5 Most Common Vegetarian Nutrient Deficiencies

by in Kitchen Sink, Vegetarian September 6, 2008

vegan.jpgAre you the healthiest vegetarian out there?

If so, I bet you already know which five nutrients you need to watch out for.

If not, please stick around and make sure you have your nutritional bases covered for a long term healthy, happy vegetarian lifestyle.

First of all, kudos to you for being a vegetarian as it is a great choice for the environment. Plant based eating is much more sustainable than animal based eating.

The environment in turn immediately rewards you, as vegetarians also consume less toxins and pesticides. Toxins are mostly stored in fat and concentrate as we move up the food chain.

So eating vegetarian is clearly healthier for the environment, but is it healthier for you? As a physician, I could answer that question either way. In the long term, vegetarian eating reduces your incidence of developing cancer and cardiovascular disease. In the short term though, low grade nutrient deficiencies may be jeopardizing your current state of health.

Vegetarians that are hip to healthy eating are usually the most vital people I ever see, unless they do not eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains and superfoods.

Struggling with nutrient deficiencies can create a myriad of symptoms. The most common signs of nutrient deficiencies that I encounter in my vegetarian patients are fatigue, dry skin, dry hair, brittle nails, anemia, hypoglycemia, frequent infections, osteoporosis and poor immune function.

Occasionally I will run across a vegetarian that is not aware of the essential nutrients inherently lacking in the typical vegetarian diet and much of their health problems are easily corrected by restoring these imbalances through diet or supplements.

Most vegetarians are already savvy about alternative protein sources and the importance of pairing those proteins appropriately to ensure the essential amino acids are all covered. So aside from protein, what are the most important vitamins, minerals, and nutrients to watch out for?

#1 B12-This vitamin is one of the toughest nutrients to get in a vegan diet and most vegan folks simply resort to taking it in a supplement to avoid the development of pernicious anemia or debilitating nervous system dysfunction.

The RDA is 3 mcg.

You can get that from eating three tablespoons of brewers yeast, or three sheets of nori. Chlorella and spirulina are also excellent sources of B-12. If you are vegan you REALLY need to worry about B-12 and be eating algae or yeast everyday, or you can take a multi-vitamin (it’s best to take the B vitamins all together as a group then individually, as they all work together).

If you are ovo-lacto then you can achieve this level by having two eggs and two cups of milk each day; or two two eggs along with two other dairy servings such as cheese or yogurt.

#2 Iron- The Standard American Diet (SAD) is highly dependent on red meat for iron. Absorption of iron is dependent on stomach acid. The vegetarian form of iron requires vitamin C for conversion to the bioavailable form the body can use. Most fresh fruits and vegetables are high in vitamin C.

You can cook with cast iron skillets to also increase iron content in food as acidic foods like tomato sauces pull the iron out of the pan.

Vegetarian sources of iron from highest to lowest are tofu, black strap molasses, amaranth, lentils, swiss chard, dulse, lima beans, potato, wheat germ, pinto beans, kidney beans, dandelion greens, kale, pumpkin seeds, black beans, spinach, broccoli, almonds, pumpkin, beet greens, brewers yeast, quinoa, teff, figs, raisins, prunes, green beans, millet, whole wheat, parsley, kelp, oats, corn, peanuts, cashew butter, almond butter, blueberries, bananas and raspberries.

#3 Zinc- Is really important for the immune system, as well as for skin, and neurological health. If you tend to get frequent infections you should definitely add more zinc rich foods in to your diet to optimize your immune system.

We need at least 15mg of zinc daily if not 30-50mg for optimal health.

The following foods rich in zinc contain about 2-5mg of zinc per serving and are listed in the order of highest to lowest: wheat germ toasted (1/4 cup), swiss chard, lima beans, baked potato, oats, mustard greens, pumpkin seeds, soybeans, rice, kidney beans, ginger root, wild rice, peas, leeks, lentils, cashews, sunflower seeds, and lima beans.

#4 Omega-3 Fatty Acids-Almost all Americans are deficient in these fats that are necessary for a healthy nervous system as well as fighting inflammation. The best vegetarian source is freshly ground flaxseeds. Raw walnuts are also a decent source of Omega-3’s.

Feel free to read my article on the Flax vs Fish debate and decide for yourself the best choice for your omega 3’s. If fish oil is needed as an anti-inflammatory medicine some vegetarians opt to make an exception to their dietary rules to ensure adequate intake of this nutrient.

Otherwise, buy yourself a little coffee grinder and a big bag of flaxseeds and grind them up fresh before adding to soups, salads, brown rice, smoothies, applesauce, or yogurt. Flaxseed oil is extremely delicate and should not be cooked above 100 F. One tablespoon has 2 grams of fiber. Flax is also rich in protein and “lignans” that act as phytoestrogens and thus are a great choice for women trying to balance hormones. I mix flax oil with equal parts of lemon juice or apple cider vinegar and add various herbs to make a quick healthy salad dressing.

Whatever you do, don’t waste your money on supplements that have “the perfect balance of omega-3’s and 6’s” as a vegetarian diet is RICH with omega 6’s so you don’t need to pay to take these in a supplement.

#5 Calcium-Last but not least, calcium is tough enough to get in the SAD diet, and vegan makes it that much tougher. Be sure to always use a calcium enriched soy, rice, almond or other milk substitute for the most of your calcium needs. Women over 40 especially need to be on top of this for osteoporosis prevention. Typically about three to four servings of these milks a day should get you what you need when it comes to calcium.

The take home message with calcium is that you need GREEN LEAFIES. Pretty much everyone needs green leafies.

Vegans will need to eat a HUGE plate of green leafies each day. Cooking them increases the availability of calcium.

The best sources of calcium from highest to lowest are: Cooked turnip greens, torula yeast, collard greens, cooked rhubarb, spinach, oatmeal, tofu, broccoli, dandelion greens, swiss chard, blackstrap molasses, soy flour, mustard greens, almonds, baked beans, filberts, oranges, cooked kale, fresh spinach, tahini, and garbanzo beans. Just remember that green=minerals. So eat your greens people!

Resources:, “Medical Nutrition from Marz” by Dr. Marz

Feel free to let me know what other vegetarian health topics you would like me to address, be sure to subscribe and check back for the answer!

~Dr. Nicole Sundene

Naturopathic Physician

  1. Nice Site layout for your blog. I am looking forward to reading more from you.

    Tom Humes

  2. Thanks for stopping by Tom 😀

  3. […] make sure you have your nutritional bases covered for a long term healthy, happy vegetarian lifes Korean BBQ restaurant opens in Gilbert East Valley Tribune Don??t be thrown off by its […]

  4. […] make sure you have your nutritional bases covered for a long term healthy, happy vegetarian lifes, Healthy Snacks And A Dental Check Up Will Help Kids Miss Fewer School Days Medical News […]

  5. Very good ^_^ It helped me with homework lol

  6. Oh and also are any of these water soluable

  7. I’m not sure, but I’d have to assume that in the calcium sources list, the tahini mentioned is a hulled one. Unhulled would have as much as 10 times the amount of calcium, which is, if I recall correctly right about 1,300 mg per 100 grams.

    Growing in the middle east, I’m used to have tahini all the time. I don’t think calcium can be a problem if you consume that.

    Besides that, there are more and more researches showing that non vegan diets are more likely to be calcium deficient, claiming milk is so brutal to the digestion system, that it actually robs it from it’s calcium, rather than being such a reliable source as some like to present it. They say that vegan diets are much less likely to loose calcium, just because they do not include animal proteins.

    Most of the healthiest populations in the world (including the Okinawans in Japan), did not consume almost any animal products. Usually around 1 percent of their diet.

  8. Hi,

    I have been a vegan for 10 years and got some blood work done for the first time. Everything in your top 5 list was fine, but I have a vitamin D deficiency. Well, no wonder why! When I looked up Vitamin D I found that all the good dietary natural sources were meat or animal by products. I already knew to make sure I was getting enough calcium, b-12, and iron, because articles like these have let me know they are potential sources of problems. However, vegans really need to know about Vitamin D. Don’t assume you can get enough from the sun, even if like me, you work outside 3 full days a week!
    .-= Melissa´s last blog ..Of the Earth Bracelet =-.

    • Great point, thanks Melissa you are correct that most sources of vitamin D are from animals so vegans are at risk. Ask your doctor to do bi-annual 25-D-OH screening and shoot for the 60 range (depending on your lab) when people are low normal I get concerned. There is new research out that the adrenals may store vitamin D from the summer. But I still supplement….living in Seattle.

  9. Don’t forget iodine…

Leave a Reply to Eran Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *