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Vegan diet and deficiencies

Dr Roger Henderson
Reviewed by Roger HendersonReviewed on 29.04.2024 | 4 minutes read

A vegan diet avoids all products made from animals, including meat, fish, dairy, and eggs. Vegans eat only plants – vegetables, grains, nuts, and fruits – and food made from plants. You may have religious, ethical, or lifestyle reasons for this choice.

A varied diet with plenty from each food group will ensure you get most of the nutrients you need. Aim for fruit and vegetables to form a third of your intake, and get at least five different types per day to maximise vitamin intake. Starchy carbohydrates should form another third, including pasta, rice, bread, and potatoes – pick wholegrain options for optimal vitamin and fibre content.

What are B vitamins?

B vitamins, are crucial for creating and maintaining cells in the body to keep tissues healthy. You’ll need to stock up on these, as they’re often found in meat products. Grains are an important source of the vitamin B group – B6, B12, folate, thiamin, riboflavin and niacin – so you need to find alternative sources to get these. If you think generally: green leafy vegetables, pulses, beans, nuts and liver, you should get a good dose of these. Riboflavin, niacin and vitamin B12 are found in eggs, dairy products, meat and fish.

Vitamin B12 may prove elusive if you rely solely on dietary sources and not supplements. This is usually found in meat, fish, and dairy foods, so choose fortified breakfast cereals or soya drinks. Marmite (love it or hate it!) is rich in all the B vitamins, including vitamin B12, and is entirely compatible with veganism. You could consider supplements, and you can take a blood test if you have particular concerns, as vitamin B12 deficiency can cause anaemia.

What about other nutrients?

Similarly, you may have to work harder to top up your iron stores. Iron-rich foods include red meat, fish and dairy. Vegans can get iron from plant-based foods, but it’s harder for the body to absorb this version than from meat. Sources include dried fruit like apricots, prunes and dates, beans, chickpeas, nuts, pulses and dark green leafy vegetables such as broccoli and watercress. You can also look for labels on breakfast cereals or milk alternatives saying "fortified with iron". You can boost your body’s absorption by coupling any iron-rich foods with vitamin C foods, like orange juice.

Iron supplements are available, and it’s worth considering these if you have a tendency towards anaemia or you are a woman that suffers heavy periods or you are pregnant. If you have particular concerns about anaemia, a blood test can check your iron levels.

Calcium is essential for many cell functions and for healthy and strong bones and teeth. Dairy alternatives provide some calcium, such as calcium-set tofu and fortified versions of soya, rice, bread, oat drinks and cereal. Fortification usually includes the addition of vitamin D, which is essential to get calcium absorbed. You can add in green vegetables like broccoli, cabbage and okra, dried fruits, sesame seeds, nuts and pulses, too. Nuts and pulse will provide you with essential protein, too.

Omega-3 fatty acids are usually found in oily fish and reduce our risk of heart disease. They can also be found in certain oils, such as flaxseed, rapeseed and soya oil, or soya products like tofu. Walnuts are another good source.

Which vitamin supplement is best for a vegan or vegetarian diet?

If you are looking to boost your diet, you can select vegan or vegetarian multivitamins – they aren’t all compatible so do check the label. These may be suitable for those on a kosher or halal diet, too. Alternatively, you can select supplements to boost any individual nutrients you feel are missing from your vegan diet.

Do I need a blood test?

If you are seeking sources of calcium and B vitamins from food and supplements, you don’t need a blood test to continue with a vegan diet. If you have any symptoms or concerns, you should discuss these with your doctor, who may order tests including a blood test. You are at risk of anaemia if you don’t get enough vitamin B12 and folic acid, and this can leave you feeling tired, out of breath climbing the stairs or you might look quite pale. If you have concerns but have no particular symptoms, you can request a private blood test.

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Dr Roger Henderson
Reviewed by Roger Henderson
Reviewed on 29.04.2024
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