“You don’t know what you are missing out upon!!”
If you are a Vegetarian I’m sure you have heard this at least once and if you are an omnivore, I bet you have said it to your vegetarian friends!
Now taste and personal preferences are very subjective, there really is no point in arguing about that. But the nutritional content of different foods are objective and that leaves a room for argument that Vegan and Vegetarian diets perhaps can be somewhat limiting! Let us check out some of the common nutrients of concern-
1. Vitamin B-12
Cobalamin or commonly known as Vitamin B-12 is a micronutrient that is involved in energy metabolism, DNA synthesis, proper functioning of the nervous system, and bone marrow maturation etc. It is an important and essential vitamin (means our bodies can not produce them) that we need to obtain from food sources.
Vitamin B12 can be synthesized only by certain microorganisms that can be found on soil and in the gut of grass grazing animals. Plants by design cannot produce cobalamine.
Good food sources of Vitamin B-12 include organ meats, steaks, fish, milk, and eggs. As you can see, all of these are animal food sources. Lacto and Ovo vegetarians can still get some B12 but Vegans may really struggle to obtain any significant amount from diet only. Which is why Vegans are advised to take a B12 supplement every day.
Tip: contrary to the popular belief, seaweed, spirulina, and nutritional yeast do not contain any significant amount of B-12.
Takeaway: Yes, purely vegetarian/vegan diets can be deficient in vitamin B-12. A nutritional supplement is recommended.
Omega-3 is an essential fatty acid that is necessary for normal metabolism, keeping inflammation at the bay and for the normal blood lipid profile. Humans are unable to synthesize these so we need to obtain them from food sources. Now there are 3 forms of omega-3.
Alpha-Linolenic acid (ALA): This one is found mostly in plant sources
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA): Mostly found in fish, especially cold water fish.
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA): Readily found in marine animals, fish, and marine algae. Humans can synthesize it from ALA. This is the form of omega-3 that is found abundantly in our brains. This is the type of omega 3 our body can readily use.
Now here is the fun thing. ALA can be converted into EPA and EPA can be converted into DHA, so technically ALA can be converted into DHA. So, Vegetarians don’t need to worry, right?
Not all of ALA gets converted into EPA or DHA. Most of it is used for energy metabolism (it’s a fat after all!) and some amount is converted into EPA, and then into DHA. But the rate of conversion can be as low as <0.1 – 0.5%   . To put things in perspective, say we need 250-500 mg of DHA+EPA (which is what most world health authorities recommend, 3), how much ALA would you need to consume to get even closer to meeting this requirement? A LOT in fact!
If you are someone who enjoys careful meal planning and are including rich sources of ALA like Basil seeds (sabja), Chia seeds, Flax seeds (alsi), Hemp seeds, walnuts in your diet throughout the day and on a regular basis then you are in a good place but if you are not, then probably you should!
OR you can also go for Vegan DHA supplements derived from algae!
Takeaway: Include rich plant sources of omega 3 like Sabja seeds, Flax seeds, Chia seeds, Walnuts, hemp seeds in your daily diet. Do grind the seeds for better absorption. A mindful meal planning will help you meet your omega 3 needs. Or else you can opt out for Omega 3(DHA) supplements, the Vegan ones derived from algae!
So those were our top two nutrients that a purely vegetarian diet lacks. Apart from these, vegetarian people tend to have low levels of vitamin D, mineral calcium and hemoglobin (Iron+protein) levels if compared with their omnivores counterparts. But all of these can be taken care by some careful meal planning and by getting plenty of sunlight.
You know you can get all the vitamin D you need by spending around 15 minutes in the sunlight!
Want to know how to Increase your Iron intake? Read,
For finding rich Calcium Sources, read
Have any doubts about whether you are meeting your protein needs? Read this one (written for pregnant women, but the information can be applicable to everyone!)
With this, we are concluding our Vegetarian diet series. Hope you had a great week. If have any questions or want personalized diet recommendations, consult our expert dietitians @DawaiBox.