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Avoiding Common Vegetarian and Vegan Dietary Deficiencies

When it comes to a vegetarian or vegan diet, a lot of myths and misconceptions exist with regards to its nutritional adequacy. While potentially all vitamins and minerals that our bodies need to remain in good health can be sourced from naturally occurring produce derived from plants, particular micronutrients are more difficult to consume in sufficient amounts. This is the result of the negative impact that intensive farming has had on the nutrient content of plants.

In order to prevent deficiencies when following a vegetarian or vegan diet, the best approach is to consume plenty of wholegrains, pulses, nuts, seeds, fruit and vegetables. In this way, by following a balanced diet that contains a range of different foods which are naturally rich in micronutrients, this ensures that you provide your body with the best nutrition possible.

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It is widely believed that when eating a vegetarian diet you will struggle to obtain enough protein to meet your body’s needs, owing to a poor understanding of where protein comes from in our diet and the amount we actually need. It comes as a surprise to many meat-eaters that protein is found in nearly every food that we eat and that most of us in the western world consume more protein than we need; high protein intakes themselves can have a negative impact on the health of our kidneys and bones. Pulses and wholegrains are particularly rich in protein, with a cup of lentils providing almost 18g and a similar volume of quinoa giving us 11g.

However, there are some nutrients that vegetarians and vegans are at greater risk of becoming deficient in. Here we look at these and how careful dietary planning is necessary for preventing vegetarian nutrient deficiencies:

Vitamin B12

When consuming a vegetarian or vegan diet vitamins are not usually a problem, owing to a high intake of fruit and vegetables. However, Vitamin B12 is the exception, being the most likely nutrient to become deficient in. The vitamin is present in soil, so is taken up by plants and animals when they consume these. Although in the past vegetables were a good source of vitamin B12, as traces of soil on these offered a supply of the vitamin, modern practices of being thorough when washing vegetables has largely removed this opportunity.

The best option for vegetarians and vegans to prevent vitamin B12 deficiency is to take a daily supplement, which will easily meet the recommended intake for this nutrient. While some foods have vitamin B12 added – cereals and milk are a good example – you need to eat large quantities of these foods to achieve your daily requirement if you don’t take supplements.

Zinc

The mineral zinc plays a crucial role in the function of the immune and nervous system and to maintain healthy skin. Becoming deficient in zinc is associated with a range of health problems, as the immune system is unable to keep disease causing microbes at bay, allowing infections to develop. Zinc deficiency is widespread and not limited to vegetarians and vegans. Besides obtaining insufficient zinc from what you eat, deficiency can also occur if food is overcooked, as this renders the mineral inactive; additionally a deficiency of Vitamin A can inhibit zinc absorption, so you can become lacking in the mineral even if you include plenty of zinc rich foods.

Zinc is present in a wide variety of foods of plant origin and including more of these in your diet will certainly allow you to up your zinc intake and therefore the levels of it present in your body. Particularly good sources of zinc include wholegrains, Swiss chard, lentils, beans, tahini, tofu, pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds. As a minimum we need 15mg of the mineral daily, but ideally we should aim for closer to 30mg; as a guide, the foods mentioned here provide 2-5mg in a standard serving.

Omega 3 Fatty Acids

A lot of confusion exists around omega 3 fatty acids, as a lack of these essential fatty acids is not just restricted to those on a vegetarian diet deficiency occurs in meat eaters as well. Omega 3 fatty acids are vital to ensure a healthy nervous system, to allow the body to fight infection and to keep inflammation at bay. Additionally, research shows that they bring down blood pressure, prevent heart disease and strokes, as well as acting as a tool in the treatment of depression and other disorders of mood.

When it comes to omega 3 fatty acids in a vegetarian diet, flax seeds are held in very high regard, as not only are they concentrated in these fatty acids, but they are packed with other health promoting nutrients. However, don’t forget to crush flax seeds prior to their consumption, as unless you do so they will travel through the digestive system unchanged and won’t release their vital nutrients. As well as being very palatable, flax seeds can be added to an array of dishes from your morning cereal or yogurt to soups and salads. You can further top up your omega 3 levels by adding walnuts to your diet. Including these two foods daily will greatly reduce your risk of deficiency.

Iron

Iron maintains a healthy blood supply, as it is an essential component of hemoglobin, which is needed to allow oxygen to be transported to all the tissues of the body. A deficiency of iron is seen in many areas of the world and is especially common in women and children. There are two forms of iron, but only the non-heme version is present in plant based foods; this form is more difficult for the body to take up than the heme variety. To prevent vegetarian iron deficiency, it is imperative that the diet contains many iron rich foods. Beyond this, including plenty of vitamin C containing foods with meals and avoiding tea or coffee with food, will help your body to absorb non-heme iron more effectively.

The diet is bursting with plant sources of iron, which include quinoa, oats, potato, beans, lentils, tofu, spinach, kale, peanuts, pumpkin seeds, raspberries, blueberries and bananas. However, there are many more, with all wholegrains, pulses, green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds being a good bet.

Calcium

The body needs calcium to build and maintain bone strength and while there are vast numbers of plant based foods rich in this mineral, they are not consumed in large enough quantities as often as is needed to ensure calcium recommendations are met. Men need to aim for around 1000mg of calcium daily, while for women it is higher at 1200mg; these values do differ across the age ranges.

As calcium deficiency results in reduced bone density, fractures are more likely as a result. Vegan calcium sources include soy, rice and oat milk to which calcium has been added, broccoli, bok choy, okra, mustard greens, beans, tempeh, grains, almonds and tahini. Vitamin D is additionally important to maintain bone health and another issue for anyone following a vegetarian or vegan diet, as the only natural source of the vitamin is through the action of sunlight on our skin.

In summary, consuming a plant based diet can allow you to live a long, healthy and happy life, as long as you ensure that you eat a wide range of nutrient rich foods in sufficient quantities. Consuming plenty of green leafy vegetables, as well as large amounts of fruit and vegetables should be the basis of your diet, but wholegrains, pulses, nuts and seeds should also appear in significant amounts. Vitamin B12 and vitamin D, which are more difficult to obtain from a plant based diet, should be supplemented by way of a vitamin pill to ensure you can meet recommended intakes.

 
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