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    Why You Should Think Twice About Vegetarian & Vegan Diets

    Why You Should Think Twice About Vegetarian & Vegan Diets

    There are many reasons why someone may decide to go vegan or vegetarian. Some are compelled by environmental animal feeding operations while others by ethical or religious reasons. I respect these choices, even if my own exploration of these questions has led me to a different answer.

    But many choose vegan or vegetarian diet because they believe it’s a healthier choice from a nutritional perspective. For the last 50 years, we have been told that meat, eggs, and animal fats are bad for us. This is has been so drilled into our brains that very few people ever question it anymore. 

    Plant-based diets emphasize vegetables, which are very nutrient dense, and fruits, which are somewhat nutrient dense. However, these diets often include larger amounts of cereal grains (refined and unrefined) and legumes, both of which are low in bioavailable nutrients and high in anti-nutrients such as phytate. They also avoid organ meats, meats, fish, and shellfish, which are among the most nutrient-dense foods you can eat (1).

    Vegan diets, in particular, are almost completely devoid of certain nutrients that are crucial for physiological function. Several studies have shown that both vegetarians and vegans are prone to deficiencies in B12, calcium, iron, zinc, the long-chain fatty acids EPA and DHA, and fat-soluble vitamins such as A and D. 

    Let’s take a closer look at these nutrients on a vegan or vegetarian diet:


    This vitamin works together with folate in the synthesis of DNA and red blood cells. It’s also involved in the production of the myelin sheath around the nerves, and the conduction of nerve impulses. Studies have shown that 68% of vegetarians and 83% of vegans are deficient, compared to 5% of omnivores (2). B12 deficiencies can cause symptoms of fatigue, lethargy, weakness, memory loss, neurological and psychiatric problems, anemia, and much more! It’s also a myth that it’s possible to get B12 from plant sources such as seaweed, fermented soy, spirulina, and brewers yeast, but these foods actually contain B12 analogs called cobamides that block the intake of and increase the need for B12. 


    The bioavailability of calcium from plant foods is affected by vegans levels of oxalate and phytate, which are inhibitors of calcium absorption and thus decrease the amount of calcium the body can extract from plant foods (3). So while leafy greens like spinach and kale have a relatively high calcium content, the calcium is not efficiently absorbed during digestion. 


    Ferritin, the long-term storage form of iron are notably lower in vegetarian and vegans (4). As with calcium, the bioavailability of the iron in plant foods is much lower than in animal foods. Plant-based forms of iron are also inhibited by other commonly consumed substances, such as coffee, tea, dairy products, supplemental fiber, and supplemental calcium. This explains why vegetarian diets have been shown to reduce non-heme iron absorption by 70% and total iron absorption of 85% (5).


    Although deficiencies not often seen in Western vegetarians, their intake still often falls below recommendations. This is another case where bioavailability is important. Many plant foods containing zinc also contain phytate, which inhibits zinc absorption by about 35% compared to omnivorous diets (8). Therefore, deficiency may still occur. This study suggested that vegetarians may even require 50% more zinc than omnivores (9).

    EPA and DHA

    Plant foods contain both linoleic acid (omega-6) and alpha-linolenic acid (omega-3) which are both considered to be essential fatty acids, meaning that they cannot be synthesized or produced by the body and therefore must be obtained through food. Of the two essential amino acids, EPA and DHA from omega-3 fatty acids play a protective role in the body such as fighting disease, cancer, asthma, depression, cardiovascular disease, ADHD, and autoimmune disease by greatly reducing inflammation in the body. Although it is possible for some omega-3 fatty acids from plant foods to be converted to EPA and DHA, that conversion is poor: between 5-10% for EPA and 2-5% for DHA (10). Vegetarians also have 30% lower EPA and nearly 60% lower DHA (11). 

    Fat-Soluble Vitamins

    Probably one of the biggest problems with vegetarian and vegan diets is their near total lack of the fat-soluble vitamins A and D. Fat-soluble vitamins are critical to human health. Vitamin A promotes healthy immune function, fertility, eyesight, and skin. Vitamin D regulates calcium metabolism, immune function, reduces inflammation and protects against many forms of cancer. These fat-soluble vitamins are concentrated and found almost exclusively in animal foods: seafood, organ meats, eggs and dairy products (12). Also, the idea that plant foods contain vitamin A is a misconception. Plants contain beta-carotene, the precursor to active vitamin A (retinol). While beta-carotene is converted into vitamin A in humans, the conversion is inefficient (13).

    With care and attention, it is possible to meet nutrient needs with a VEGETARIAN diet that includes liberal amounts of pasture-raised, full-fat dairy and eggs, with one exception: EPA and DHA. These long-chain omega fats are found exclusively in marine algae and fish and shellfish, so the only way to get them on a vegetarian diet would be to take a microalgae supplement (which contains DHA) or to take fish-oil or cod-liver oil as a supplement (which isn’t vegetarian). Still, while it may be possible to obtain adequate nutrition on a vegetarian diet, it is not optimal—as the research above indicates.

    I do not, however, think it’s possible to meet nutrient needs on a vegan diet without supplements—and quite a few of them. Vegan diets are low in B12, bioavailable iron and zinc, choline, vitamin A & D, calcium, and EPA and DHA. So if you’re intent on following a vegan diet, make sure you are supplementing with those nutrients

    When working with clients who I believe may suffer from nutrition deficiencies I often run a micronutrients blood test to see exactly where we need to fill in the gaps. Click here more information on testing and nutrition consulting.

    Guest post by Rachel Scheer, BS Nutrition & Dietetics from Baylor University. DFW Clinical Nutritionist (www.rachelscheer.com - @rachelscheer)

    Is a Vegan Lifestyle Right For Me?

    Is a Vegan Lifestyle Right For Me?

    From grocery stores to restaurants, you may have noticed “vegan” is a trendy phrase seemingly popping up everywhere recently.

    According to the International Food and Restaurant consulting group Baum + Whiteman, Google saw a 90 percent increase in vegan searches this past year.


    Plus, that group says plant-based dining is the number one hottest restaurant trend of 2018.

    Regardless of your personal interest in plant-based eating, there is no denying it appears companies are taking steps to attract meatless consumers.  

    Several years ago, Unilever tried to sue Hampton Creek, alleging the company’s “Just Mayo” was mislabeled because it does not contain eggs.  Unilever argued mayonnaise should have eggs as an active ingredient. And while Unilever eventually dropped the lawsuit, it decided to enter the plant-based market by coming out with its own egg-free spread.

    We have established corporations investing in smaller plant-based manufacturers. For example, Nestle acquired Sweet Earth Foods, a move that makes Nestle a contender in the meatless protein game.

    It may come as no surprise that the fitness industry is also apparently turning its attention to meat alternatives in an effort to keep up with the growing popularity of veganism.

    Perhaps you have considered a plant-based diet yourself but you aren’t sure where to start.  Or, you have brought up the idea only to be met with resistance from trusted allies in the fitness community.  If so, you’re not alone.

    When I initially contacted high profile coaches to help me prep for my very first competition, some flat out refused to work with me because I am vegan.  I was told I would not be able to step on stage without consuming animal protein. I was told I wouldn’t be competitive. A few coaches never even responded to my messages.

    Marginalized by the fitness industry, I was starting to second guess if I could make it as a natural and vegan competitor.  However, having overcome many obstacles in life, I knew “no” was never the final answer. I refused to accept defeat before I even started my competition journey.

    Long before competing was even on my radar, I followed a “high protein/low carb” diet.  And while I lost weight, the pounds quickly came back as soon as I began eating “carbs” again.  Plus, large amounts of animal protein left me feeling sluggish.

    My reasons for going vegan were initially rooted in health.  After a 2013 surgery, I researched the connection between health and food.  I soon transitioned to veganism and never looked back.

    Plant-based eating has come a long way in the last five years.  Still, it can be confusing navigating the sea of vegan information.  I suggest starting with one meatless day a week and going from there.  

    You definitely do not have to sacrifice size for a plant-based diet.  Thankfully, you have more choices than ever before. Companies like Icon Meals offer vegan options that take the guesswork out of the equation by making sure you meet your protein macros.

    I personally follow macro based nutrition and I have no issues hitting my daily protein goals.

    In a world where tilapia and chicken breasts are king and queen, could tofu and tempeh topple these bodybuilding staples from their throne of tradition?  Only time will tell. But until then, you have plenty of meat-free options to help you reach your fitness aspirations.

    Amy is an OCB Masters Bikini pro.  You can follow her on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/aszutowicz/