While eating meatless has an array of health benefits and even significantly reduces your carbon footprint, there is undoubtedly a price you pay cutting out meat. Vegetarians and vegans commonly struggle with making up these crucial nutrients and vitamins.
“The most common deficiency in meatless diets is Vitamin B12 by far,” says Jacqueline Iannone, MS, RDN, CND, and CEO of The Rite Bite Nutrition Counseling, PLLC in Miller Place, New York.
Shocking, right? It’s a common misconception that the biggest thing plant-eaters miss out on is protein. But according to Iannone, protein is hardly a concern. After all, foods like lentils, chickpeas, chia seeds, quinoa, almonds, beans, pumpkin seeds, spirulina and even tempeh are substantial sources of protein.
“Contrary to popular opinion, we really don’t need heaping quantities of protein in order to achieve optimal health,” Iannone says. “In fact, a large percentage of Americans overeat protein in general.”
“In a nutshell, my recommendation for this population is to focus on a diet rich in a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans/legumes, soy, nuts/seeds, fortified milk alternatives, and healthy fats with some iodized salt, omega-3’s, vitamin D and B12 on the side,” Iannone says.
Vitamin B12 (cyanocobalamin)
According to Iannone, B12 deficiencies are the most common deficiencies among plant-based eaters because it’s commonly found in animal sources.
“Vitamin B12 is needed for production of our red blood cells, brain and nervous system functioning, metabolism, and helping to create and regulate our DNA,” Iannone says.
Vegetarians can find B12 in eggs, low-fat milk, cheese, fish and shellfish.
“All vegans need to take Vitamin B12 supplementation or make a point to consistently consume foods that are fortified with this vitamin,” Iannone says.
Next on the list is vitamin D—you know, which can be found naturally in egg yolks, oysters, shrimp and fatty fish like salmon, tuna, sardines and mackerel. Of course, if you’re not pescatarian, it can be difficult to get your fill of vitamin D from food sources.
“You can find vitamin D fortified in dairy products, orange juice, soy and rice milks, and cereals. Just be sure to check the labels as it can depend from brand to brand,” Iannone says.
Did you know that our bodies absorb more of the calcium found in plant sources than in milk?
“We only absorb about 30% of the calcium found in milk,” Iannone says. “In plant-based sources the absorption of calcium can vary [up to] 60%, which is a huge difference. Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, kale, mustard greens, turnip greens, bok choy and collards have the highest absorption rate of about 60%, which is around twice the rate of calcium from cow’s milk.”
To get your calcium fill, Iannone recommends eating at least 3 cups daily of any of the aforementioned cruciferous veggies. Other meatless sources of calcium include calcium-set tofu, fortified milk alternatives, and fortified juices.
Iodine is commonly found in seafood, so if you aren’t pescatarian, getting your iodine is imperative to maintaining a healthy metabolism, thyroid hormone production and repairing damaged cells. A third of people worldwide suffer from iodine deficiency, but you’ll find it in dairy products, iodized salt and sometimes seaweed.
Omega-3 fatty acid (ALA)
Omega-3 fatty acids are important to our overall well-being. Deficiencies in omega-3’s are linked to an increase in depression and anxiety, increased risk of heart disease, and poor eye and brain health.
“Fatty fish are incredibly rich in fatty acids and typically are the food sources we think of for Omega-3’s,” Iannone says. “Other plant-based sources of ALA include walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds and hempseeds.”
Iron and zinc
Both of these nutrients are essential to human growth, development and the immune system. Iron is crucial to resisting infection and prevents and enhances the body’s recovery from infectious diseases. However, these deficiencies are common in plant-based eaters.
“Well-absorbed plant-based sources of iron and zinc include toasted nuts and seeds, yeast and sourdough breads, legumes and sprouted grains,” Iannone says. “Pro tip: Pairing vitamin C containing foods along with these foods ensures greater absorption of both minerals, too.”