adequate calcium intake. The recommended daily intake of calcium is around 1000mg for men and 1200mg for women, although these figures differ for different age groups.
A calcium deficiency is characterized by poor bone density, which can result in fractured and broken bones. Vitamin D is also important for bone strength, and this is another consideration for vegetarians and vegans as the only natural source of this vitamin in a veggie diet is sunlight. Some of the calcium rich plant based food sources include soybeans, broccoli, bok choy, grains, rice milk, tahini, beans, almonds, okra, mustard greens, and tempeh to name just a few.
Those eating a plant based diet can live a healthy happy life, providing they are careful to ensure consumption of enough variety and quantity of nutrient dense foods. The key to a healthy diet is to include as many green leafy vegetables as possible, as well as a high volume of other fruits and vegetables. For nutrients that are not easily accessible through the diet, such as vitamin B12, supplements may be the best way of ensuring the recommended daily intake levels are reached.