There is significant health benefit associated with adopting a vegan diet. Studies have shown that, on average, vegans have lower cholesterol and blood pressure levels as well as a reduced risk of developing some chronic diseases including heart disease and certain types of cancer. As a generalization, they also weigh less than their meat eating counterparts. But, a vegetarian diet isn’t all rosy from a health standpoint. There are certain nutritional risk factors that come with adopting an exclusively plant based diet. By being aware of these nutrition health risks, steps can be taken to modify the diet so that problems can be avoided. Here are the four most common nutritional health risks associated with a vegan diet and what can be done about them.
Nutritional risk factors of eating a vegan diet: Vitamin D deficiency
The best dietary sources of vitamin D are fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines and vitamin D fortified milk. Since these foods are not part of a traditional vegan diet, vitamin D deficiencies can be common. Fortunately, the best source of vitamin D comes from exposure to the sun. When the skin is exposed to direct sunlight, a vitamin D precursor found on the skin is converted to a pre-vitamin D form that can be processed and used by the body. The best way for a vegan to prevent vitamin D deficiency is to get ten minutes of exposure to direct sunlight each day. If this isn’t possible, a vitamin D supplement may be needed.
Nutritional risk factors of eating a vegan diet: Protein deficiency
Fortunately for those who adopt a vegan diet, there are lots of healthy plant-based sources of protein. Because not all plant-based proteins contain the full spectrum of essential amino acids, it’s necessary to eat a variety of these sources to ensure that deficiencies of particular amino acids don’t occur. One example is to combine beans with brown rice which gives a complete protein source. Paying close attention to the types of proteins that are eaten and eating a diversity of plant proteins can reduce the risk of deficiency.
Nutritional risk factors of eating a vegan diet: Vitamin B-12 deficiency
Vitamin B-12 plays an important role in forming healthy red blood cells and preventing anemia. It’s also an important factor in maintaining a healthy brain and nervous system. The best sources of vitamin B-12 are animal based products, with plants being a rather unreliable source of this vitamin. Some plant-based proteins such as soy and tempeh are reasonable sources, although it varies depending upon how they are grown or, in the case of tempeh, what bacteria are used for fermentation. Vitamin B-12 levels can be checked by a blood test and should be followed regularly. In some cases, a supplement may be needed.
Nutritional risk factors of eating a vegan diet: Iron deficiency
An adequate iron intake is particularly important for pre-menopausal women who lose iron monthly through their menstrual flow. Deficiencies can result in iron deficiency anemia, low energy levels, and fatigue. Fortunately, there are good plant-based sources of iron which can help to offset a deficiency. These include beans, lentils, whole grains, and dried fruits. It’s important to make sure these foods are eaten regularly and to avoid drinking tea when they are. Tea is high in tannins which can inhibit absorption of iron. It’s also advisable to have blood levels of iron checked on a frequent basis.