Vegetarian And Vegan Diets: Getting It Right.

I see a wide variety of clients with different needs, lifestyles and conditions and obviously I encounter many different eating styles and patterns along the way. Whether someone chooses to eat meat and animal products or not is none of my business. My job is to make sure that whatever path they choose, they do this as healthily as possible. I see healthy vegetarians. I see healthy omnivores. But I do encounter unhealthy versions of both as well. This post is about addressing some of the more common issues on a vegetarian / vegan diet in an effort to help combat some of these errors so that long term chronic health problems can be avoided.

This is only a brief overview – top 3 rookie errors if you like. If you feel that your current diet is not optimized or if any of the below symptoms resonate with you then book in and lets discuss. Don’t leave it. Hopefully the below summary will give you a picture that this isn’t something to be messed around with. As I ALWAYS say, everything in the body starts with nutrition. Nutrition provides the building blocks for each and every process within us. So you NEED to be giving yourself all the nutrients you need every day otherwise serious health complications can arise over time.

Not getting enough protein

Problem: you miss out on essential amino acids (proteins are basically long chains of amino acids).

Issue: Most people are aware that amino acids are critical for new cell turnover (happening constantly in the body), new muscle growth and repair of all cells. But also consider this. Amino acids are the building blocks for our digestive enzymes so as soon as we end up in a protein deficit our digestion will be impaired. Without adequate digestive enzymes, it’s impossible to properly break down everything else you put in your mouth. So this is going to have serious flow on affect and lead to other nutritional deficiencies if not addressed early on.

Issue: Furthermore, amino acids such as phenylalanine, tryptophan and GABA are the precursors (or the ingredients if you like) for our neurotransmitters including serotonin and dopamine. These neurotransmitters control how we feel (happy or sad), our alertness, our motivation, memory, energy levels, movement and even our allergic responses. This is just one reason why nutrition is such a critical piece of the puzzle in mental health.

Solution: non-animal protein sources include nuts, seeds, tempeh, dairy (not vegan), chia seeds, nut butters, organic tofu, good quality protein powders, quinoa and buckwheat and legumes. Most vegetarians/vegans will need to be getting non-animal source of protein in with each and every meal or snack to negate deficiencies particularly if activity levels are high. This can take a bit of prep but health is always worth it right? Note that with the exception of quinoa and buckwheat, no other non-animal sources are ‘complete proteins’ containing all amino acids. The main culprits for deficiencies are lysine (critical for muscle growth) tryptophan (precursor for serotonin – not something you want to skimp on), methionine (needed for DNA turnover / methylation) and phenylalanine (my fav – precursor to dopamine)

Not getting enough B12

Problem: B12 deficiency is a very bad thang….

Issue: B12 is another essential ingredient for mental health, stress management and energy.

Issue: B12 deficiencies are associated with headaches / migraines and neurological symptoms, even tremors, tingles etc.

Issue: B12 is a critical ingredient for healthy red blood cells. Without enough, anaemia can set in which feels like fatigue, shortness of breath, loss of appetite, poor concentration, can’t get out of bed etc.

Issue: B12 has an ‘enzymatic role in about a billion other processes in the body. Ok, slight exaggeration but almost. This means it ‘helps’ lots of other processes happen. That are essential to life. So, once again, the flow on consequences can be wide spread.

Solution: dairy contains some B12 but that’s not an option for vegans. Nutritional yeast is an inexpensive vegan supplement worth considering. But to be honest, all vegans will need to supplement B12 and many vegetarians too. Consult a specialist about this – make sure you get the right form and dosage.

Not getting enough iron

Problem: Iron deficiency makes you feel tired, sluggish, exhausted, short of breath….

Issue: not only that, but iron is a critical factor in many other processes in the body, like B12. E.g. iron is critical for healthy immune function… not enough iron = compromised immunity. Second, iron is required for healthy thyroid. So a long term iron deficiency may add stress to the thyroid. This pops up a lot in clinic to be honest.

Issue: iron deficiency may affect your menstrual health ladies. Not good.

Solution: legumes, chickpeas, oats, green leafy vegetables, eggs, kelp and dulse flakes all contain some iron… but please keep in mind that non-heme (that’s non-meat) sources are much more difficult to glean iron from. Again, supplementation may be needed but should always be proceeded by blood test confirmation of low iron and iron stores. Iron requirements for women are greater than men due to monthly bleeds – 18mg/day to be precise. And during pregnancy – 27mg/day. Plus, athletes usually require a bit more too. Check the table below, you can see that getting enough iron may be a difficult task on a no meat diet.

Note: iron is available in different molecular forms. A common issue is constipation from taking a poorly absorbable form. You need to speak to a health professional, like a Nutritionist (i.e. contact me) and get a supplement that does not stop the pipes from working. K? It also needs to be administered with vitamin C, as C helps it absorb. There’s a reason why we have traditionally eaten ‘meat and veg.’

Look, I could go on all day. The most important thing on a vegetarian / vegan diet is to eat a wide variety of foods that you are happy to consume to try to avoid deficiencies. Make sure your GP knows your nutrition preferences so he/she can conduct blood tests regularly if he/she feels they are needed. And book in for a consultation if you are worried you haven’t quite ‘tweaked’ things to perfection just yet.

Amount (gms) Food source Iron content (mg)
1 cup Chickpeas (cooked) 4.74mg
1 cup Lentils (cooked) 6.59mg
1 cup Oats (cooked) 2.11mg
1 tsp (heaped) Cocao 0.36mg
X 2 Eggs 2mg
10 Almonds 0.5mg
1 tbs Brewers Yeast 0.3mg
1 tbs Molasses 0.9mg
1 tbs Kelp 0.14mg
1 tsp (heaped) Dulse flakes 0.8mg
1 tbs Tahini 1.5mg