Veganism is the dietary term for the practice of omitting all products derived wholly or partly from animals, such as not eating (and often wearing) meat, eggs, honey and dairy products. A vegan is an individual who follows the diet or philosophy. Switching to a vegan diet from a typical diet means the elimination of meat and animal products. More and more people have decided to go vegan for ethical, environmental, or other health reasons. The cruel practices and high environmental cost of raising animals for food are the main reasons for excluding meat from the diet. However, a diet based entirely on plant foods may, in some cases, increase the risk of nutrient deficiencies.
Nutritional Deficiencies in A Vegan Diet
A meatless diet is perceived to be healthy diet. Vegans have been linked to multiple health benefits and a lower risk of excess weight, heart disease, and even some types of cancer. One common concern about vegan diets is whether they provide our body with all the vitamins and minerals it needs. Vegans need to ensure they are getting sufficient vitamin B12, omega, iron, calcium, and zinc as these are the nutrients we cannot sufficiently get from plants. Here in this article, we discuss about the nutrients we need while on a vegan diet.
Spirulina is a type of cyanobacteria, which is a family of single-celled microbes often described as blue-green coloured algae that became popular after it was successfully used by NASA as a dietary supplement for astronauts on space missions. It is packed with various nutrients and antioxidants that may do good to our body and brain. Spirulina contains vitamin B12 naturally, and while several studies show that anyone can have low vitamin B12 levels, though vegetarians and vegans have a higher risk of deficiency1,2.
Vitamin B12 is vital for many bodily processes, including metabolism of protein and the production of red blood cells. Too little vitamin B12 can lead to anaemia and nervous system injury, along with infertility and bone and heart disease. A study showed that the supplementation of Spirulina in the diet of vitamin B12 deficient organisms leads to the normalization of vitamin B12 deficiency-induced circulatory and functional biomarkers along with biochemical and histological changes3. This study provides scientific proof for the use of Spirulina as a prospective vegetarian source of bioavailable vitamin B12.
Our source of docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, a type of omega-3 fat, is from the vegan friendly algae. Our body cannot efficiently produce DHA from other fatty acids, so we need to consume it directly from food or a supplement4. Omega-3 fatty acids that are found plentiful in oily fish, for instance salmon and anchovies, have been linked to healthy aging throughout life. Rather than being stored and utilised as energy source, DHA is very well known in supporting brain function, and eye health being an important structural component of the retinas in the eyes.
Dandelion is an herbaceous perennial plant that has been used as a remedy for anaemia, purifying the blood, and providing immune modulation5. Dandelion is a rich source of vitamins and minerals and is particularly high in vitamins A and C and iron, carrying more iron and calcium than spinach6,7. Our body uses iron to make haemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to all parts of the body, and myoglobin, a protein that provides oxygen to muscles. Experimental study of haemoglobin in the control groups with experimental groups treated with dandelion showed significant increases in mean haemoglobin across three experimental groups compared to control5.
Moringa, native to India, now grows in the tropical and subtropical regions. Recently moringa oleifera has become popular as a food supplement due to its high vitamin, mineral, and protein content. It is loaded in nutrition owing to the presence of a variety of essential phytochemicals found in its leaves, pods, and seeds8. It is said to provide 17 times more calcium than milk and 25 times more iron than spinach9. About 6 spoonsful of moringa powder can meet a woman's daily iron and calcium requirements, during pregnancy10. It is especially abundant with calcium; therefore it is widely used as a calcium supplement for food11. Our body needs calcium to build and maintain strong bones. Our heart, muscles and nerves also need calcium to function properly.
Garlic is a polyphenolic and organosulfur enriched nutraceutical spice consumed since ancient times12. It grows in many parts of the world and is a well-liked ingredient in cooking as it can turn all sorts of bland dishes delicious, and it is very nutritious. It contains high levels of potassium, phosphorus zinc, and sulfur, moderate levels of selenium, calcium, magnesium, manganese, iron, and low levels of sodium, vitamin A and C and B-complex13. Zinc helps in building our immune system and maintaining metabolism function. Zinc is also important to wound healing and sharpening our sense of taste and smell.
“Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.” This is one of the famous quotes from the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, also called the father of Western medicine. It is a known concern about vegan diets on whether they provide the body with all the vitamins and minerals it needs. Despite being well intended with numerous health benefits, including improved blood sugar control and heart health, and can help to lose weight, any diet that eliminates entire food groups can lead to nutritional deficiencies. As discussed in this article, spirulina (source of vitamin B12), DHA, dandelion (source of iron), moringa (source of calcium), and garlic (source of zinc) may provide the essential nutrients normally found in animal products, while being on vegan diet.
- Pawlak R, Parrott SJ, Raj S, Cullum-Dugan D, Lucus D. How prevalent is vitamin B(12) deficiency among vegetarians? Nutr Rev. 2013 Feb;71(2):110-7. doi: 10.1111/nure.12001.
- Gilsing AMJ, Crowe FL, Lloyd-Wright Z, Sanders TAB, Appleby PN, Allen NE, Key TJ. Serum concentrations of vitamin B12 and folate in British male omnivores, vegetarians and vegans: results from a cross-sectional analysis of the EPIC-Oxford cohort study. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2010 Sep;64(9):933-9. doi: 10.1038/ejcn.2010.142.
- Madhubalaji CK, Rashmi V, Chauhan VS, Shylaja MD, Sarada R. Improvement of vitamin B12 status with Spirulina supplementation in Wistar rats validated through functional and circulatory markers. J Food Biochem. 2019 Nov;43(11):e13038. doi: 10.1111/jfbc.13038.
- Swanson D, Block R, Mousa SA. Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA: health benefits throughout life. Adv Nutr. 2012 Jan;3(1):1-7. doi: 10.3945/an.111.000893.
- Modaresi M, Resalatpour N. The Effect of Taraxacum officinale Hydroalcoholic Extract on Blood Cells in Mice. Adv Hematol. 2012; 2012: 653412. Published online 2012 Jul 12. doi: 10.1155/2012/653412.
- Ali Z. Medicinal Plants. Tehran, Iran: Tehran University Press; 1989.
- US Department of Agriculture. Agricultural Research Service. Dandelion. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/169226/nutrients. Accessed on 30/1/2023.
- Islam Z, Islam SMR, Hossen F, Mahtab-Ul-Islam K, Hasan MR, Karim R. Moringa oleifera is a Prominent Source of Nutrients with Potential Health Benefits. Int J Food Sci. 2021; 2021: 6627265. Published online 2021 Aug 10. doi: 10.1155/2021/6627265
- Rockwood JL, Anderson BG, Casamatta DA. Potential uses of Moringa oleifera and an examination of antibiotic efficacy conferred by M. oleifera seed and leaf extracts using crude extraction techniques available to underserved indigenous populations. Int. J. Phytotherapy Res., 3 (2013), pp. 61-71.
- Gopalakrishnan L, Doriya K, Kumar DS. Moringa oleifera: A review on nutritive importance and its medicinal application. Food Science and Human Wellness. Volume 5, Issue 2, June 2016, Pages 49-56.
- Yun YR, Oh SJ, Lee MJ, Choi YJ, Park SJ, Lee MA, Min SG, Seo HY, Park SH. Antioxidant activity and calcium bioaccessibility of Moringa oleifera leaf hydrolysate, as a potential calcium supplement in food. Food Sci Biotechnol. 2020 Nov; 29(11): 1563–1571. Published online 2020 Sep 5. doi: 10.1007/s10068-020-00820-9.
- Ansary J, Forbes-Hernández TY, Gil E, Cianciosi D, Zhang JJ, Elexpuru-Zabaleta M, Simal-Gandara J, Giampieri F, Battino M. Potential Health Benefit of Garlic Based on Human Intervention Studies: A Brief Overview. Antioxidants (Basel). 2020 Jul; 9(7): 619. Published online 2020 Jul 15. doi: 10.3390/antiox9070619.
- Agarwal K.C. Therapeutic actions of garlic constituents. Med. Res. Rev. 1996;16:111–124. doi: 10.1002/(SICI)1098-1128(199601)16:1<111::AID-MED4>3.0.CO;2-5.