Do you follow a vegan or vegetarian diet? Kudos to you for intentionally choosing a conscientious approach to eating! These kinds of dietary regimens encourage a more plant-based diet, which promotes better overall health and longevity. In fact, their numerous health benefits are precisely why vegetarianism and veganism are so popular. Plant-based diets are known to decrease the risk of developing serious health problems, such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
By removing animal products from your diet, you might inadvertently be eliminating some essential nutrients. It is important to be aware of the nutrients you may be lacking, so that you can make sure to start incorporating them into your diet on a regular basis.
DEMYSTIFYING VEGAN AND VEGETARIAN DIETS:
AN EXPLANATION OF THE MAIN TYPES OF PLANT-BASED DIETS
According to the Mayo Clinic, there are six main types of vegetarian diets. While they all emphasize a plant-based diet with less animal products, each one is slightly different. If you are thinking about starting a vegetarian diet for the first time, it helps to have an understanding of each type.
- A vegan diet is perhaps the most daunting for beginners, as it eliminates all animal-related products. This includes meat, fish, seafood, poultry, dairy, and eggs. Some vegans do not allow honey in their diet, while others are fine with consuming raw, natural honey.
- A lacto-ovo vegetarian diet permits eggs and dairy products (such as cow’s milk and cheese), but it excludes poultry, meat, and seafood.
- An ovo-vegetarian diet allows eggs, but it does not include dairy products, seafood, poultry, or meat.
- A lacto-vegetarian diet embraces dairy products, but it eliminates eggs, poultry, fish, and meat.
- A pescatarian diet permits fish and seafood, but it does not include animal products like eggs, dairy, meat and poultry.
- A “flexitarian” or semi-vegetarian diet is a predominantly plant-based diet, but it does incorporate fish and other animal products in small amounts or on rare occasions. (For example, a person who identifies as a “flexitarian” may follow a vegetarian diet at home, but eat animal products when dining as a guest in someone else’s home.)
10 ESSENTIAL NUTRIENTS YOU MAY BE LACKING ON A PLANT-BASED DIET
1. Vitamin B12 (Cobalamin)
Vitamin B12 is an important nutrient for energy, regulating brain function, producing DNA, creating red blood cells, and staving off anemia. This is the most difficult nutrient for vegans to acquire, since it is found mostly in dairy and egg products. Vegans can ingest Vitamin B12 through a couple of plant foods: nori seaweed and tempeh. Other sources of Vitamin B12 include enriched products like soy milk and cereal, as well as oral supplements.
2. Vitamin D3 (Cholecalciferol)
Vitamin D3 is vital for mental health and bone health. Deficiency in Vitamin D3 increases the risk of developing some serious diseases, including an increased risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, multiple sclerosis, and worsening depression.
Ovo-vegetarians and pescatarians will have an easier time integrating Vitamin D3 into their diet, since eggs and fish are good sources of this essential nutrient. Lacto-ovo vegetarians may also find it easier to get adequate Vitamin D3, since many types of milk are fortified with it.
You can find Vitamin D3 in dark green vegetables, such as kale, broccoli and collard greens. Certain kinds of mushrooms, like portobello and maitake, also contain Vitamin D. Fortified foods like soy milk and cereal are also good ways to incorporate Vitamin D into your diet.
Interestingly, Vitamin D3 is also available through regular exposure to sunshine, and people living in the northern hemisphere may be at an increased risk for seasonal depression (Seasonal Affective Disorder) as a result of reduced access to the sun.
If you notice worsening depression in the winter, or you follow a strict vegan diet, it may be wise to get your Vitamin D levels checked. You can also take Vitamin D supplements.
Zinc promotes healthy pregnancies, is essential for a regulated sense of taste and smell, and is vital for maintaining a strong immune system. Lacto-ovo vegetarians and lacto-vegetarians can obtain the zinc they need through cheese. Zinc is also present in the following plant-based sources: soy, nuts, wheat germ, leafy greens, peas, and whole grain breads. You may also want to consider foods that are enriched with zinc, as well as daily multivitamins.
Protein is essential for preserving skin, bone, muscle, and organ health. Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to get your daily required intake of protein through plant-based diets, but the key is to consume a diverse selection of these foods everyday. Examples of vegetarian-friendly foods rich in protein include whole grains, lentils, nuts, legumes, seeds, and soy products. Vegetarian diets that permit eggs and dairy products lend themselves more easily to proper protein consumption, since dairy products and eggs are good sources of dietary protein.
Creatine, an essential nutrient naturally found in meat, has been shown to ward off Parkinson’s disease and other types of neuromuscular disease. It is especially beneficial for athletes who want to build muscle mass and improve their strength-training.
Although the body naturally produces some creatine in the liver, studies have shown that vegetarians (even lacto-ovo vegetarians) possess lower levels of creatine.
Creatine is not available through plant sources. Therefore, you may want to add creatine supplements to your dietary routine. This may enhance physical performance, and it may also boost cognitive functioning.
Iron is an important part of red blood cells, and severe iron deficiency can lead to anemia. This nutrient is available from a variety of vegetarian- and vegan-friendly food sources, such as leafy green vegetables, dried fruit, whole-grain foods, dried peas and beans, and lentils. However, since the human body is naturally much better at absorbing iron from animal sources than from plant sources, it takes very generous serving sizes to get the amount that your body needs.
According to the Mayo Clinic, you can make it easier for your body to absorb iron from these plant sources by pairing your consumption of them with foods high in Vitamin C, like tomatoes, citrus fruits, and strawberries.
Carnosine, which is present solely in animal products, is an antioxidant that is vital for proper muscle function. Although it is technically “non-essential,” as the body naturally produces it in small amounts, vegetarians do have lower levels of carnosine than non-vegetarians.
Calcium is an important nutrient for teeth and bone health. Lacto-ovo vegetarians and lacto-vegetarians can take advantage of dairy products for calcium. Stricter vegetarians will benefit from foods that are fortified with calcium, such as soy products, juices, and cereals. You can also find calcium in food sources like tempeh, tahini, various seaweeds, and almonds. Generous portions of dark green vegetables (which are also great sources of Vitamin D!) are additional ways to include calcium in a vegetarian diet.
9. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are called “essential fats” because the body cannot produce them on their own. They help maintain good health in a variety of ways, such as: managing blood clots, reducing inflammation, performing essential functions in cell membranes and cell receptors, and keeping stroke and heart disease at bay.
Fish and fish oil supplements are fabulous sources of Omega-3 fatty acids, which is good news for pescatarians. For vegetarians who do not eat fish, I recommend foods like walnuts, chia seeds, soybeans, flaxseed, and canola and soy oils.
It is important to note, however, that the human body uses Omega-3 fatty acids from plant sources less efficiently than it does from animal sources, so you might benefit from consuming supplements in addition to food sources.
Taurine, which is a sulfur compound found in a number of different body tissues, plays an important part in proper muscle functioning. Additionally, there is evidence that it can lower high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Meat is a good source of taurine, but so are dairy, seafood, and fish products.
Again, this is a nutrient that less strict vegetarian diets can more readily embrace. The people who follow the most exclusive diets, vegans, have notably less taurine in their bodies than meat eaters. I suggest taking oral taurine supplements, as they can provide a host of benefits for vegans, especially those who struggle with high cholesterol or blood pressure.
VEGETARIANS WITH IBS: THE BEAN AND LENTIL CONUNDRUM
Both beans and lentils are popular in the world of vegetarian and vegan recipes, and they certainly do make some tasty dishes! Lentils and beans are also excellent sources of fiber and three of the crucial nutrients listed above: iron, protein, and zinc. However, for vegetarians prone to IBS, these “vegetarian staples” can pose a problem, as they may trigger bloating, gas, and cramps.
Everybody is different. You might discover that consuming smaller amounts than normal eliminates unwanted side effects. Alternatively, you may find that it is best for you to stay away from beans and lentils almost entirely. The good news is that there are plenty of other vegan-friendly fiber sources!
How to Reduce Gas Production from Beans and Lentils
Fortunately, for vegetarians with IBS who truly enjoy lentils and beans, I have some tips for ways you can reduce gas production from these legumes. Here are six steps you can take to eat what you want without the unwanted side effects:
- Wash beans and lentils with cold water, and then let them soak in three times their volume of water. Lentils should soak for a minimum of one and a half hours, and beans should soak overnight. Once they’re done soaking, drain out all of the water, and then wash them again before cooking.
- Eat beans or lentils alone, with no other protein in the same meal.
- Since potatoes can interfere with the digestion of beans, you should avoid eating them at the same time.
- Cook with spices like fennel or ginger, as these can aid digestion.
- Remember to take your time and chew your beans slowly, as the digestive process begins as soon as you put food into your mouth.
- Begin with easier-to-digest beans, such as mung, adzuki, and dal.
DESIGNING THE BEST PLANT-BASED DIET FOR YOU
While it may seem challenging to follow a plant-based diet that includes all of these nutrients, the good news is that you do not have to make the switch all at once. If you already follow a vegan or vegetarian diet, but know your diet is lacking in some of the essential nutrients listed above, it is helpful to focus on one new nutrient at a time. Once you have made it a habit to incorporate one nutrient into your diet, move on to another. If you are completely new to plant-based diets, but you know that you are ready to transition, you can start with small steps, like eating vegetarian for just one day every week.
I wish that there was one plant-based diet that could be perfect for everyone. In truth, though, the best vegan or vegetarian diet depends on your unique lifestyle. If you are unsure about how to start a healthier diet, I invite you to make an appointment at my clinic. At The Dempster Clinic- Center for Functional Medicine, I can work with you to analyse your lifestyle and design a healthy diet for your individual needs.
I am thrilled to offer a Complimentary 15-minute Discovery Session for all prospective patients. This session can take place over the phone or at the clinic in person. It gives you a chance to learn more about the services I offer and how they can help you find your best health.
Please schedule an appointment today!
Dr. John Dempster BSc., ND, FAAFM
The Dempster Clinic- Center for Functional Medicine