Hidden Vitamin Deficiencies: Not just a concern for vegetarians

You would be surprised to know that most of us do not get enough of the simplest vitamins that our body needs.  Vitamin deficiencies are most often seen in those with overly restrictive diets, like vegetarians, for example. If you are vegetarian or are thinking about becoming vegetarian there are 5 vitamins you should be concerned about not getting enough of: Vitamin B12, Vitamin D, Calcium, Iron, and Zinc. Not sure which type of vegetarian you are?

Here are the types:

Pescetarian: you eat no red meat or poultry but you do eat fish

Lacto-Ovo vegetarian: you eat no red meat, poultry, or fish, but you do consume dairy products and eggs

Vegan:  you eat plant foods only

Depending on which restrictive diet you have, you will need to educate yourself on which foods to eat to ensure that you are getting the proper nutrients.  B12 is necessary for proper functioning of your nervous system and without it you can develop anemia or bouts of irritability.  Here’s the kicker for vegetarians, B12 is the only nutrient that is NOT found in plants…kinda goes against everything you believe in if you don’t eat meat, right?   So if you do not eat meat, fish, eggs, or dairy products, make sure you are getting B12 through fortification in soy milk, vegetable stock, veggieburger mixes and breakfast cereals.  Lacto-ovo vegetarians get B12 from dairy and eggs so they are not at risk for deficiency.

Vitamin D and Calcium are an EVERYBODY issue and not just reserved for vegetarians.  As you know Vitamin D regulates calcium absorption and calcium is the main function of your skeleton and it also regulates your blood pressure.  Without enough of vitamin D you fall apart literally as your bones get spongy and soft.  Vitamin D deficiency can also be linked to higher rates of diabetes and cancer as well.  With a deficiency of calcium your body will sacrifice calcium from other parts of your body, causing brittle bones and leading to osteoporosis.  WebMD says that over 10 million Americans over the age of 50 have been diagnosed with osteoporosis.  Did you know that soda, salt, and meat, which more of us consume more today then let’s say 30 years ago, actually all pull calcium from your body?   As women hit their 30’s, calcium will be ultra important to avoid getting osteoporosis later in life as calcium starts to deplete.  When was the last time you remember having 2 or 3 servings of anything containing calcium or Vitamin D in a single day?  My point exactly.

Now that you are completely horrified  let’s talk about what you can eat to load up on these important two vitamins.

Vitamin D is found only in a handful of animal products, like cod, salmon, and tuna.  If you don’t eat fish, Vitamin D is found a little bit in eggs, margarine, and cheese.  If you are Vegan, fortified vitamin D can be found in soy milk and cereals. Another source of vitamin D is sun exposure.  Our body actually synthesizes a non-active vitamin D that can be activated by being exposed to the sun.  A higher number of Hispanic and African Americans are deficient in vitamin D because their skin is darker and they aren’t getting enough sun exposure to activate vitamin D in their bodies.  5-15 minutes in the sun for 4-6 times a week should do your body good.

Calcium is well- known in dairy products such as milk, cheese and yogurt.  Obviously, if you have dietary restrictions you can try alternative such as calcium-fortified soy or rice milk or even OJ.  Other sources of calcium include the dark green vegetables that we all hated as kids and hopefully are willing to try and enjoy as adults like collard greens and brussel sprouts.  Other more reasonable sources can be broccoli, green beans, oranges, and tofu.

Iron deficiency poses more a concern for women and if you’re pregnant, that makes it a double whammy.  Iron carries oxygen through-out our red blood cells and helps regulate temperature.  The main deficiency of iron is anemia but this doesn’t happen until you’re extremely deficient.  There is no higher incidence of anemia in vegetarians, however they tend to have lower iron stores causing them to be higher in moderate deficiency.  Infants and teenagers need a lot more iron than adults.  As infants are coming off their iron-fortified cereals and formula and teenage boys become picky eaters when they hit puberty, iron deficiency can pose a problem.  Vegetarians have a hard time absorbing iron because they mainly eat non-heme iron, found in plant protein, that is less easily absorbed than the iron found in meats.  Whole grains, fortified cereal, raisins, beans, potatoes with skin, and enriched pastas can all be enjoyed by the vegetarian.  Meat lovers can get their sources of iron from beef, shrimp, turkey, oysters, and mussels.  Just a note with iron, if you drink coffee, tea, or red wine (like I do) then this can decrease your iron absorption.  Whole grains, soy products, and vegetables containing calcium such as spinach and sweet potatoes all take away iron from your body too.  However, vitamin C enhances iron absorption so try combining broccoli, tomatoes, potatoes, bell peppers, oranges, cantaloupes, strawberries, or grapefruit with any iron-rich food to maximize absorption.

Do you get sick easily or does it take a while for a cut to heal?  If this is the case, you may be low on zinc.   Plants have zinc but it’s harder for the body to absorb it, so if you eat little or no meat than you may not be getting enough of this vitamin.  Meat, dairy, legumes, whole grains, cereals, nuts, and seeds all contain zinc.  Citric acid in fruits and lactic acid in dairy enhance zinc absorption so load up on these when you eat your iron dish.

Hidden vitamin deficiencies is not just a concern for vegetarians.  Anyone can be at risk for not getting enough of the vitamins are body needs to keep healthy.  The keys to success in making sure you are getting all your vitamins is to make sure you are eating enough and plenty of variety.


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