Vegans are people that have chosen not to consume any animal products. Vegetarians, on the other hand, may consume some eggs, milk or small amounts of animal products. Since some nutrients such as iron and protein come primarily from meat or animal products, are vegetarians or vegans at risk for diet deficiencies?
The short answer is no, vegetarians and vegans can get animal-based nutrients through plant sources, but they should educate themselves on what to include in the diet. Even athletes, who rely on their muscles for performance, can do well on a plant-based diet. It’s probably a good idea, though, to take a multivitamin with iron, as well as a calcium supplement with Vitamin D if you are going to adopt a strict vegan diet.
Protein is the most obvious nutrient that could be lacking in a vegetarian or vegan diet. Western diets are so focused on protein as the main course of every meal, that it is hard for most people to even plan a few days of meals without meat as the main dish. (Try eating a vegan or vegetarian diet in restaurants for a few days). Once you realize all the plant-based sources of protein, however, it’s not that hard. Soy products, nuts and whole grains are great sources of protein. You don’t really need as much protein as advertisements would make you believe. Use this Protein Calculator from the University of Maryland Medical System to get a rough estimate of how much protein you need daily based on your size and activity level. My requirement came to 84 grams, which I can get through a combination of soy, nuts, peanut butter, beans, whole grain bread, and dark leafy vegetables like spinach in a salad. Toss some wheat germ on top for an extra boost. Here is a Protein Chart to tell you the protein content of common vegan foods.
Parsley is a good source of iron
Most people iron comes from meat in the diet. Some of the same plant foods that supply protein can also supply iron. Dried fruits, nuts, parsley and spinach are also good sources of iron.
Calcium and Vitamin D
Many people who eat a typical meat-based Western diet are deficient in calcium and vitamin D, as well as those eating a plant based diet. Taking a supplement is a good idea for anyone, especially in Winter, when we don’t get as much sun exposure, which produces vitamin D in the body. Vitamin D helps with calcium absorption, so look for a suplement that combines the two. Nuts and soy milk are good sources as well.
A Vitamin D with calcium supplement is a good idea
Vitamin B12 comes primarily from meat in the diet. It is important for formation of red blood cells and support of the nervous system in the body. Vegetarians that eat seafood probably get enough Vitamin B12, but strict vegans would benefit from a multivitamin that includes Vitamin B12.
Overall, Vegetarian and vegan diets are healthy for you. If you look up “Cancer Prevention diet” you will find a plant based diet rich in fruits and whole grains. The Mayo Clinic’s Heart Healthy Diet emphasizes low fat, more fruits and vegetables, and whole grains. Many vegetarians say they feel much healthier and lighter by getting off heavy meats and starches in the diet. It is also much easier to lose weight by cutting fats and carbs in the diet.
Hopefully this helps give you some insight into sources of nutrients in a vegan or vegetarian diet. If you
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