The number of people claiming to be vegetarian has increased in the last 50 years although vegetarianism has been practised for years; it is becoming more popular, mainly due to perceived health benefits. However meat and dairy products are major contributors of nutrients such as iron, zinc, calcium, riboflavin (B2) and vitamin B12. If you are a vegan, you could be deficient in more micronutrients compared with vegetarians if their diet is not planned carefully.  

Research and food surveys show vegetarian intakes of Vitamins C, folate and thiamine (B1) are higher than those of meat eaters. Vitamin E intakes are generally adequate as vegans and vegetarians tend to eat more nuts, vegetable oils and whole grains. Similarly they consume more green leafy vegetables compared to the general population which supply Vitamin K needed for bone metabolism.  Vitamin A has different forms including retinol (from fat spreads, milk, eggs, yoghurt) and beta carotene (yellow and orange veg and fruits). Although retinol intakes are lower in vegan and vegetarians, vegetable based diets are higher in carotenoids, partially compensating for lower intakes of retinol and helping to ensure adequate intake of Vitamin A. Retinol in vegan diets are available from fortified foods such as breakfast cereals and fortified vegan spreads. (F. Phillips, 2005)

Although in general, iron intakes of vegetarians and vegans are similar to or higher than those of meat-eaters but female vegetarians, in particular, have lower iron stores, as indicated by serum ferritin levels, as the proportion absorbed from the diet may be less in vegetarians and vegans. Consequently, they are more prone to iron-deficiency anaemia and supplementation may be appropriate as an adjunct to a balanced diet.

Calcium and protein is available in vegetarian diets from milk and dairy products (legumes, nuts, tofu also sources of protein), however may be harder to obtain from a vegan diet, so supplementation may be helpful.

Other B vitamins such as B2 can be supplemented as they help with red blood cell formation immune health and help reduce tiredness and fatigue. They also help turn food into energy and B6 also contributes to hormonal balance.  Although vegetarians have similar intakes of vitamin B6 to, the general population, particularly vegans, have lower intakes of vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 is needed during pregnancy and lactation. Vegans have a diet high in leafy green vegetables which should provide enough folic acid, however supplementation can be helpful for older vegans.

Research shows higher intakes of iron, copper, potassium and magnesium have been observed for vegan diets but vegans have lower intakes of selenium, calcium and iodine than meat-eaters. Especially women can be more prone to iron deficiency anaemia. Although a vegan diet can be high in iron, iron from plant-based food is absorbed by the body less well than iron from meat. (F. Phillips, 2005)

Iodine is mainly found in cow’s milk, shellfish and seafood- so can be beneficial to add to vegan products especially. Selenium can be found in prawns, pumpkin seeds and eggs and addition of it to vegan products can be beneficial but not mandatory. Main sources of zinc are from meat products. Zinc can also be obtained from shellfish.

It is important for us all to have a healthy, varied and balanced diet and active lifestyle. Being a vegan or vegetarian this can be trickier as some nutrients (e.g.iron, B12) are found in smaller amounts in plant sources are less easily absorbed by the body than those in meat or fish.

[1] F. Phillips ,Vegetarian nutrition, British Nutrition Foundation, London, UK, 2005 British Nutrition Foundation, Nutrition Bulletin,30, 132–167