Common Micronutrient Deficiencies and How to Prevent Them

Common Micronutrient Deficiencies and How to Prevent Them

Hey vibin’ vegans! If you’ve ever wondered how to make sure that you’re getting all the nutrients you need, eating a balanced diet, and setting yourself up to thrive long-term as a vegan, then you’ll find this post really useful! A plant-based diet can be incredibly nutrient-dense with a little bit of mindfulness, and in this post I want to go over common nutrient deficiencies (in the general population, not just in vegans!) and share foods you can regularly include in your diet to prevent them.

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor nor a nutrition expert and I’m not claiming otherwise. All the information I’ve encountered through personal research (and I will link sources!) I recommend taking a look at my favorite vegan nutrition resources if you’re interested in doing your own research into this topic. Also, please talk with your doctor before adding or taking away any dietary supplements.

Before we begin, a little background. We’ll be discussing micronutrient deficiencies today, which are substances such as vitamins and minerals. According to the CDC, micronutrients are substances vital to bodily function that only required in small amounts. They are not produced in the body but must be consumed through diet, which is why a poor diet can lead to micronutrient deficiency.

We’ll be keeping our discussion today to micronutrients, meaning substances needed in trace amounts in the diet. Macronutrients such as protein, carbs, and fat are their own topic, so we will save the protein talk for another post! If you’re just dying to learn about macronutrients, I’ll direct you to this article about protein and this article about essential fatty acids. Plant Proof and NutritionFacts.org have put out so much good information about macronutrients over the years, so I would recommend taking a look! Also check out my favorite vegan nutrition resources for more of my go-to sources when I want the facts on nutrition.

Okay, let’s jump in. Here are a few common micronutrient deficiencies and how to prevent them!

  • – Vitamin B12.  I’ve written about B12 several times on the blog before because it is the only micronutrient not found in meaningful quantities on a plant-based diet. If you are vegan you must be supplementing with B12. It’s a non-negotiable item in my vegan pantry. B12 is an incredibly important vitamin; it is necessary for proper red blood cell formation, neurological function, and DNA synthesis. B12 deficiency has been linked to nerve damage and anemia. The good news is that it’s incredibly easy to supplement and fortification of foods such as plant milks with B12 is becoming increasingly common. I use this brand!
  • – Vitamin D. Vitamin D deficiency is incredible common – 42% of people in the US may be D-deficient! Deficiency causes bones to become brittle and weak (a lot of people equate calcium with strong bones – which is partially true – but forget just how important vitamin D is for preventing osteoporosis!) Besides supporting strong bones, vitamin D modulates cell, neuromuscular, and immune function, and reduces inflammation. Vitamin D deficiency is likely very common because there are few foods that naturally contain D. The vitamin is produced in our bodies as sunlight hits the skin. Basically, to get your vitamin D in, you need to get outside! This can be tricky in the winter months, which is why I like to take a supplement to ensure that my daily needs are met. D and B12 are the only two vitamins I supplement for. Talk to your doctor about supplementing vitamin D if you’re worried you’re not spending enough time outside.
  • – Vitamin A. Vitamin A is a group of fat-soluble retinoids (chemical compounds that are part of the A group) that are involved in immune function, vision, reproduction, and cellular communication. You may have seen Retin-A acne creams or similar names, and that is because Vitamin A is incredible for your skin. The vitamin A found in plant foods is called beta-carotene, which the body turns into vitamin A. It’s easy to look out for vitamin A in foods because beta-carotene gives foods an orange color, so you know that naturally orange foods are rich in vitamin A. Sweet potatoes, pumpkin, carrots, mangos, oranges, etc. are all great sources – a single medium sweet potato fulfills 150% of your daily requirement! You will not need to worry about A deficiency and very likely do not need to supplement (just eat a sweet potato instead), but vitamin A is actually one of the most common micronutrient deficiencies in the world, primarily affecting the developing world.
  • – Iodine. Iodine is a trace element that makes up an essential component of the thyroid hormones thyroxine and triiodothyronine. Getting enough iodine is essential to healthy thyroid function. The amount of iodine present in various crops depends on the amount of iodine in the soil, which varies based on geographical location. Iodine-poor soils in some regions of the world have resulted in widespread deficiency, which is why many governments (including the U.S.!) have decided to implement iodized salt fortification programs. The first thing you should do to prevent iodine deficiency is check that your salt is iodized; just ¼ teaspoon of iodized salt fulfills 47% of your daily requirement for iodine. The second thing you should do is begin to incorporate sea vegetables into your diet! Sea vegetables such as kelp, nori, kombu, and wakame are uniquely high in iodine. I like making peanut kelp noodles, sushi, and nori wraps to get my sea veggies in. If you really detest the taste of ocean (I gotchu), then I would also recommend these kelp flakes. Just a small sprinkle on your food will get you to over 100% of your daily requirement.
  • – Calcium. Calcium is a mineral that people tend to be very familiar with, mostly because of clever marketing by the dairy industry that has convinced consumers that they must drink milk for calcium. Let’s go over the facts. Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body (fun fact!) and 99% of calcium in the body is stored in the bones and teeth. The other 1% is used for vascular contraction and vasodilation, muscle function, nerve transmission, intracellular signaling, and hormonal secretion. The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for calcium is 1000-1300 mg per day. Healthy sources include green vegetables such as cabbage, kale, bok choy, and broccoli and legumes such as kidney beans, tofu, and edamame beans. It’s easy to meet your calcium needs with a whole foods diet, but talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about deficiency and are interested in a blood test and supplementation.
  • – Iron. Iron deficiency is incredibly common; in fact, I would hazard a guess that everyone reading this knows at least one person with an iron deficiency, known as anemia. Iron is an essential part of hemoglobin, which is the protein that transfers oxygen from the lungs to the tissues, where it is used in cellular respiration (remember high school bio?) to produce energy. Plant foods high in iron include white beans, chocolate (hehe), lentils, spinach, tofu, kidney beans, chickpeas, potatoes, cashews, green peas, tomatoes, nuts, broccoli, and mushrooms. I’d just like to point out that 3 ounces of dark chocolate has more iron (7 milligrams and 39% of your daily value) than beef liver (5 milligrams and 28% of your daily value)! Don’t skip out on the chocolate – you’re welcome;) There’s this myth that if you have anemia, you can’t go vegan or vegetarian, and I want to encourage you to let that go. Anecdotally, I know people who have increased their blood-iron levels and cured their anemia by going vegan (my own sister is one of those people!) and as we’ve seen, there are plenty of plant foods that are high in iron. If you’re concerned about deficiency, please talk to your doctor as iron supplementation can be tricky and is best done under the guidance of a qualified health professional.
  • – Magnesium. Magnesium is an abundant mineral that is a cofactor in over 300 enzyme systems in the body. It also contributes to bone development and is required for DNA and RNA synthesis. Although many foods contain adequate amounts of magnesium, deficiency is surprisingly common in the U.S. Almost half the U.S. population (48%) consumed less than the required amount of magnesium from 2005-2006. The best sources of magnesium are green leafy vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. I find that when I log my meals into Cronometer (more on that below!) I usually hit my magnesium for the day at breakfast – that’s how easy it is to get on a vegan diet.
  • – Selenium. Selenium is a trace element that plays an important role in reproduction, thyroid and hormone metabolism, DNA synthesis, and protection from oxidative damage. Hands-down the highest plant source of selenium is brazil nuts – just one brazil nut fulfills your requirement for the day. You don’t need to eat brazil nuts for selenium though – other plant sources include baked beans, oats, lentils, cashews, green peas, bananas, and peaches.
  • – Zinc. Zinc is an essential mineral that contributes to cellular metabolism. It is required in over 100 enzyme systems and plays an important role in immune function, protein synthesis, wound healing, DNA synthesis, and cell division. Zinc is present in a variety of plant foods, including baked beans, cashews, chickpeas, oats, almonds, kidney beans, and peas.

To make all this information even more digestible (yes, pun is always intended when I’m talking nutrition information) I created a handy little infographic for you! All the info in this chart comes from the National Institute of Health; I have linked all the specific facts cited above.

Finally, I’d like to recommend a tool you can use to make sure you’re getting your micronutrients in and see which nutrient-dense foods you’re regularly eating! It’s called Cronometer and it’s an online tool and app that lets you input your food and see which nutrient requirements you’re satisfying. Of course, it cannot be completely accurate, but it’s a great way to ballpark how nutrient-dense your meals are and see where you may want to put in a little extra effort. I would not recommend logging your food every day because it’s time-consuming and could lead to obsessive behavior, but I like to input my food every once in a while to make sure that I am on track and still eating a very nutritious diet. Cronometer has all the common vitamins and minerals as well as amino acids and different types of fat and carbs; it’s really comprehensive. If you’re curious about which nutrients you’re getting the most and the least of, try tracking for a day or two! (Would you all like to see a sample day of eating plugged into Cronometer? Comment down below and I will be happy to write the post!)

I hope that you found this post very informative and helpful! This is one to save so you can reference again and again:) Are there any foods you’re planning to incorporate more of after reading this post? Comment below! And don’t forget to sign up for my newsletter to get a free meal prep planning guide, so that it will be easy to incorporate all the nutrient-dense foods mentioned above!

PS check out Why Vegan and How to Give Up Dairy

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Maille O'Donnell

Welcome to Green and Growing! I started this blog to share my passion for ethical and sustainable living. I hope this can be a place you come to for sustainable lifestyle inspiration, and vegan tips, tricks, and recipes.
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