Vegan and vegetarian diets are both very healthy ways of eating.
They have been linked to multiple health benefits and a lower risk of excess weight, heart disease, and even some types of cancer.
However, a few nutrients are either difficult or impossible to get in adequate amounts from plant foods. Therefore, it’s very important to be aware and supplement your diet with them to maintain health or physical performance.
Here are 7 nutrients commonly lacking in vegetarian and vegan diets.
1. Vitamin B12
Also known as cobalamin, it’s a water-soluble nutrient involved in developing red blood cells and maintaining nerves and normal brain function.
Studies have shown that without supplements or enriched foods, vegetarians are at a high risk of vitamin B12 deficiency (
Lacto-ovo-vegetarians can get adequate amounts of this nutrient from dairy products and eggs, but this is much more challenging for vegans (3).
The symptoms and risks associated with vitamin B12 deficiency include:
- weakness, fatigue (
- impaired brain function (
- neurological disorders (
- psychiatric disorders (
- neurological disorders in babies of breastfeeding mothers (
- megaloblastic anemia (
- possible links to Alzheimer’s disease (14)
- possible links to heart disease (
To get sufficient amounts of vitamin B12, those following a vegan diet must get vitamin B12 by taking supplements or eating food that has been fortified with this nutrient.
In addition, a few plant foods naturally contain trace amounts of bioactive vitamin B12, including:
Nori seaweed is considered the most suitable source of biologically available vitamin B12 for vegans, though it doesn’t provide a sufficient amount on its own (
However, those are not considered to be sufficient sources of dietary vitamin B12 and do not provide the daily need.
Another plant food often claimed to contain vitamin B12 is spirulina. However, it offers only pseudovitamin B12, which is not biologically available. For this reason, it’s unsuitable as a source of this vitamin (
If you want to boost your vitamin B12 intake, you can buy vegan-friendly supplements locally or online.
SUMMARY Vitamin B12 is only found in animal and fortified foods, as well as in small amounts in certain types of seaweed. People following a vegan diet should supplement with a vegan vitamin B12 supplement.
Creatine is a molecule found in animal foods.
Most of it is stored in muscles but significant amounts are also concentrated in the brain.
It functions as an easily accessible energy reserve for muscle cells, giving them greater strength and endurance (
For this reason, it’s one of the world's most popular supplements for muscle building.
Studies show that creatine supplements can increase both muscle mass and strength (
Creatine is not essential in your diet, as it can be produced by your liver. However, studies have shown that vegetarians tend to have lower amounts of creatine in their muscles (
One study placed people on a lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet for 26 days and found that doing so caused a significant decrease in their muscle creatine levels (
Because creatine is only naturally found in animal tissue, vegetarians and vegans can only get it from supplements.
For vegetarians, creatine supplements may have significant benefits, including:
Some of these effects are stronger in people on a vegetarian diet than in meat eaters. For instance, vegetarians taking creatine supplements may experience significant improvements in brain function while meat eaters see no difference (
This may be attributed to the meat eaters already having higher levels of creatine in their muscles as a result of their diet.
You can purchase vegan-friendly creatine supplements locally or online.
SUMMARY Creatine is a bioactive compound that is lacking in plant-based diets. It plays an important role in brain and muscle function.
Carnosine is only found in animal-based foods. However, it’s considered non-essential, as your body can form it from the amino acids histidine and beta-alanine.
Dietary sources of beta-alanine may contribute significantly to muscle levels of carnosine, but the main dietary sources ⁠—⁠ meat, poultry, and fish — are non-vegetarian.
Fortunately, there are multiple vegan beta-alanine supplements available online.
SUMMARY Carnosine is a nutrient only found in animal-derived foods. It’s important for muscle function. Beta-alanine supplements increase the levels of carnosine in muscles.
4. Vitamin D3 (Cholecalciferol)
Vitamin D is an essential nutrient with many important functions.
Also called the sunshine vitamin, vitamin D doesn’t have to come from your diet.
Your skin can produce it when it’s exposed to sunlight. However, if your sunlight exposure is limited or you live far from the equator, you must get it from food or supplements.
There are two types of dietary vitamin D — ergocalciferol (D2) found in plants and cholecalciferol (D3) found in animal-based foods.
The best sources of vitamin D3 are fatty fish and egg yolks. Other sources include supplements, cod liver oil, or enriched foods like milk or cereals (
As the main dietary sources of vitamin D3 are not plant-based, vegetarians and vegans may be at a higher risk of deficiency, especially during the winter in countries north or south of the equator.
Deficiency in vitamin D is linked to an increased risk of various adverse conditions, including:
- osteoporosis, with an increased risk of fractures in older adults (
- cancer (
- heart disease (
- multiple sclerosis (
- depression (
- impaired brain function (
- muscle wasting and reduced strength, especially in older people (
53, 54, 55, 56)
SUMMARY Cholecalciferol (D3) is a type of vitamin D found in animal-sourced foods, especially fatty fish, and it’s more effective at raising blood levels of vitamin D than the plant form of vitamin D (D2). Vegan vitamin D3 supplements can be purchased online.
5. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
In addition, inadequate DHA intake in pregnant women may adversely affect fetal brain development (
It’s mainly found in fatty fish, fish oil, and certain types of microalgae.
These supplements are available in specialty stores and online.
SUMMARY Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is an essential omega-3 fatty acid found in fatty fish and fish oil. It’s also present in microalgae, which are a suitable dietary source for vegetarians and vegans.
6. Heme iron
Heme iron is a type of iron only found in meat, especially red meat.
It’s much better absorbed than non-heme iron, which is commonly found in plant foods (
Heme iron also improves your absorption of non-heme iron from plant foods. This phenomenon is not entirely understood but is called the “meat factor.”
Non-heme iron is poorly absorbed, and its absorption can be limited further by antinutrients that are also present in plant foods, such as phytic acid.
Unlike non-heme iron, the absorption of heme iron is not affected by the presence of antinutrients.
However, iron deficiency is easy to avoid on a well-planned vegan diet that contains plenty of non-heme iron.
SUMMARY Meat, especially red meat, contains a type of iron called heme iron, which is much better absorbed than non-heme iron from plant foods.
Taurine is only found in animal-sourced foods, such as fish, seafood, meat, poultry, and dairy products (
It’s not considered essential in the diet, as your body produces small amounts. Still, dietary taurine may play a role in maintaining your body’s taurine levels.
Synthetic taurine supplements are widely available and suitable for vegetarians and vegans.
SUMMARY Taurine is a sulfur compound that has several functions in your body. It’s only found naturally in animal-based foods but also available in synthetic supplement form.
The bottom line
Well-planned vegetarian and vegan diets are very healthy.
Unfortunately, a few nutrients are impossible or difficult to get from commonly consumed plant foods.
If you plan to eliminate animal-sourced foods from your diet, make sure to keep those nutrients in mind, and take dietary supplements to make sure that you’re getting everything your body needs.