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What are some of the most common vegan diet nutritional deficiencies? A plant based diet can provide all essential nutrients if you eat the right healthy foods.

Most people’s biggest worry when starting a vegan diet is that they’ll miss out on essential nutrients. There’s a prevailing assumption that meat, fish, and dairy products provide vitamins, minerals, and amino acids which aren’t available through a plant based diet, leaving vegans at risk of different kinds of nutritional deficiency.1 While it’s true that vegans need to pay special attention to their nutrient intake, it’s entirely possible to eat a healthy, balanced vegan diet.2

Let’s discover more about these potential gaps in a vegan diet, and how some healthy, tasty dietary choices can help make veganism work for you.

Vegan Diet Nutritional Deficiencies: Some Plant Based Diets Can Lack Protein And Iron

The assumptions made about the vegan diet and its ‘nutritional problems’ are largely overblown, and in fact, vegans have a remarkable range of choices to ensure against gaps in their diet. We’ll start with the most frequently cited ‘issue’: protein.

Most vegan and vegetarian diets already deliver enough protein. Worries that cutting out meat will bring protein deficiencies just aren’t born out by the facts; unless you’re trying to gain weight or muscle, you only need 0.36g of protein per pound of bodyweight per day (or 0.8g/kg/day). So, that’s only 43g of protein per day for a person of 120 lbs, or 65g for a person of 180 lbs.3

As an example, an 8oz ribeye steak provides 48g of protein – close to 100% of most people’s daily requirement. But don’t be deceived by the potent protein content of meat; vegans can easily consume similar amounts by eating some of the great vegan protein options:

  • beans variety | Activated YouLentils (9g protein/100g) go well in soups, curries, and stews; Indian dal is a tasty, nutritious classic; lentils are a great topping for baked potatoes and can play a tasty role in nachos and tacos.4
  • Beans (approx. 6g protein/100g) are a huge family of tasty possibilities. A vegetarian chilli is a great back-up dinner to have in the freezer, and black bean soup is packed with nutrients. Next game day, try sharing a bowl of ‘cowboy caviar’, a healthy dip with beans and other vegetables.5
  • Among the beans, chickpeas (19g protein/100g) are an outstanding protein source. Customize homemade hummus with cumin, cayenne, garlic, tahini, and lemon. Chickpeas are also flexible enough to add to stews, curries, and soups; there’s also falafel. For a simple salad, toss together a can of drained chickpeas, a can of drained kidney beans, parsley, lemon, and garlic with a dash of olive oil, and you’ve got a perfect lunch entirely from plant food.
  • Nuts (approx. 20g protein/100g) make a great snack, especially in homemade trail mix.6
  • Seeds can be added as toppings and included in snack mixes. Try adding 1 tbsp of chia (17g protein/100g) or hemp seeds (27g protein/100g) to your breakfast.
  • Whole grains deliver lots of protein. Try making salads with quinoa (approx. 4g protein / 100g), one-pot dinners with brown rice (2-3g protein/100g), or hearty breakfasts with oatmeal (2.4g protein/100g).

Another mineral many people assume will be insufficient in a vegan diet is iron. The issue relates to the rate of absorption in the body of the two types of iron. Heme iron comes entirely from animals and is more bioavailable than non-heme (plant based) iron. That means plant based iron is harder to absorb, and vegans would need to eat 180% of the recommended daily amount (RDA); a vegetarian female in her 30s would need to consume 32mg of iron per day, and as much as 49mg if she became pregnant – that’s the iron available from six cups (3 lbs) of white beans.7

dark green leafy vegetables | Activated You

But there’s no need for a bean binge; there are plenty of other great vegan iron sources that can help avoid an iron deficiency:

  • Leafy green vegetables (kale, Swiss chard, collard greens, spinach, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage)
  • Whole grains (brown rice as a side, quinoa in a salad, amaranth for breakfast or dessert)
  • Lentils (brown, yellow, green)
  • Peas (steamed as a side; added to a risotto with lemon; try an Indian stir-fry with onion and spices)
  • Dried fruits (especially apricots, peaches, prunes, currants, raisins, pears, figs, and apples)8

Healthy levels of iron absorption often depend on the other foods you eat alongside iron-rich foods. Chief among the nutrients which help absorb iron is vitamin C, best obtained from fresh fruit and vegetables.

How To Get More Calcium And Vitamins A, D, And B12 (Without Consuming Dairy Products)

citrus | Activated You

Our bodies need around 1300mg/day of calcium to maintain bone health and for a range of other vital functions.9 The standard advice for making sure we receive the recommended daily amount of calcium is to drink three glasses of milk, but there are plenty of non-dairy alternatives:10,11,12,13

Non-Dairy Food Sources Of Calcium

Food Mg/serving % DV (1300mg)
Orange juice, calcium fortified, 1 cup 349 27
Rice milk, almond milk, calcium fortified, 8 oz 299 23
Blackstrap molasses, 1 Tbsp 179 14
Winged beans, 1 cup, cooked 175 13
White beans, 1 cup, cooked 175 13
Chickpeas, cooked, 1 cup 175 13
Collards, spinach or mustard greens, fresh, cooked, 1/2 cup 142 11
Chinese cabbage (bok choy), raw, shredded, 1/2 cup 142 11
Breakfast cereals, fortified with 10% calcium DV, 1 serving 130 10
Coconut milk, calcium fortified, 8oz 130 10
Tahini (sesame paste), 2 Tbsp 130 10
Swiss chard, fresh, cooked, 1 cup 102 8
Almonds, 1/4 cup 97 7
Parsley, 1 cup 83 6
Okra, fresh, cooked, 1/2 cup 80 6
Kale, fresh, cooked, 1/2 cup 80 6
Brussels sprouts, fresh, cooked, 1/2 cup 80 6
Chia seeds 1 Tablespoon 76 6
Tangerines and oranges, 1 cup 72 6

nutritional deficiency | ActivatedYouAs you can see, some good vegan calcium sources are fortified foods such as cereals and milks. These have added calcium and vitamin D, which is essential for efficient calcium absorption, although neither are found in the raw product. Vitamin D is best sourced from sunshine: 10-30 minutes, three times a week, is enough to hit the recommended intake. Mushrooms are another good vegan vitamin D source.14

Vitamin A, which governs the laying down of calcium as bone, is also added to replace nutrients lost during milk processing, a process known as enrichment.15,16

Fortification is also a great source of vitamin B12, a nutrient that protects the health of the brain and nervous system and is necessary for DNA synthesis.17 Cereal fortified with B12, as well as nutritional yeast and plant milks (rice, almond, cashew, oat) are good sources.18 It’s important to guard against B12 deficiency, which can result in numb or tingling limbs, balance problems, and anemia. Cognitive difficulties and fatigue are also signs of a vitamin B12 deficiency.19

Ways To Maximize Your Zinc Absorption: Chia Seeds, Nuts, Whole Grains, And More

We need tiny amounts of zinc for cellular metabolism and immune system health, among other vital functions. Requirements are based on age and gender:20

Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) For Zinc

Age Male Female Pregnancy Lactation
0–6 months 2 mg 2 mg
7–12 months 3 mg 3 mg
1–3 years 3 mg 3 mg
4–8 years 5 mg 5 mg
9–13 years 8 mg 8 mg
14–18 years 11 mg 9 mg 12 mg 13 mg
19+ years 11 mg 8 mg 11 mg 12 mg

chia seeds | ActivatedYou

Chia seeds are a great zinc source for people on a vegan or vegetarian diet and can be added to breakfast, granola, bars, and snacks. Zinc is also found in beans, legumes, and whole grains, but many of these sources also contain phytic acid, which can hinder zinc absorption. Soaking beans and sprouting grains before cooking reduces phytic acid levels.21 Other good sources include:22

Plant Based Food Sources Of Zinc

Food Milligrams (mg)
per serving
% of DV
Baked beans, canned, plain, or vegetarian, ½ cup 2.9 26
Breakfast cereal, fortified with 25% of zinc DV, 1 serving 2.8 25
Pumpkin seeds, dried, 1 ounce 2.2 20
Cashews, dry roasted, 1 ounce 1.6 15
Chickpeas, cooked, ½ cup 1.3 12
Oatmeal, instant, plain, prepared with water, 1 packet 1.1 10
Almonds, dry roasted, 1 ounce 0.9 8
Kidney beans, cooked, ½ cup 0.9 8
Peas, green, frozen, cooked, ½ cup 0.5 5

Essential Fatty Acids: Incorporate More Healthy Cooking Oils, Seeds, And Nuts In Your Plant Based Diet

assorted nuts | ActivatedYouThe most common sources of omega-3 fatty acids are types of fish, and while that might work for some vegetarian diets, vegans will need alternatives to find their 200-300mg/day of these vital fatty acids.23 Chia seeds, those tiny nutritional powerhouses, are again a good source, along with walnuts and hemp seeds. Both flaxseed and its oil can help boost omega-3 fatty acid intake toward the recommended 200-500mg/day.24,25

Are Dietary Supplements Necessary For Vegans?

Some nutrients that are required in tiny amounts can be plentiful in the diets of meat eaters, but vegans need to consider where they’ll find suitable sources. Here are some less well-known but vital nutrients vegans sometimes lack in their diets:

  • Vitamin B2 (known as riboflavin) supports cellular function. Vegans can ensure against deficiencies by eating plenty of leafy greens, but note that, compared to steaming or sauteing, boiling the vegetables can double the vitamin loss during cooking.26,27
  • Creatine is a molecule with important roles in energy synthesis and muscle growth. It is made naturally in your liver, but those on a vegan diet might be short on creatine and there is no non-meat source. Some vegetarians found that taking a creatine supplement yielded better cognitive function and memory.28,29
  • Carnosine is an antioxidant with a critical role in muscle function and fatigue management. Again, it is made in the body (this time, by combining two amino acids) but there’s no vegan source except supplements.30,31
  • Iodine is critical for thyroid function but some vegetarians have an iodine deficiency.32 The best vegan sources are iodized table salt (2.5ml / 1sp per day, not necessarily all at once) and seaweed.33 If you’ve never cooked with seaweed before, try some Japanese options by using nori or iodine-rich wakame to make sushi bowls, wraps, salads, and stir-fries.34

The old warnings about the ‘dangers’ of a vegan diet are losing ground in the face of strong scientific evidence that going vegan need not result in a dietary or nutrient deficiency. It will take some planning and experimentation, but those are great excuses to spend a little more time thinking about your food choices, and to try making new dishes which are both delicious and enhance your nutrient levels.

Learn More:
Calcium Rich Vegan Foods: Get Enough Calcium With These Tasty Combos
Looking For Vegan Food Rich In Iron? Add These Plant Options To Your Diet
Vegan Instant Pot Recipes: Quick And Easy One Pot Recipes For Plant-Based Eating