Going vegan? What nutrient deficiencies you need to be aware of to stay on top of your game
Last year 450,000 people signed up for Veganuary, and predictions for 2021 suggest numbers are set to surpass this. Currently 2% of Brits are vegan,1 estimated to be around 1,100,000 people across the country. More than 1200 new vegan products2 and menus were launched for Veganuary 2020 - but will you get all the essential nutrients your need from a plant based diet?
Many people are switching to vegan diets for health purposes, and a well-planned, balanced and nutrient dense vegan diet can be very healthy, with professionals such as renowned cardiologists3 to dieteticians4 promoting the benefits of a plant-based diet for people of all ages, backgrounds, genders, and activity levels.
Meat free athletes
From ironman Scott Jurek, utltra-runner Fiona Oakes, to strongman Patrik Baboumian, a growing number of athletes are also showing that you don’t need meat to compete. Whatever your sport, from CrossFit to triathlon, bodybuilding to martial arts, it can be done eating a vegan diet.
If you decide to take the leap and go vegan, there are number of factors to consider. Firstly, we’d recommend concocting a witty response to those who question your motives - trust us it will save you from endless insipid debates.
Secondly, whenever you limit your diet to certain food groups, there has to be a level of planning and preparation to ensure you perform at your best and recover well
What nutrients are vegans most commonly deficient in?
There are a few key nutrients that aren't easily found in a plant-based diet, plus poorly planned vegan diets can contain lower levels of essential nutrients. Some crucial nutrients that are more difficult to get on a vegan diet in optimal quantities: iron, selenium, iodine, vitamin B12, vitamin K, Vitamin D, vitamin A, Omega-3 fatty acids and protein.
Which ones do you really need to keep tabs on?
Vitamin B12 deficiency is often found in long term vegans.5 Vitamin B12 mainly comes from animal protein and to get a sufficient amount from vegan sources you would have to include nutritional yeast, fortified foods, tempeh, chlorella or seaweed daily or take a supplement.
Crucially, we all have different genetic abilities to metabolise vitamin B12 and, for some people it is necessary to consume a much higher quantity of B12 in order to maintain optimal blood levels.
Some research suggests that athletes with poor or marginal B12 status may have decreased ability to perform high intensity exercise.6 In women specifically, higher B12 levels correlate with enhanced athletic performance.7
Iron that comes from plant sources is poorly absorbed compared to animal sources. It is important to the optimal function of regular exercisers, given the mineral’s role in processes such as oxygen transport, cellular energy production, cognitive processing, and immune function. Athletes are at a greater risk of being iron deficient8 in comparison to the general population, especially female athletes.
Selenium and Iodine
Selenium and iodine are critical nutrients for optimal thyroid function and production of the thyroid hormones that regulate our metabolism; selenium is also a powerful antioxidant. Selenium mainly comes from seafood, fish, shellfish, non-organic dairy, with the only significant vegan source being Brazil nuts.
As a key metabolic regulator, a deficiency in iodine can weaken the immune system. Iodine deficiency is also one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in the world, affecting nearly one-third of the population.
Thyroid function is crucial for sports performance and yet many athletes are iodine deficient. Some research suggests athletes may lose more iodine through sweat9 in an hour of vigorous exercise than through their entire daily urine output. High levels of sweating during exercise can deplete iodine levels and result in dehydration and poor performance.
There are three different types of Omega 3 fatty acids: alpha linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Unlike other nutrients, these cannot be made in the body and therefore must be obtained through diet or supplementation. Crucial to healthy brain function and nerve health, the best vegan sources are nuts and seeds, which mostly contain ALA, however, this can take longer to be fully absorbed.
There’s evidence from athlete studies to suggest that omega-3 can facilitate muscle growth during resistance training10 and help preserve muscle mass when calories are restricted, so making sure you get sufficient quantities will help to support your training, and make sure you’re maximising both performance and gains.
Should you consider going vegan?
We are all very different, biochemically and genetically, and unfortunately there isn’t one diet that suits everyone. Some people feel great on a vegan diet, whilst other will become deficient in nutrients, which can damage their health.
Becoming a plant-based powerhouse
Testing your DNA is a good place to start and will help you take the guesswork out of whether a vegan diet is suitable for you. Using an easy swab test at home we test for 28 traits in your DNA to assess how you metabolise different nutrients, your sensitivities to different foods and your body’s detoxification process. You're then given a detailed report of your results and how this may affect you, for example if you have a slightly reduced ability to metabolise vitamin A, which is commonly a concern for vegans.
From this report, we are able to build a personalised blend of NGX BodyFuel, a convenient, vegan friendly meal shake, based on your genetic needs. Genetically personalised means that your shake formula has increased quantities of the nutrients you need to satisfy your own unique nutrient needs. BodyFuel contains 30 essential micronutrients designed specifically for you, your body, and your goals. It’s also perfect if you’re striving to increase performance, boost immunity, build lean muscle or lose body fat, with confidence, knowing that you’re fueling your body optimally.
- The Vegan Society (2020) ‘Veganism in the UK’ vegansociety.com
- Veganuary (2020) ‘Try Veganuary this January’ www.veganuary.com
- Kim, H. et al. (2019) ‘Plant‐Based Diets Are Associated With a Lower Risk of Incident Cardiovascular Disease, Cardiovascular Disease Mortality, and All‐Cause Mortality in a General Population of Middle‐Aged Adults’, Journal of the American Heart Association, 8(16) https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/full/10.1161/JAHA.119.012865
- Craig, W.J., and Mangels, A.R.; American Dietetic Association (2009) ‘Position of the American Dietetic Association: vegetarian and vegan diets. Journal of American Diet Association, 109(7), https://jandonline.org/article/S0002-8223(09)00700-7/abstract
- Bar-Sella, P., Rakover, Y., and Ratner D. (1990) ‘Vitamin B12 and folate levels in long-term vegans’, Journal of Medical Science. 26(6):309-12. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2380031/
- Oregon State University (2006) ‘Poor Athletic Performance Linked To Vitamin Deficiency’, ScienceDaily, sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/11/061116091853.htm
- Woolf, K., et al., (2017) ‘Nutrition Assessment of B-Vitamins in Highly Active and Sedentary Women’, Nutrients, 9(4), 329. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu9040329
- Sim, M., et al. (2019) ‘Iron considerations for the athlete: a narrative review’, European Journal Applied Physiology, 119(7):1463-1478. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31055680/
- Smyth, P. and Duntas, L. (2005) ‘Iodine Uptake and Loss - Can Frequent Strenuous Exercise Induce Iodine Deficiency?’, Hormone and Metabolic Research, 37(9), pp.555-558. https://www.thieme-connect.com/products/ejournals/abstract/10.1055/s-2005-870423
- Smith GI, et al. (2011), ‘Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids augment the muscle protein anabolic response in healthy young and middle-aged men and women. Clinical Science (London), 121(6):267-78. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21501117/