Vegetarianism has always been a popular lifestyle choice -- whether it is due to religious reasons, health consciousness, or other extraneous circumstances. Over the past few decades, however, vegetarian and vegan diets have surged in popularity. Vegetarian diets have been known to extend lifespans, reduce the risk of heart disease, and decrease blood pressure. The pros of these diets are popularly discussed, but the cons are often overlooked. Along with these benefits, vegan and vegetarian diets also can result in many nutrient deficiencies if they are not managed properly. Macronutrient requirements like that of protein are easy to reach in an omnivorous diet, but vegans and vegetarians must be smart about their meal choices in order to meet these requirements daily.
As mentioned, one of the more well known deficiencies that is common among a diet that avoids meats is protein deficiency. Only protein that comes from meat and poultry is complete protein (contains all essential amino acids), so vegetarians and vegans need to find multiple ways to eat complementary proteins, each of which may lack some essential amino acids.
Good sources of these proteins come from dairy products, which is helpful for vegetarians, but is still restricted by a vegan diet. So, vegans can turn to eating soy, legumes, and nuts to meet their requirements.
Some possible meals a vegan can eat that would provide all the essential amino acids include refried beans with tortillas and even a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole wheat bread. As for vegetarians, some easy options they can choose include oatmeal with milk or whole grain macaroni and cheese.
Another important nutrient that vegetarians and vegans might be deficient of is vitamin B12. Lacking vitamin B12 leads to a defect in the myelin sheaths which line our neurons that allow for fast electric signal transmissions. The consequences of this include memory loss, numbness, paresthesias, weakness, and overall loss of dexterity.
Vegans can get incorporate this vitamin in their diet by eating wheat gluten or soy for those who eat gluten-free as well. There’s also vitamin B12 fortified milk and soymilk for vegans. Otherwise, there are vitamin B12 supplements such as Red Star T-6635+, which is a nutritional yeast formula that can be added to food.
The problem with vitamin supplements like this, however, is that they’re usually not as readily bioavailable to be absorbed and metabolized as efficiently as naturally occurring vitamins.
A mineral deficiency specific to vegans is a calcium deficiency. Since many dairy products are calcium fortified, vegetarians are usually able to get enough of this mineral, while vegans may not. A calcium deficiency primarily affects bone density and can cause osteoporosis, leading to an increased risk of fractures. Although these consequences may not seem as bad as those from the previously discussed nutrients, fracturing a hip or spine can be life-threatening, especially amongst the elderly.
Ways to incorporate calcium into a vegan diet include dark green leafy vegetables such as broccoli, kale, or okra. Other good sources of calcium include fortified soy milk or orange juice, tofu, and soy products. Again, calcium supplements can be a good addition to a well-rounded meal, but should not be the main source for calcium because of the decreased absorption.
Despite all the possible benefits of vegan and vegetarian diets, there are some consequences of this lifestyle choice. For that reason, all vegans and vegetarians should be wary of the possible nutrient deficiencies they’re at risk for by abstaining from eating meat. However, it is still very possible to create a well-balanced vegan/vegetarian diet and meet all nutritional requirements.
Venkatesh Balaji is a premedical student at UC Berkeley. His interests include cell biology and public health and he hopes to incorporate both of these topics in my blog articles for Azumio.
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