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Vegan diet and deficiencies

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 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 of options from each food group will ensure you get most of the nutrients you need. Aim for fruits and vegetables to form half of your intake, and get at least five different types per day to maximize vitamin intake. Starchy carbohydrates should form a fourth of your intake, including pasta, rice, bread, and potatoes – pick wholegrain options for optimal vitamin and fiber content. The remaining fourth of your intake should come from plant-based proteins.

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 good sources to get these. Focus on green leafy vegetables, pulses, beans, and nuts.

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 instead, 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 anemia.

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, 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 anemia or you are a woman that suffers heavy periods, or you are pregnant. If you have particular concerns about anemia, 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 for calcium to be absorbed. You can add in green vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, okra, dried fruits, sesame seeds, nuts, and pulses. Nuts and pulses 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 anemia 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 blood test.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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