Veganuary and Moving Towards a Plant-Based Diet

Choosing to participate in Veganuary?  Wanting to make food options that help counter climate change concerns?  Vegan for cultural or religious reasons?  Choosing vegan for ethical or health reasons? One of the approximately 375 million vegetarians on the planet thinking of taking that extra step to becoming vegan?

Opting for a vegetarian or vegan diet can be challenging as well as rewarding.  In the UK, supermarkets and restaurants are increasingly providing plant-based options to facilitate the growing interest in ‘going vegan’. 

Whether you are making temporary or long-term changes toward veganism, or have been a committed vegan for years, it is important to be clued up on which nutrients may be needed on diets that don’t include animal products.

Several essential nutrients are more challenging to get when following a vegan diet.  These include vitamin B12, vitamin D, omega-3 and choline.  Several other nutrients may be deficient in a vegan diet.

One such nutrient deficiency is iron, which comes in 2 forms (haem iron in meat/fish, and non-haem iron in plants). Iron contributes to normal formation of red blood cells/haemoglobin, normal oxygen transport in the body, normal cognitive function, normal function of the immune system, normal energy-yielding metabolism and reduction of tiredness/fatigue. Deficiency symptoms include tiredness, weakness, poor concentration, dry skin/nails/hair, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, pale skin, headaches, restless legs, sore tongue/mouth, strange cravings, increased risk of infection and depression.

Research has shown that non-haem iron is harder for the body to absorb.  Plant-based iron sources can be added to meals alongside a source of vitamin C to help improve absorption of non-haem iron.

Vitamin B12 is well known to be deficient in vegetarian and vegan diets. In addition to other functions, vitamin B12 contributes to normal red blood cell formation, normal energy-yielding metabolism and the reduction of tiredness and fatigue, contributes to normal function of the immune system and nervous system and normal psychological function.

Vitamin B12 deficiency anaemia is a very real potential danger among vegans. This can manifest as a wide range of symptoms which include: fatigue, lack of energy, breathlessness, feeling faint, headaches, pale skin, palpitations, loss of appetite, weight loss and tinnitus.

Vitamin D is a much talked about nutrient. Amongst its many roles in the body, vitamin D contributes to the normal function of the immune system, the maintenance of normal bones/teeth, the maintenance of normal muscle function, and is needed for normal growth and development of bone in children.  Deficiency signs include fatigue, bone pain, muscle weakness/aches/cramps, mood changes (including depression).

Vitamin D is known as the ‘Sunshine Vitamin’ because skin exposure to sunlight helps the body to produce vitamin D.  In the Northern hemisphere, sunlight levels are insufficient during winter (November to March) for produce enough vitamin D.  Compared to those with lighter skin, those with darker skin need more sunlight exposure to produce similar amounts of this essential nutrient.                        

Like several other of these nutrients often inadequately supplied by most vegan diets, omega-3 has a role in brain health.  Omega-3 is found in oily fish, which provides both Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), both of which contribute to normal function of the heart.  DHA additionally contributes to normal brain function and the maintenance of normal vision. DHA is especially important during fetal and newborn development—for brain and eyes. Omega-3 fatty acids can reduce the production of substances linked to inflammation.  Symptoms of omega-3 deficiency include poor memory, fatigue, dry skin, mood swings/depression, poor circulation and heart problems.

Plant-based Parent Essential Oils (PEO) can provide a vegan source of omega-3.

Amongst other roles, choline contributes to the maintenance of normal liver function and to normal lipid metabolism. We need choline to form the membranes that surround cells. These membranes are important for cell function. As animal products, including eggs are an excellent source of choline, vegans can be deficient.  Deficiency may cause liver damage and muscle damage.  Choline also impacts the nervous system, metabolism and healthy brain development. 

Iodine, like many other of these nutrients potentially deficient in vegan diets, is important for brain health.  Iodine contributes to normal cognitive function and normal functioning of the nervous system, and to the normal growth of children. Additionally, iodine contributes to normal energy-yielding metabolism, to the maintenance of normal skin, and normal production of thyroid hormones and thyroid function. 

Selenium may also be deficient in a vegan diet. Selenium contributes to normal function of the immune system, maintenance of normal hair and nails, normal thyroid function, and normal spermatogenesis.  This means selenium deficiency may impact male fertility. Other common symptoms of deficiency include fatigue, muscle weakness, mental fog, weakened immunity and hair loss.

Zinc is an essential mineral involved in numerous aspects of cellular metabolism and contributes to normal function of the immune system, maintenance of normal bones, maintenance of normal hair/skin/nails, maintenance of normal vision, normal cognitive function, carbohydrate metabolism and macronutrient metabolism, normal fertility/reproduction, normal metabolism of fatty acids, and maintenance of normal testosterone levels in blood.  Zinc deficiency symptoms include impaired immune function, hair loss, lack of alertness, poor wound healing, eye/skin sores, diarrhoea, and reduced sense of taste and smell.

Calcium is sometimes deficient in diets that do not include dairy.  In addition to its other roles, calcium contributes to normal blood clotting, normal muscle function, normal neurotransmission, normal growth and development of bone in children and is needed for the maintenance of normal bones/teeth.  Deficiency symptoms include muscle cramps/spasms, fatigue, numbness/tingling, dry skin, confusion/memory loss, seizures, abnormal heart rhythm, and osteoporosis/osteopenia.

Vegans should make an extra effort to ensure enough calcium through the diet, as excessive calcium (which might occur through supplementation in the absence of regular testing of levels) does not provide bone protection and may have negative impact on the body.

Although beta-carotene, found in green leafy vegetables and orange vegetables and fruits, can be converted into active vitamin A in the body, some vegans can be deficient in this important nutrient, as it is not found pre-formed as vitamin A in vegan food options.  Vitamin A contributes to the maintenance of normal mucous membranes, and normal skin, to normal vision, and normal function of the immune system.  Signs of deficiency of vitamin A include dry eyes, night blindness, dry skin, throat/chest infections, poor wound healing, infertility and trouble conceiving, and acne.

It is also important to ensure sufficient protein in a vegetarian/vegan diet. Protein provides amino acids which provide structural (and repair) elements for body cells, muscles, collagen, hormones, neurotransmitters, and immune cells.

Whatever the reason for trying a vegan diet, remember that food provides important nutrients to help you to be at your best.

It’s not too late to ensure supplementation of these important nutrients. Nutritional planning is key to supporting healthy lifestyle—vegan or otherwise.