Vegetarian Diet Deficiencies: Things To Consider When Going Green
There are many who are vegetarian due to religious reasons, for health reasons or because of ethical reasons but there are some nutritional concerns for vegetarians. This is not a reason to stop being a vegetarian or not to become one if you feel strongly about it, however. In this article, I will be discussing natural sources as well as supplements that you can take to complete the vegetarian diet.
You can be vegetarian or and be completely healthy if you do it the right way. It’s just important to note that you need to be more diligent about eating a diet full of variety and that you need to pair the correct foods together to increase bioavailability (absorption of nutrients from food) and decrease malabsorption. For other nutrients, you will need to take a supplement.
Nutritional Deficiencies in Vegetarians
Vegetarians and vegans should get tested regularly for any deficiencies. Sometimes, you could be consuming a lot of sources of that particular nutrient, but you may not be absorbing it. Being deficient in some of these nutrients can have a detrimental effect on your health. Here below are the most common vegetarian deficiencies. I am also listing if there are any paleo natural sources of these nutrients because they are only worth adding to the diet.
1. Vitamin B12 For Vegetarians
B12 tops the list of supplements and it is a must that vegetarians get their B12 levels checked regularly. This nutrient is essential for living and it is not found in plant sources. Supplementation is important, especially for vegans who consume no animal products at all. Vegetarians who consume dairy do take in B12 from that source but also run the risk of being deficient as well if they do not consume large quantities of it.
According to the Weston A. Price Foundation, 43% of vegetarians are deficient in B12 and 64% of vegans are deficient in B12. This is a nutrient that is essential for living.
Functions of Vitamin B12 in the Body:
- Creation of red blood cells: Red blood cells are needed to carry oxygen around your body as well as to transport carbon dioxide back to your lungs so you can get rid of it.
- Producing new cells: Vitamin B12 is also responsible producing new cells for your skin, hair, and nails too. It does this by making sure your DNA is working as it should.
- Healthy brain function: B12 ensures that your neurotransmitters (hormones that transmit signals in your brain) work properly. B12 is crucial for good memory, maintaining the health of your brain, good concentration and preventing psychological issues like depression and anxiety.
- Healthy nervous system function: B12 is necessary for keeping your nerves healthy and the ability for nerve impulses to be transmitted between your body, brain, and nerves.
- Correct metabolism of carbohydrates: Your body is meant to convert carbohydrates into energy to be used by your various cells during digestion. Without enough vitamin B12, this process will not work properly.
- Heart health: B12 regulates the level of a protein known as homocysteine in your blood. Too much homocysteine can raise your risk for heart disease.
Vitamin B12 Minimum Requirements
- Children: 0.4 mcg to 1.8 mcg depending on their age
- Age 14 and up: 2.4 mcg
- During pregnancy: 2.6 mcg
- During lactation: 2.8 mcg
Paleo sources of vitamin B12
While dairy and eggs contain B12, the levels are below 30% DV so it’s very hard to meet your requirements if these are your only sources. Common symptoms of deficiency include being pale, fatigue and heart palpitations. You can read more about the symptoms and treatment and vitamin B 12 deficiency here.
The most abundant sources of vitamin B12 are meat (especially organ meat), eggs, and some shellfish. If you aren’t eating any of those, consider a supplement.
Vitamin B12 Supplement
Correct form: Methylcobalamin as capsules, sprays, or lozenges. (You can also get an injection if you are severely deficient)
Dosage: 5 mcg (Many supplements have more, but the body gets rid of the excess. Overdoses are rare)
Time to take: No specific time, but bear in mind that coffee interferes with the absorption of B-vitamins.
It’s best to take folate and B12 together because these two nutrients have a direct impact on the other. Pure Encapsulations – B12 Folate supplement is perfect for vegans and vegetarians.
If you are not a big fan of taking down too many tablets, consider adding a B-Complex or a multivitamin. The Good companies have already higher levels of B12 in it.
2. Vegetarians have Vitamin D Deficiency.
Vitamin D is a nutrient that many people are deficient in, not just vegans and vegetarians. But the difference is that there are no plant sources of vitamin D. The sun is the best source of vitamin D because the reaction between your skin and the sun produces vitamin D. But if you are unable to get much sun for whatever reason you need a supplement. Vitamin D is the topmost supplement I advice everyone to take.
Whenever I visit my relatives, I give them a bottle of Vitamin D as a gift. This is my number 1 supplement. Here in Germany, it is compulsory to give kids Vitamin D3 and K2 Lozenges
This is especially true of vegans because unless the foods you eat are fortified with vitamin D3, there is no other way for you to get vitamin D. Symptoms of a deficiency include depression and getting sick a lot. Here is more information on vitamin D deficiency and how to treat it as well as how to avoid vitamin D toxicity.
Functions of Vitamin D in the Body:
- Strong bones and teeth: Vitamin D works with calcium to make your bones strong and healthy. It’s also necessary for calcium to be absorbed in your body.
- Good mental health: Though more research is needed as to how vitamin D prevents and treats depression and other conditions like anxiety, getting adequate vitamin D is important for psychological health and those were deficient in vitamin D and were treated for it saw an improvement in their mental health.
- Brain health: Vitamin D is also needed for good memory and to keep the brain healthy and functioning as it should.
- Healthy immune system: Vitamin D strengthens your immune system to fight off many illnesses from flu to heart disease and cancer.
- Improves hormone balance: Problems with hormonal imbalances like infertility in both men and women as well as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) showed improvement when vitamin D supplements were taken. These are findings from a study that has been released this year. Vitamin D also helps ease premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and weight loss.
Sources of Vitamin D
- The sun: The best source of vitamin D3 is the sun. Just 20 minutes of sun is enough to create 20,000 IU, make sure you are at least 80% nude. If you are worried about skin cancer, do not worry. The problem is overexposure not healthy exposure. Find out more about how to stay safe in the sun here.
Milk and eggs contain vitamin D but they are all under 10% DV so you would not be able to get close to the minimum amount, never mind the amount for optimal health.
Vitamin D3 Supplement
Correct form: D3 also known as Cholecalciferol
Dosage: The optimum amount of vitamin D3 is around 1000 IU per 12 kg of bodyweight.
Time to take: In the morning combined with vitamin K2. Vitamin K2 regulates your vitamin D levels to prevent toxicity.
This high dosage won’t be available in any multivitamin, so buying extra vitamin D3 and K2 is advised.
3. DHA/ Omega 3 For Vegetarians
DHA is a type of omega 3 fatty acid. The other 2 types are EPA and ALA. ALA is the kind that is found in plant sources. The problem with ALA is that although it does convert to EPA and DHA, only between 2% and 5% is actually able to be converted into DHA. Vegetarians are slightly better off than vegans when it comes to DHA levels, but both vegetarians and vegans are often deficient.
Other than DHA lacking in the diet, other things can cause a deficiency too. Some people are unable to effectively convert ALA to DHA because of genetics or age. Others just consume too much omega 6. Omega 6 lowers the absorption rate of omega 3. EPA and DHA are both essential but EPA is converted a bit better at 5-10% being converted from ALA.
If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, supplementation of DHA is essential. This article by Dr. Chris Kresser explains that ALA that is converted to DHA isn’t passed on to breast milk which leaves your baby deficient and explains the above-mentioned issues in detail.
Functions of DHA in the Body:
- Development of the brain and nervous system: DHA is crucial for healthy brain and nervous system development in babies. This is why it’s so important to get enough if you are trying for a baby or are already pregnant.
- Development of the eyes: Another reason to take a supplement during pregnancy. Your babies eyes and ability to see are dependent on adequate levels of DHA.
- Heart health: DHA helps to keep your triglycerides (fat in your blood) and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels within a healthy range.
- Brain health: This is important for everyone of all ages. The majority of your brain is made up of omega 3 fatty acids including DHA. Adequate levels of DHA are important for maintaining healthy brain function. Also, as you age your brain shrinks, but consuming enough DHA can slow down this shrinkage significantly. It was even observed that kids consuming high omega 3 fats have higher IQ.
- Reduces inflammation: Inflammation is the cause of many diseases and health problems. DHA reduces inflammation in your body and especially in your joints.
DHA Minimum Requirements
- Children: 200 mg
- Adults: 100-300 mg
Paleo Sources of ALA
- Walnuts (66% DV per 1/4 cup)
- Chia seeds (61% DV per tablespoon)
- Flaxseeds (39% DV per tablespoon)
Companies that tell vegetarian omega-3-rich foods – chia seeds, flaxseeds, and hemp seeds etc aren’t giving you the whole picture. It’s true that these seeds are high in omega-3s, but they all contain ALA. You only convert about 6% of the ALA to EPA and only about 4% to DHA
Remember that the amount that gets converted to EPA and DHA vary from person to person. It’s good to include these in your diet. Get yourself tested to see what your levels are. You may need to supplement despite eating these foods.
I add krill oil to my baby´s formula milk. I have been doing it since she is born, she is now so used to the taste that she doesn’t even realize that I added some extra krill oil in her formula milk. That is the best source. Below I have also mentioned vegetarian alternative of Krill Oil.
Correct form: preformed DHA—from microalgae, (Ulkenia sp, Schizochytrium, Thraustochytrium aggregatum and Crypthecodinium cohnii are the algaes that produce DHA).
Dosage: 200 mg – 400 mg
Time to take: After a meal. Afternoon and dinner are better because your stomach can handle supplement a little better then.
4. Heme-Iron For Vegetarians
Iron is an essential nutrient. But often vegans and vegetarians are deficient in iron. Heme-iron itself is not essential. Heme-iron (from animal products) is just far more bioavailable than non-heme iron (plant sources). Plenty of meat eaters are also deficient in iron, but it is easier for them to correct that deficiency through food. I am an example of that.
Iron deficiency can lead to anemia. Some common symptoms are constant fatigue, feeling out of breath and looking pale. Vegans and vegetarians should be tested regularly, read here to make sure you get the correct tests done, there are 4, not just 1. You should always get an iron test done first before taking an iron supplement as too much iron is also harmful.
Functions of Iron in the Body:
- Carrying oxygen around the body: Without iron, your body wouldn’t be able to make hemoglobin which helps the red blood cells to carry oxygen to various cells in your body.
- Making new cells: Iron is necessary for making DNA which helps to create new cells in your body.
Iron Minimum Requirements
- Children: 7-11 mg. Note that babies (11 mg) and older children (10 mg) need more than toddlers.
- Teenage boys: 11 mg
- Teenage girls once they begin menstruating: 15 mg
- Adult women during their reproductive years: 18 mg
- Pregnant women: 27 mg
- Lactating women: 10 mg
- Post-menopausal women: 8 mg
- Men: 8 mg
Paleo Sources of Iron
- Spirulina (44% DV per 28 g)
- Cooked spinach (36% DV per cup)
Always cook your spinach to reduce the oxalates which can block absorption of iron, zinc, and calcium. Quickly boiling spinach and other leafy greens is the most effective method.
Other sources are all below 30% DV. Pair your iron-rich foods with foods high in vitamin C to increase absorption. Avoid drinking wine, coffee, tea or eating high calcium foods within an hour of your meals as these prevent absorption.
Spirulina is not only a source iron. It also helps with your EPA levels and is an excellent source of protein. Read here to learn about consuming spirulina for weight loss, muscle recovery after exercise, detoxing and boosting energy levels.
There are many other sources of Iron, but I do not prefer talking about those sources which have a minimal amount. I did so many health mistakes just reading that has iron and this has iron and never checking how much and if it was worth considering in the diet. All the natural sources that I list have offer so many benefits that they are worth considering in the diet.
Correct form: Ferrous glutamate, ferrous fumarate, ferrous bisglycinate, Carbonyl iron. Avoid Ferrous sulfate.
Dosage: If you are deficient take 150 mg spread out between meals. Make sure it’s 150 mg elemental iron since different forms of iron provide different amounts of iron. Start at a lower dose and increase to 150 mg slowly to prevent side effects.
Time to take: Between meals with a glass of lemon water.
5. Zinc For Vegetarians
Zinc needs to be consumed every day because the body doesn’t store it. The problem is that many of the foods that we eat such as whole grains, legumes and as already mentioned leafy greens contain oxalates and phytic acid that can decrease zinc. If you prepare these foods incorrectly or consume too much of them then you are at risk of being deficient in zinc.
Functions of Zinc in the Body:
- Muscle growth and recovery: This is important especially for athletes and those who exercise regularly.
- Strengthen your immune system: Zinc along with vitamin C improves your immune system because it has antiviral properties. It also prevents bacteria from entering your sinuses.
- Heart health: Zinc keeps your blood vessels healthy as well as reducing inflammation in the body.
- Energy: Zinc makes sure that the carbohydrates you consume are digested correctly and used as fuel for your body.
Zinc Minimum Requirements
Babies: 2 mg to 3 mg
Children: 3 mg to 11 mg
Adults: 9 mg for women, 11 mg for men
Paleo Sources of Zinc
Chickpeas (31% DV per cup)
Other sources are below 30% DV.
Correct form: Zinc Orotate
Dosage: 15mg per day
Time to take: Separately from iron, calcium supplements, and food
Copper should be supplemented if you are supplementing with zinc to make sure your copper stores do not get depleted. 1-2mg copper orotate is recommended.
6. Taurine For Vegetarians
The next 3 supplements are mainly for the bodybuilders or for the people who lift the weight. Why am I listing it here? Because if you keep following me now or then irrespective of your age you will start lifting. I will write a separate article, on the wonders of lifting weight and why it is one of the most important thing your body needs.
Now, some words on Taurine
Taurine is what is known as a conditional amino acid which means small amounts are made by your body so this nutrient isn’t actually essential to consume in the diet. Non-vegetarians generally get more of it because it’s present in animal products and vegetarians who consume dairy will have more of it than vegans. But if your bodies make it, why should you be supplementing it?
Taurine actually has some great benefits that can really enhance your quality of life. And while most vegetarians won’t have a problem producing it in their bodies as long as they follow healthy diet full of variety. The body excretes less of it when intake is low as well.
There are times when you may need to supplement. Pregnant and lactating women, children and premature babies, lifting weights, will all need to supplement.
Functions of Taurine in the Body:
- Proper development of babies and children: Your child’s brain, muscles, skeleton and overall growth are all dependent on taurine. This is why it’s important to supplement if you are trying to get pregnant, during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Vegetarian and especially vegan children will need to supplement to ensure normal development as they need more.
- Heart health: Taurine helps your muscles to contract correctly including your heart muscles. It regulates blood pressure and maintains the health of the heart muscles as well as lowering LDL cholesterol and triglycerides.
- Skeletal muscle health: Taurine not only makes sure that your muscles contract properly, but maintains the muscle health keeping them degrading prematurely. Athletes will benefit immensely from taking a taurine supplement.
- Brain and nervous system health: Taurine keeps the cells of your brain healthy and is especially useful for good memory. It also makes sure that your nerve cells are firing correctly and able to send nerve signals to your brain and nerves.
- Antioxidant: Taurine acts as an antioxidant to remove free radicals and reduce inflammation.
Taurine Minimum Requirements
There is no set amount that you need. But estimates are as follows:
- Babies and children: 27 mg to 58 mg per kg of bodyweight
- Adults: 13 mg to 16 mg per kg of bodyweight
Paleo Sources of Taurine
Non-meat sources are all far below 30% DV. Supplementation is recommended.
Correct form: Taurine (most supplements use a synthetic form, not the form derived from bulls)
Dosage: 500 mg to 2000 mg (no more than 3000 mg)
Time to take: Between meals in divided doses
Never try to get taurine from energy drinks. They are often high in caffeine and sugar. Try the Pure Encapsulations- Taurine 500 mg.
7. Carnosine For Vegetarians
Carnosine is another conditional amino acid and is most abundant in meat, poultry, and fish. This means that vegetarians and vegans both have lower levels. Carnosine is made up of two other amino acids, one of which is beta-alanine which is only found in meat, poultry, and fish.
While the amount of carnosine that the body is able to produce is fine for most, it can be a problem for athletes. As you will see though, everyone can benefit from supplementing with carnosine.
Functions of Carnosine in the Body
- Healthy muscles: Carnosine is important for maintaining healthy muscles and ensuring that they work correctly. This is important for muscle endurance which is very beneficial for athletes. Muscle health also affects the heart, so even for those who are not athletes, carsonine is important.
- Healthy organs: Your other organs are also maintained by carnosine, your brain, kidneys, and liver all function properly due to carnosine.
- Antioxidant: Carnosine also has antioxidant properties. Studies (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27822337) have shown that it helps to act against glycation which is the reaction between sugar and protein resulting in proteins losing their ability to work properly which leads to aging and diseases like diabetes.
Carnosine Minimum Requirements
There is no RDA for carnosine.
Paleo Sources of Carnosine
There are no good non-meat sources of carnosine and no plant sources.
Correct form: Beta-alanine
Dosage: 2 g to 6 g per day
Time to take: With food in split doses, and if you are an athlete, a dose 45 minutes before your workout
A beta-alanine supplement is recommended as carnosine supplements are not very effective as carnosine supplements reach your muscles damaged due to how the body metabolizes it. This is the only product I found with two amino acids in one.
8. Creatine For Vegetarian Body Builders
You might be hearing Cretin for the first time, but if you talk to a bodybuilder, this is the first supplement they consider when increasing muscle strength. The body uses up a lot of creatine during muscle strength activities and your body may not be able to meet your needs.
Most of the creatine is stored in the muscles and a little bit in the brain. This is nonessential amino acid as that is made by our body. But, if you are a vegetarian bodybuilder, you definitely need some Creatine.
Functions of Creatine in the Body
- Muscle mass and strength: Creatine is necessary for good muscle mass and strength which is why if you are an athlete with the aim of increasing muscle strength and mass you will need to supplement. It will also help your muscles recover faster. This is also important for those who struggle with illnesses that degenerate their muscles and nerves.
- Brain health: Creatine makes sure that the brain gets enough energy to function properly. It works especially well for good memory in older people. In younger people, intelligence and memory are improved.
- Nerve health: Creatine makes sure that your nerve cells are working correctly and that they stay healthy and active.
Creatine Minimum Requirements
There is no RDA for creatine.
Paleo Sources of Creatine
Though some creatine is present in milk, it is very little.
Correct form: Creatine monohydrate is best
Dosage: 3 g to 5 g per day. (If you are an athlete doing a loading phase, 20 g is recommended split into 5 g doses throughout the day).
Time to take: With water usually 30 minutes to an hour before or after your workout
Caution With Creatine:
- Creatine can cause side effects like diarrhea, headaches, nausea, and even weight gain.
- Do not take creatine if you have kidney problems, liver problems if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
- Children under the age of 18 should also steer clear of creatine supplements.
- Creatine interacts with certain medication, like diabetes medication, diuretics and pain medication like acetaminophen.
- Creatine can cause dehydration so stay well hydrated during the day.
Dehydration and water retention can cause an imbalance in your electrolytes. Learn recognize the signs of an electrolyte imbalance and learn how to solve it here.
When using supplements, it’s good to use the correct form of the nutrients. Good quality supplements can be expensive, but before you buy cheap supplements, you should know about the most common side effects of the most popular supplements on the market. Do not take a chance with your health just to save a few bucks.
I wish there could be just one tablet for all the vegetarian nutritional deficiencies. But it is very hard to find such a supplement. So your best bet is to take a multivitamin. A good quality multivitamin always has Vitamin D, Vitamin A, Zinc and B12 in their correct forms and dosage that I have summed below. I was not able to find one supplement for Taurine, Creatine, and Beta-alanine. This one has beta-alanine and creatine.
- Vegetarians are often deficient in essential nutrients like vitamins B12 and D3, A, DHA, iron, and Zinc
- Vegetarians have lower levels of non-essential but beneficial nutrients like taurine, carnosine, and creatine which are important for brain, nerve and heart function.
- B12 is impossible to get from food and a supplement is crucial.
- Supplements of vitamin D3, DHA, iron, and taurine are necessary during pregnancy.
- Children will need to supplement Taurine as they need more than adults.
- Vegetarian athletes will benefit from supplementing the amino acids taurine, carnosine, and creatine.