A varied vegan diet can be incredibly nutritious, offering a wide variety of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, as well as reducing obesity and improving cardiovascular health. The health benefits are overwhelming.
Thankfully the number of vegan options in supermarkets and independent food stores has risen dramatically in recent years. However the amount of certain vitamins and minerals in these isn’t always consistent and deficiencies can easily occur. This is particularly the case with Vitamin B12, Vitamin D, iodine and selenium, which can form a weak point in an otherwise nutritionally robust plant-based diet.
We all occasionally skip meals or pay less attention to our diet, and this can easily result in a deficiency, leading to conditions such as anaemia or a weak immune system. These can be symptomless in the early stages and cause complications in the later stages.
Although it is entirely possible to derive all the nutrition that your body needs through eating plants alone, it is not easy and often involves sourcing some obscure or seasonal ingredients. We have scrutinised the ‘average’ plant-based diet and compiled a list of vitamins and minerals which are most often low or absent. It is important that these are not neglected whilst enjoying the many health advantages of the vegan diet.
The body utilises B12 to make new red blood cells, which carry oxygen in the blood. It is also essential for normal health, as well as development and functioning of the brain and nervous system. Deficiency in B12 may lead to clinical symptoms such as anaemia and nerve cell damage. Early signs of B12 deficiency include tiredness, shortness of breath, problems with concentration and numbness/tingling of the hands and feet.
Vitamin B12 is almost completely absent in plant-based foods, and even unwashed organic vegetables do not contain significant levels of B12. This often leads to vegans having B12 levels significantly lower than recommended levels.
Vitamin D helps to regulate the amount of calcium and phosphate absorbed into the body, which are vital in developing and maintaining bone, teeth and muscular health. A deficiency of vitamin D can lead to bone deformities such as rickets in children and osteomalacia in adults.
20% of the UK general population are clinically deficient in vitamin D, with many more falling short of the recommended intake. From late March/early April to the end of September most people should get all the vitamin D they need from sunlight. However between October and early March we don’t get enough vitamin D from sunlight alone.
Although vitamin D can be found in fortified foods such as some cereals and fat spreads, it is generally only found in meat, fish, dairy products and eggs. It is therefore recommended that those following a plant-based diet should supplement it with at least 10mcg of vitamin D daily. This is particularly important for people with darker skin or those spending large amounts of time indoors.
Consistent intake of iodine is essential for thyroid health, which controls metabolic rate. Deficiencies can easily result in fatigue, hair loss, reduced metabolic rate and weight gain.
8% of the UK general population fall short of recommended intakes of iodine. Plants do not utilise iodine for growth, and therefore these nutrients are generally only found in dairy products and fish. Although some table salt contains iodine there are risks associated with high salt content.
Selenium is an important antioxidant, which protects the cells in our body from damage. It also plays a vital role in maintaining our immune system. Even a mild deficiency can result in muscle weakness, hair loss and a weakened immune system.
33% of the general population fall short of recommended intakes of selenium. It is generally only found in meat, fish and Brazil nuts.
In addition to the essential nutrients mentioned, we have added vitamin B6 and folic acid, which are often deficient in plant-based diets and may contribute to tiredness, poor concentration and low mood.