How to avoid nutritional deficiencies in a Vegan diet

“I want to live vegan, but I’m worried about getting enough protein.” This is a common misconception among those embarking on a vegan diet. It’s actually very easy to get all the nutrients you need when following a vegan diet, all it takes is some research and planning ahead.

To make sure you’re meeting your nutritional needs on a vegan diet, this article will explore some of the most common vitamin and mineral deficiencies that may arise when following this type of diet and how you can avoid them.

Protein

Let’s start with protein since it is a common concern for anyone embarking on a vegan diet.  This is a valid concern, as meat and animal products are some of the richest sources of protein in the diet. However, there are plenty of vegan-friendly sources of protein available.

Most adults need around 0.75g of protein per kilo of body weight per day (for the average woman, this is 45g, or 55g for men). That’s about two portions of meat, fish, nuts or tofu per day.

Some good plant-based sources of protein include:

  • Soy products like tofu, tempeh, and edamame
  • Beans and lentils
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Natural nut butters such as peanut butter, almond butter and cashew nut butter.

Registered Dietitian-Nutritionist Jenna Volpe explains that choosing a variety of protein sources and what you eat with them is important as well as the amount:

“Most plant-based proteins (except for quinoa and soybeans) are “incomplete”, meaning they don’t contain all 9 essential amino acids. (“Essential” is a term that describes certain nutrients the body can’t make on its own; they must come from food sources.)  I recommend for people to learn and understand complementary protein pairing before going on a vegan diet, so they don’t miss out on any essential amino acids.”

Vitamin B12

A poorly planned vegan diet may be insufficient in some vitamins and minerals such as vitamin B12. This water-soluble vitamin is essential for the healthy functioning of the brain and nervous system but is mostly found in animal products, which are not included in the vegan diet, explains Jinan Banna, a registered dietitian and professor of nutrition.

Vegans can obtain vitamin B12 from nutritional yeast or fortified foods such as cereals or plant-based milk.

Adults (aged 19 to 64) need about 1.5 micrograms a day of vitamin B12 (Source: NHS).

It may be useful to supplement these if you are concerned about getting enough through diet alone. If you choose to supplement, taking 2mg or less a day of vitamin B12 in supplements is unlikely to cause any harm.

Checking your current active vitamin B12 levels would be a great place to start in seeing how well your current diet is supporting your levels then think about any changes you are making that could impact the levels and how you might replace your vitamin B12 sources.

Check your Active Vitamin B12 level at home.

Calcium

One of the most well-known deficiencies that can occur when following a vegan diet is calcium. This mineral is essential for strong bones and teeth, so it’s important to include plenty of calcium-rich foods in your vegan diet.

Adults aged 19 to 64 need 700mg of calcium a day (Source: NHS), it should be possible to get this from your daily diet without needing to supplement.

Good plant-based sources of calcium include fortified plant milks and juices, leafy green vegetables, figs, tahini, white beans, and some types of tofu.

Iron

Another common vegan deficiency is iron, which carries oxygen through the body in red blood cells. Iron in plant-based foods is not as well absorbed as iron from animal-source foods, and it may be difficult for vegans to obtain enough from the diet, explains Jinan Banna.

The amount of iron you need varies based on your gender and age. As a guide, the NHS recommends:

  • 8.7mg a day for men over 18
  • 14.8mg a day for women aged 19 to 50
  • 8.7mg a day for women over 50

Good plant-based sources of iron include dark leafy greens such as kale and spinach, dried fruit such as raisins and apricots, nuts, chia seeds, vegan protein powders, and legumes.

Iron deficiency is more common among women due to blood loss during menstruation. If you’re worried about this vegan-related issue, talk with your doctor about what you can do to prevent iron deficiencies when following a vegan diet.

Iodine

Less commonly considered, Iodine is an essential nutrient that helps to regulate the body’s metabolism and plays a role in supporting the thyroid. Vegans may be at risk of iodine deficiency, as vegan foods tend not to contain high levels of this mineral.

Adults need 140 micrograms (μg) of iodine a day (Source: NHS).

Some vegans will use iodized salt to increase their iodine intake (but be mindful of your salt intake!). Other plant-based sources include seaweed and spirulina.

If you choose to supplement, the NHS advise that taking 0.5mg or less a day of iodine supplements is unlikely to cause any harm.


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