What are the 7 Nutrients That You Can’t Get from Plants?
Vegan and vegetarian diets both provide nutrients that are crucial to the body and can be very healthy. They’ve been linked to multiple health benefits and a lower risk of excess weight, heart disease, and even some types of cancer.
There are 7 nutrients that you can’t get from plants. These nutrients are essential for your body to function properly. Some of these nutrients include vitamin B12, vitamin D, iron, and calcium.
The most common sources of these nutrients are animal products like meat and dairy products. However, there are some plant-based sources that have these vitamins as well. They include fortified cereals and soy milk.
However, a few nutrients are either difficult or impossible to get in adequate amounts from plant foods alone. That’s why it’s very important to supplement your diet with them for optimal health or physical performance.
Here are 7 nutrients commonly lacking in vegetarian and vegan diets:
1. Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12, or cobalamin (also known as a water-soluble vitamin), is found in animal-sourced foods such as fish, meat, dairy products, and eggs. It’s also referred to as a nutrient that plays an essential role in the development of red blood cells and maintaining neurological health.
Studies have shown that vegetarians are at a high risk of vitamin B12 deficiency. This means they need to take supplements in order to avoid many health issues.
Vegans may have a more challenging time getting adequate amounts of iron – some animal products can be sources though. But, they also might have easier access to iron from foods such as legumes and dark leafy vegetables.
Vegetarians who do not take supplements are at a higher risk of Vitamin B12 deficiency than vegans. The symptoms and risks associated with vitamin B12 deficiency include:
- Impaired brain function
- Neurological disorders
- Psychiatric disorders
- Neurological disorders in babies of Lactating mothers
- Megaloblastic anemia
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Heart disease
To get sufficient amounts of vitamin B12, people following a vegan diet must take supplements or eat food that has been fortified with this nutrient.
These foods include:
- enriched yeast extracts
- soy products
- breakfast cereals
- meat substitutes
In addition, a few plant foods naturally contain trace amounts of bioactive vitamin B12, including:
- nori seaweed, a type of marine algae.
- tempeh, a fermented soy product.
- shiitake mushrooms
Nori seaweed, though it doesn’t provide a sufficient amount on its own, is an excellent source of biologically available vitamin B12 for vegans.
Raw nori is more nutritious than conventionally dried varieties because some B12 is destroyed when the seaweed dries out. However, those are not considered to be sufficient sources of dietary vitamin B12 and do not provide the daily need.
Another plant food often claimed to contain vitamin B12 is spirulina. Spirulina offers pseudovitamin B12, which isn’t biologically available. This is mostly contributing to the fact that it’s not suitable as a source of this vitamin overall. If you want to boost your vitamin B12 intake, you can buy vegan-friendly supplements.
Carnosine is an antioxidant that’s concentrated in the muscles and brain of humans and animals. It’s very important for muscle function, and high levels of carnosine in muscles are linked to reduced muscle fatigue and improved performance.
Carnosine is only found in animal-based foods. However, it’s considered nonessential, since your body can form it from the amino acids histidine and beta-alanine.
Supplementing with beta-alanine is a great way to increase the levels of carnosine in your muscles, improving endurance and increasing muscle mass. There are multiple vegan beta-alanine supplements available.
3. Vitamin D
Vitamin D is an essential nutrient with many important functions. Also called the sunshine vitamin, it doesn’t have to come from your diet.
Your skin can produce vitamin D when it’s exposed to sunlight. However, if your sunlight exposure is limited or you live far from the equator, you must get it from food or supplements.
There are two types of dietary vitamin D:
- ergocalciferol (D2), found in plants
- cholecalciferol (D3), found in animal-based foods
Of these types, cholecalciferol (D3) increases blood levels of absorbable vitamin D much more efficiently than ergocalciferol (D2).
The best sources of vitamin D3 are fatty fish and egg yolks. Other sources include supplements, cod liver oil, or enriched foods like milk or cereals.
Since the main dietary sources of vitamin D3 are not plant-based, vegetarians and vegans may be at a higher risk of deficiency, especially during the winter in countries north or south of the equator.
Deficiency in vitamin D is linked to an increased risk of various adverse conditions, including:
- Osteoporosis, with an increased risk of fractures in older adults
- Heart disease
- Multiple sclerosis
- Impaired brain function
- Muscle wasting and reduced strength, especially in older adults
Vegan vitamin D3 supplements made from lichen are also available.
Creatine is a molecule found in animal foods. Most of it is stored in your muscles but significant amounts are also concentrated in your brain.
It functions as an easily accessible energy reserve for muscle cells, giving them greater strength and endurance.
For this reason, it’s one of the world’s most popular supplements for muscle building. Studies show that creatine supplements can increase both muscle mass and strength.
Creatine is not essential in your diet, since it can be produced by your liver. However, studies have shown that vegetarians tend to have lower amounts of creatine in their muscles.
One study placed people on a lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet for 26 days and found that doing so caused a significant decrease in their muscle creatine levels.
Because creatine is naturally found in animal tissue, vegetarians and vegans can get it only from supplements.
For vegetarians, creatine supplements may have significant benefits, including:
- improvements in physical performance
- improvements in brain function, such as memory
Some of these effects are stronger in people on a vegetarian diet than in meat eaters. For instance, vegetarians taking creatine supplements may experience significant improvements in brain function while people who eat meat see no difference.
This may be attributed to the meat eaters already having higher levels of creatine in their muscles as a result of their diet. You can purchase vegan-friendly creatine supplements.
5. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
DHA is an essential omega-3 fatty acid that’s important for normal brain development and function. Deficiency in DHA can have adverse effects on mental health and brain function, especially in children. In addition, inadequate DHA intake in pregnant women may adversely affect fetal brain development.
It’s mainly found in fatty fish, fish oil, and certain types of microalgae. In your body, DHA can also be made from the omega-3 fatty acid ALA, which is found in high amounts in flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts.
However, the conversion of ALA to DHA is very inefficient and may not increase blood levels of DHA sufficiently. For this reason, vegetarians and vegans often have lower levels of DHA than meat eaters.
Vegans can get this important fatty acid by taking supplements in the form of algal oil, which is made from certain microalgae. These supplements are available in specialty stores.
Taurine is a sulfur compound found in various body tissues, including your brain, heart, and kidneys. While its bodily function is not entirely clear, it appears to play a role in muscle function, bile salt formation, and antioxidant defenses.
Taurine is found only in animal-sourced foods, such as fish, seafood, meat, poultry, and dairy products . Subsequently, studies have shown that vegans have lower levels of taurine than meat eaters.
Taurine isn’t considered essential in the diet, since your body produces small amounts. Still, dietary taurine may play a role in maintaining your body’s taurine levels. Synthetic taurine supplements are widely available and suitable for vegetarians and vegans.
7. Heme Iron
Heme iron is a type of iron found only in meat, especially red meat. It’s much better absorbed than non-heme iron, which is commonly found in plant foods.
Heme iron also improves your absorption of non-heme iron from plant foods. This phenomenon is not entirely understood but is called the meat factor.
Non-heme iron is poorly absorbed. Its absorption can be limited further by anti-nutrients also present in plant foods, such as phytic acid. Unlike non-heme iron, the absorption of heme iron is not affected by the presence of antinutrients.
For this reason, vegetarians and vegans, especially females and people on raw food diets are more prone to anemia than meat eaters. However, iron deficiency is easy to avoid on a well-planned vegan diet that contains plenty of non-heme iron.
It is important to remember that vegetarian and vegan diets take some additional planning in order to make sure you’re getting a sufficient amount of essential nutrients. It’s also more difficult for vegetarians and vegans than for people who eat meat, but well-planned vegan diets are very healthy.
While eating less meat, or not consuming any at all, can be a good way to improve your health and decrease environmental impact on animals, you should consider taking dietary supplements.
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