Common Nutrient Deficiencies from Plant-Based Diets and How to Overcome Them


 Across the world, plant-based diets are growing in popularity, especially veganism in younger people.1-3 In 2012, around 1.7 million Australians were vegetarian. Today, it is closer to 2.5 million, with about 3% following a vegan diet.1,4 This growing lifestyle choice is due to many reasons – ethical and environmental factors, food sustainability, concerns for animal welfare and personal health.1

Many people start a plant-based diet because research shows a balanced and well-planned vegetarian or vegan diet can offer many health benefits.1,5 However, despite its benefits, essential nutrients such as omega-3s, vitamin D, vitamin B12 and iodine, are often lacking in these diets and can lead to nutritional deficiencies.5

The beneficial omega-3 fats, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are important nutrients for the whole body. It’s essential that adequate amounts are consumed every day.6 They are important for maintenance of heart health, brain and cognitive function and supporting eye health. They are also essential to support healthy cholesterol.7-9 However, these essential fats are mainly obtained from eating fish or supplementing with fish oil.3 The body can convert some essential fats from plant foods, such as walnuts, flaxseed and chia seeds into active EPA and then DHA, but the conversion process is very limited – around 2% to 10% is estimated.3,10 Research shows vegans and vegetarians have significantly lower EPA and DHA levels than those who eat fish.3

EPA and DHA are found in the fatty tissues of fish, but they are originally made by microalgae plants, which the fish eat.11 Applying this concept, the first algae-derived EPA and DHA oil was produced, giving the plant-based community a rich source of these important nutrients. Studies also support the increase in omega-3 body levels after consuming algal EPA and DHA.3

Vitamin D is needed for general health and wellbeing throughout life. Vitamin D is essential for the maintenance of healthy bones and teeth and muscle function. Vitamin D also helps support a healthy immune system.12-14 Humans can produce vitamin D3 in the skin after exposure to sunlight or from the diet. However, its production in the skin depends on geography, climate, season and culture, while dietary vitamin D is mainly from animal foods, such as fatty fish and eggs from hens fed vitamin D.15 This means dietary sources for vegans and vegetarians are limited, with research showing deficiencies in these groups.5 Supplementation is also difficult as vitamin D often comes from an oil from sheep’s skin called lanolin. There are supplements that provide an organic, vegan, sustainable source of vitamin D3 sourced from algae.

Vitamin B12 is important for the maintenance of vitality and supports energy production and energy levels. It also supports immune system health and cognitive function. In addition, vitamin B12 assists in red blood cell production and health.16,17 People on plant-based diets are prone to vitamin B12 deficiencies as it’s mainly found in animal products, such as meat, fish, milk and eggs. Strict vegetarians and vegans need to supplement their diet with vitamin B12 to help prevent a deficiency of this important nutrient.18 Mecobalamin is a biologically active form of vitamin B12, which means it can be used immediately in biochemical processes in the body.19

Low iodine intake affects the health of all age groups, but especially those following strict plant- based diets.2,20 Iodine supports healthy thyroid gland function and maintains healthy thyroid hormones, which contribute to metabolism and growth across the lifespan. Iodine also supports skin health, energy production and brain and cognitive function.18,21,22 Animal products, such as seafood and milk, and iodised salt are the main sources.17 Vegetarian and vegans may obtain iodine from some plant foods and seaweed. However, it depends on the soil the plants are grown in, with iodine levels in seaweed being variable.22-24

For optimum health, people on a pure, plant-based diet must pay attention to possible deficiencies that may result. It therefore may be beneficial to supplement with a high-quality product, that incorporates all of the above nutrients in one capsule.

*References available on request.

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