Essential Nutrients that you Can’t Get from Plants

Do you know that there are some nutrients that you can’t get from plants?

You see, vegetarian and vegan diets are very healthy ways of eating. They have several established health benefits and also reduce the risk of heart disease, excess weight, and some cancers.

But then, plants do not provide all nutrients. Some essential nutrients are missing in plant-based foods. So, you must know these plants and the missing or inadequate nutrients so that you can supplement your diet with them to maintain your physical performance and health.

Here are seven important nutrients that are not readily found in vegan and vegetarian diets.

1.      Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is a very vital nutrient that is mostly found in animal-based foods such as dairy products, eggs, meat, and fish (1).

Another name for vitamin B12 is cobalamin. It is water-soluble and plays a very important role in developing red blood cells and maintaining brain and nerve function.

According to results from research, vegetarians who do not supplement or eat enriched foods may be at high risk of vitamin B12 deficiency (2).

Lacto-ovo-vegetarians do not have to worry as they can get adequate amounts of cobalamin from eggs and dairy products. However, it isn’t as easy for vegans (3).

Vegans who do not supplement therefore have a very high risk of vitamin B12 deficiency compared to vegetarians (4567).

Vitamin B12 deficiency is associated with several symptoms including:

  • Fatigue and weakness (8)
  • Impaired cerebral function (9)
  • Neurological disorders (10)
  • Psychiatric problems (11)
  • Neurological problems in breastfeeding babies (12)
  • Megaloblastic anemia (13)
  • High risk of Alzheimer’s disease (14)
  • Risk of heart disease (15)

In order not to be deficient in vitamin B12, vegan dieters must supplement by eating fortified foods. These include soy products, yeast extracts, bread, breakfast cereal, and meat substitutes (316).

Also, some plant foods contain bioactive vitamin B12 in trace amounts. These plants include:

Studies have shown that Nori seaweed is most suited for vegans, even though it doesn’t contain plentiful amounts on its own (23).

It is worth noting that freeze-dried or raw nori may be better compared to dried versions, as the drying destroys some of the vitamin B12 (192425).

But then, we don’t think that these are sufficient dietary sources of vitamin B12 and do not meet daily requirements.

Spirulina is another plant food that appears to have some vitamin B12. But the fact is that it only offers pseudo vitamin B12. This makes it an unsuitable source of this vitamin (26).

If you want to improve your B12 intake, you can purchase vegan-friendly vitamin B12 supplements in your local grocery store or online.

2.      Creatine

The creatine molecule is found in animal-based foods.

Most of the creatine is stored in muscles. However, significant amounts are also found in the brain.

Creatine functions as an energy reserve for myocytes (cells of the muscles), boosting their endurance and strength (27).

This explains why it is so popular as a muscle-building supplement.

Studies have shown that creatine supplements are very effective at increasing muscle strength and muscle mass (28).

Here’s an important fact: your liver can produce creatine, so it is not essential in your diet. But, according to research, vegans tend to be deficient in creatine (29). Very low amounts are found in their muscles.

A particular study examined the effect of a lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet on subjects for 26 days. From the results, it was seen that the diet caused a drastic decrease in their level of creatine in their muscles (30).

Because creatine occurs naturally in animal tissues, vegans and vegetarians cannot get it except supplements.

Creatine supplements benefit vegetarians in many ways, including:

  • A boost in physical performance (29)
  • Improvements in memory and other brain functions (3132)

Some of these benefits are stronger in vegetarians than in people who eat meat. For instance, vegetarians who supplement creatine may experience better brain function compared to meat-eaters who may not see little to no difference (31).

Perhaps this is due to the already high levels of creatine in the muscles of meat-eaters due to their diet.

Vegan-friendly creatine supplements can be bought locally or online.

3.      Carnosine

Carnosine is a type of antioxidant that is stored in the brain and muscles of animals and humans (3334).

They contribute immensely to muscle function, and high stores of carnosine contribute to the reduction of muscle fatigue as well as improved performance (35363738).

Carnosine can be found only in animal foods, however, they are thought to be non-essential, as the human body can form it from beta-alanine and histidine – both amino acids.

Beta-alanine from dietary sources may boost the level of carnosine in the muscles, but the major dietary sources – fish, poultry, and meat, are non-vegetarian.

Studies have shown that the levels of carnosine in vegetarians is lesser than that in people who eat meat (3940).

Having a beta-alanine supplement will boost your muscle carnosine levels, and also increase your muscle mass (354142434445).

The good news is that there are many beta-alanine supplements available for purchase online.

4.      Vitamin D3

It is also known as cholecalciferol. Vitamin D is a very important nutrient.

Its informal name is “sunshine vitamin.” Vitamin D may not necessarily be sourced from your diet.

Your skin is capable of producing vitamin D when exposed to light from the sun. However, if you do not really have much time to go out in the sun, or you live far away from the equator, then your best bet is getting it from supplements or food.

Dietary vitamin D exists in two forms – ergocalciferol and cholecalciferol (D2 and D3 found in plants and animals respectively).

D3 is more efficient at increasing the level of absorbable vitamin D in the blood as compared to D2 (575859).

Excellent sources of vitamin D3 are egg yolks and fatty fish. Other sources include cod liver oil, supplements, and fortified cereals or milk (60).

Because vitamin D3 sources are not plant-based, vegans and vegetarians have a very high risk of deficiency, especially in the winter.

Vitamin D deficiency increases the risk of the following conditions:

  • Osteoporosis with a high risk of fractures in the elderly (46)
  • Cancer (47)
  • Heart disease (4849)
  • Multiple sclerosis (50)
  • Depression (51)
  • Impaired cognitive function (52)
  • Wasting away of the muscles and reduces strength, mostly in the elderly (53545556).

Lichen-made vegan supplements are available online (61).

5.      Docosahexaenoic acid

It is an omega-3 fatty acid that plays a very vital role in brain function and development (62).

DHA deficiency can affect brain function and mental health, especially in kids (6364).

Also, DHA deficiency in pregnant women may have adverse effects on fetal brain development (65).

Docosahexaenoic acid is available in fish oil, fish, and some type of microalgae.

Docosahexaenoic acid can be synthesized in the body from ALA, an omega-3 fatty acid. Large amounts are found in chia seeds, flax seeds, and walnuts (666768).

It is worth noting that the conversion of ALA to DHA may not be very efficient and may not increase DHA in the blood to sufficient levels (6970).

Because of this, vegans and vegetarians are often deficient in DHA compared to people who eat meat (717273).

Vegans can supplement with algal oil which is produced from some microalgae (747576).

You can buy these nutrients in specialty stores or online.

6.      Heme iron

Heme iron is found mostly in red meat.

It is more easily absorbed, compared to non-heme iron which is mostly found in plant foods (77).

Heme iron boosts the absorption of non-heme iron. This is called the “meat factor.” However, we do not fully understand how it takes place.

Non-heme iron is not readily absorbed by the body. Besides, some antinutrients, also present in the same plant food may further limit its absorption. An example of an antinutrient is phytic acid.

Antinutrients do not affect the absorption of heme iron.

This explains why vegetarians and vegans, especially people on raw food diets are more at risk of anemia than people who eat meat (578).

On the other hand, you can easily avoid iron deficiency on a vegan diet that is rich in non-heme iron.

7.      Taurine

Taurine is a compound that is found in the kidneys, heart, and brain (79). It is a sulfur-based compound.

While we do not fully understand the function of taurine in the body, it appears to be involved in the formation of bile salt, muscle function, and antioxidant defenses (80818283).

Taurine is found only in animal foods, like seafood, meat, fish, poultry, and dairies (84).

Also, studies have shown that taurine levels are lower in vegans than in people who eat meat (8586).

Taurine isn’t an essential dietary nutrient, as it is produced by small amounts in the body. However, dietary taurine may also contribute to maintaining the levels of taurine in your body.

Taurine supplements can be purchased online and are suitable for vegans and vegetarians.

In conclusion

Fortified vegan and vegetarian diets are healthy.

However, some nutrients are not readily gotten from plant foods. If you want to do away with animal-based foods, ensure that you consider these nutrients, and supplement them to ensure that your body gets all that it needs.