Veganism, the alternative diet which completely eschews animal products, is on the rise, particularly with millennials. Proponents say a vegan diet is more environmentally sustainable, animal-conscious, reduces the risk of serious illnesses and contributes to weight loss.
However, research—like recent findings in Germany—suggests there may be more missing in a vegan diet than just hamburgers and scrambled eggs.
Whether it’s a fad or a lifestyle, an environmental decision or a personal one, does it really give your body all the nutrition it needs?
The simple answer is it depends on you.
What It’s Lacking
By removing all animal-based foods from your diet, you also eliminate a list of important vitamins and minerals your body needs for proper physiological function.
Important Note: Due to certain interactions that can occur, the bioavailability–or amount of a nutrient that is actually absorbed by your body during digestion–can be lower with plant-based sources. This means you may have to take more to get the same results and/or utilize additional supplements to increase absorption.
Here’s what vegans tend to be missing:
What: A building block of muscles, organs, skin and bones formed from amino acids. Essential amino acids, which your body can’t make itself, must come from your diet. Protein deficiency means muscle deterioration, fatigue, hair loss, infection and more.
Animal Source: Meat, fish, poultry, eggs and dairy.
Vegan Alternatives: Nuts, legumes, tofu, soy milk, peanut butter, grains and seeds. Vegans must consume a variety of proteins in order to get enough essential amino acids per day.
What: Key vitamin in the proper function of the brain and nerves, plus formation of red blood cells and DNA. B12 deficiency symptoms include fatigue, memory loss, neurological problems, anemia, Alzheimer’s, and increased risk of heart disease.
Animal Source: Found in fish, meat, poultry, and dairy.
Vegan Alternatives: Fortified cereals, nutritional yeast, and additional B12 oral supplements are available but with reduced bioavailability. Be wary of B12 analogs like nori (seaweed) and algae, which are not proven B12 replacements.
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What: Vitamin D regulates calcium absorption and immune function, reduces inflammation, and protects against certain forms of cancer. Lack of Vitamin D can lead to weakening of bones and muscles.
Animal Source: Fatty fish, beef liver, cheese, egg yolk and milk.
Vegan Alternatives: Direct Sunlight (approximately 10 minutes a few times per week), certain mushrooms, soy milk, rice milk and fortified cereals.
Assuming that’s a fortified cereal.
What: Omega-3 essential fatty acids improve heart and brain function and protect against cancer, asthma, depression, heart attack, ADHD and autoimmune diseases.
Animal Source: Fish, fish oils (notably krill oil) and eggs.
What: Iron helps metabolize proteins and plays a role in the production of hemoglobin and red blood cells.
Animal Source: Found in both animal and plant products but with lower bioavailability in plant-based products.
Vegan Alternatives: Beans, broccoli, raisins, wheat, tofu and fortified cereals. Due to lower iron absorption rates from plant sources compared to meat, further supplementation with vitamin C may be necessary to help your body absorb more iron.
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What: Calcium is popularly known to benefit bone health but is also necessary for your heart, muscle and nerve health.
Animal Source: Milk, cheese, yogurt and seafood.
Vegan Alternatives: Leafy greens, non-dairy milk alternatives, seafood, legumes and fruit. Due to low bioavailability, additional supplements may be necessary.
What: Essential for a healthy immune system, the production of proteins and DNA, and an important contributor to our senses of taste and smell.
Animal Source: Oysters (highest source per serving), seafood, meat, poultry and dairy.
Vegan Alternatives: Whole grains, fortified cereals, beans, nuts, soy; however, phytic acid in these plant sources lowers bioavailability.
Be a Meticulous Eater
Veganism must be a conscious and careful decision. It’s not for the nutritionally lazy. You must take into account decreased bioavailability and, as with all health concerns, your individual genetics to create a diet that works for you.
The human body is a biological machine that needs certain things to function. Drastically moving the goalposts according to whatever paleo, raw or vegan diet is being touted does not change the sciences of biology and physiology.
While becoming vegan by simply removing animal products from your diet is not nutritionally viable, with nutritional supplementation and careful consideration, it can be sustainably healthy.