Recently there has been a trend of following a vegan diet or being a vegetarian. Among all other countries, India has the highest percentage of vegetarian population. People are choosing this for a variety of reasons, and motivations often include a combination of ethical, environmental, and religious beliefs, global food insecurity, and of course health considerations. But there has always been confusion between these two, so let us first rule out a basic explanation of these diets.
A vegetarian diet excludes the consumption of meat, poultry, and flesh but includes animal products like dairy, or eggs. Whereas a vegan diet is completely focused on plant-based foods like cereals, pulses, legumes, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and oilseeds for nutrition and is more restrictive which eliminates all types of meat and animal products like honey, eggs, milk, and other dairy products.
Although there are several health benefits of plant-based foods like weight management, heart health, maintenance of blood pressure, etc (1) still there are certain nutrients that individuals following a vegan or vegetarian diet may need to pay extra attention to:
- Vitamin B12: Cobalamin/ vitamin B12, is an essential vitamin that is required for many body processes, such as the production of RBCs, neurological function, and DNA synthesis. Since it’s mostly found in animal products, people who adopt a vegan diet may be at risk for B12 deficiency. Studies in populations with different types of vegetarian diets revealed a high prevalence of vitamin B12 deficiency, which was over 60% in vegans but also over 40% in lacto /ovolactovegetarians. (2) Nonetheless, vegans may use several techniques to ensure they get enough vitamin B12 like consuming mushrooms, nutritional yeast, and algae-based supplements. It’s crucial to remember, that it can be difficult to obtain adequate from these sources alone. To ensure they achieve their nutritional needs, several health professionals advise them to think about taking a B12 supplement or consuming foods fortified with B12.
- Creatine: A compound that is abundantly found in animal products and stored in your muscles and significantly in the brain too, which serves as a readily available energy source. Although it is produced in our bodies, studies show that vegetarian people tend to have lower amounts of creatine in their muscles (3). Therefore, there is a possibility of deficiency especially in athletes and people who are physically active throughout the day. Vegans and vegetarians should particularly consider taking supplements to fulfill their creatine needs. Since many creatine supplements are synthesized rather than sourced from animal sources, they are readily available and suitable for vegans. One popular and thoroughly researched creatine supplementation is creatine monohydrate as it is safe and effective.
- Iodine: A trace element that is vital for thyroid hormone synthesis which overall is required for controlling metabolism. Iodine is predominantly present in seafood, shellfish, and dairy. Earlier, as a result of poor dietary intake, goiter was very prominent in India. Therefore, the government of India launched the National Goiter Control Programme (NGCP) in 1962. One of the objectives of the program was to supply iodized salt in place of common salt to all the identified and notified goiter endemic areas in the country. (4) Now, people following a plant-based diet can have seaweed (kelp, nori) and certain crops produced in iodine-rich soils for optimal iodine intake. However, the amount of iodine in plant-based diets varies and is influenced by the state of the soil. Using iodized salt is one way to increase iodine intake, but relying solely on salt may not provide sufficient iodine for optimal health thus supplementation can be considered.
- Zinc: Zinc is a necessary nutrient that is important for immune system function, cell growth, inflammation reduction, and other disorders as well as skin health. Animal products are one of the main sources of zinc. Plant-based diets are rich in phytic acid, an inhibitor of zinc, including legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. As a result, persons who only eat plant-based foods have lower zinc bioavailability. Here are some suggestions, nevertheless, to improve the absorption of zinc in a vegan diet: To improve absorption, soak or sprout grains and beans before cooking, soak or roast nuts, and eat vitamin C-rich foods with zinc-rich meals. All of this lowers the phytic acid. Certain foods that have been fortified, like nutritional yeast, plant-based milk, and breakfast cereals may contain additional zinc. Beyond this, if one finds it difficult to fulfill Zinc needs then supplementation can be considered.
In conclusion, while a vegan diet can offer numerous health benefits, it is crucial for individuals to be mindful of potential nutrient deficiencies. With careful planning and attention to a diverse and well-rounded plant-based diet, vegans can meet their nutritional needs and maintain optimal health. Consulting with a registered dietitian or healthcare professional can provide personalized guidance to ensure a balanced and nutrient-rich vegan lifestyle.
- Tuso, P. J., Ismail, M. H., Ha, B. P., & Bartolotto, C. (2013). Nutritional update for physicians: plant-based diets. The Permanente journal, 17(2), 61–66. https://doi.org/10.7812/TPP/12-085
- Burke, D. G., Chilibeck, P. D., Parise, G., Candow, D. G., Mahoney, D., & Tarnopolsky, M. (2003). Effect of creatine and weight training on muscle creatine and performance in vegetarians. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 35(11), 1946–1955. https://doi.org/10.1249/01.MSS.0000093614.17517.79