I used to be the greatest advocate of plant-based eating, whose “best” advice to anyone, looking to switch to veganism, would be “just eat a huge variety of vegetables, legumes, and nuts, and you would be fine”. This was until I started developing certain nutritional deficiencies that immediately reflected on my health – I started developing extreme fatigue, instant drops in blood sugar combined with dizziness, Vitamin B12 deficiencies, knee pain, and muscle fatigue, to name a few. And this was all happening, while eating as healthily as possible – my processed food consumption was reduced to a minimum, while I was literally surviving on fresh whole foods, consisting of veggies, leafy greens, quinoa, lentils, beans, and all ‘the good stuff’ a vegan is supposed to eat.
This is when I realized I need to dig deeper into the depths of nutrition to not only heal my arising health issues, but also start helping others be properly informed of the planning and effort a vegan diet requires in order to be truly bursting with energy and health in the long-term.
Vegans and vegetarians tend to eat fewer calories than people who eat both meat and plants.
One study compared the nutritional quality of 1,475 people’s diets, including vegans, vegetarians, vegetarians who ate fish, people who ate both meat and plants and people who ate meat only once a week.
Vegans had the lowest calorie intake across all the groups, consuming 600 fewer calories than people who ate both meat and plants.
Vegetarians had a slightly higher calorie intake than vegans, but still consumed 263 fewer calories than people who ate both meat and plants (17Trusted Source).
Calories are the main source of energy for the body,
and your body needs a certain amount to function. Restricting calories too much can lead to several negative side effects, such as nutrient deficiencies, fatigue and a slower metabolism.
n-3 Polyunsaturated fat
Diets that do not include fish, eggs, or sea vegetables (seaweeds) generally lack the long-chain n-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA; 20:5n-3) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA; 22:6n-3), which are important for cardiovascular health as well as eye and brain functions. The plant-based n- fatty acid α-linolenic acid (ALA; 18:3n-3) can be converted into EPA and DHA, albeit with a fairly low efficiency (62, 63). Compared with nonvegetarians, vegetarians, and especially vegans, tend to have lower blood concentrations of EPA and DHA (64). However,
Vegans can obtain DHA from microalgae supplements containing DHA,
as well as from foods fortified with DHA. However, EPA can be obtained from the retroconversion of DHA in the body. The oil from brown algae (kelp) has also been identified as a good source of EPA.
The new Dietary Reference Intakes recommend intakes of 1.6 and 1.1 g ALA/d for men and women, respectively, which accounts for <1% of the daily calories. Presently, the intake of EPA plus DHA in the United States is only 0.1–0.2 g/d, with the DHA intake being ≈2–3 times the intake of EPA (65). Vegans should be able to easily reach the n-3 fatty acid requirements by including regular supplies of ALA-rich foods in their diet and also DHA- fortified foods and supplements. However, DHA supplements should be taken with caution. Although they can lower plasma triacylglycerol, they can raise total and LDL cholesterol, cause excessively prolonged bleeding times, and impair immune responses.
Plant sources of iron contain non-heme iron, which your body can’t absorb as easily. Non-heme iron is present in many types of fruits, vegetables, cereals and beans (23Trusted Source).
Because of this, vegetarians have a greater risk of developing iron-deficiency anemia, a condition in which there are not enough red blood cells in the body. Symptoms include fatigue, shortness of breath and dizziness (24Trusted Source).
However, a well-planned vegetarian diet filled with iron-rich plant foods can meet your daily needs.
If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, make sure to consume plenty of good sources of iron, including lentils, beans, fortified cereals, nuts, seeds, oats and leafy greens.
Additionally, pairing iron-rich foods with foods high in vitamin C can enhance the absorption of non-heme iron (25Trusted Source).
Vitamin C is found in most fruits and vegetables, so including a vegetable side dish, salad or piece of fruit with your meals can help increase iron absorption.
Vitamin B12 deficiency can cause fatigue, memory problems and numbness. It can also lead to megaloblastic anemia, a condition caused by having a lower-than-normal amount of red blood cells (10Trusted Source).
Unfortunately, a high intake of folate can actually mask vitamin B12 deficiency, hiding symptoms until the damage becomes irreversible (11Trusted Source).
\However, there are foods and supplements available that can help vegetarians meet their vitamin B12 needs.
Whether you’re cooking at home or dining out, eating vegetarian or vegan requires some extra planning.
Meal plans are especially useful if you’re currently changing your diet to be vegetarian or vegan.
They can help ease your transition and make it easier to maintain a balanced and nutritious diet.
When you’re eating out or traveling, advanced meal planning becomes especially important.
Some restaurants offer limited choices for vegetarians, so looking at the menu in advance can help you make informed decisions and select the most nutritious choices available.
Additionally, make it a habit to find a few vegan recipes each week and cook them on your own.
DIETARY RECOMMENDATIONS FOR OPTIMAL VEGAN DIETS
1) To avoid B-12 deficiency, vegans should regularly consume vitamin B-12– fortified foods, such as fortified soy and rice beverages, certain breakfast cereals and meat analogs, and B-12–fortified nutritional yeast, or take a daily vitamin B-12 supplement. Fermented soy products, leafy vegetables, and seaweed cannot be considered a reliable source of active vitamin B-12. No unfortified plant food contains any significant amount of active vitamin B-12.
2) To ensure adequate calcium in the diet, calcium-fortified plant foods should be regularly consumed in addition to consuming the traditional calcium sources for a vegan (green leafy vegetables, tofu, tahini). The calcium-fortified foods include ready-to-eat cereals, calcium-fortified soy and rice beverages, calcium-fortified orange and apple juices, and other beverages. The bioavailability of the calcium carbonate in the soy beverages and the calcium citrate malate in apple or orange juice is similar to that of the calcium in milk (78, 79). Tricalcium phosphate–fortified soy milk was shown to have a slightly lower calcium bioavailability than the calcium in cow milk (78).
3) To ensure an adequate vitamin D status, especially during the winter, vegans must regularly consume vitamin D–fortified foods such as soy milk, rice milk, orange juice, breakfast cereals, and margarines that are fortified with vitamin D. Where fortified foods are unavailable, a daily supplement of 5–10 μg vitamin D would be necessary. The supplement would be highly desirable for elderly vegans.
4) A vegan should regularly consume plant foods naturally rich in the n-3 fatty acid ALA, such as ground flaxseed, walnuts, canola oil, soy products, and hemp seed–based beverages. In addition, it is recommended that vegans consume foods that are fortified with the long-chain n-3 fatty acid DHA, such as some soy milks and cereal bars. Those with increased requirements of long-chain n-3 fatty acids, such as pregnant and lactating women, would benefit from using DHA-rich microalgae supplements.
5) Because of the high phytate content of a typical vegan diet, it is important that a vegan consume foods that are rich in zinc, such as whole grains, legumes, and soy products, to provide a sufficient zinc intake. Benefit could also be obtained by vegans consuming fortified ready-to-eat cereals and other zinc-fortified foods.
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