You may have noticed food labels and supplements have Nutrient Reference Values (NRV) (previously known as Recommended Daily Amounts (RDA)) for vitamins and minerals. The levels are based on a population average and not designed to avoid deficiency diseases, so they aren’t there to support your ‘optimum health’.

Having a diet rich in plant foods can provide most nutrients, however being unique we all have different nutrient requirements and this can be a result of health and lifestyle. Due to this you may have noticed some signs of deficiencies that you didn’t think you would have based on your intake of a nutrient and we’ve outlined a few below.

Vitamin B12

What do I need to know about vitamin B12?

Vitamin B12 is mainly found in animal source foods such as eggs, meat and fish. The nutrient isn’t as freely available in vegan food forms so it is often recognised as a dietary deficiency. The main natural plant based forms are seaweed and yeast extract (e.g. Marmite)

How can I get enough vitamin B12 into my diet?

Have seaweed in your diet. You can use seaweed to make sushi wraps or add it to soups, it is also really tasty as a crispy snack. In addition have foods that are fortified with vitamin B12.

What do I use vitamin B12 for?

This vitamin supports DNA function, metabolism, mind function and nervous system, and the formation of blood. Vitamin B12 supports the metabolism in each cell and fatty acid and amino acid metabolism.

What are the symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency?

A common deficiency sign would be having anaemia. Symptoms include feeling overly fatigued, yellowing skin, red sore tongue, headaches, tinnitus, lack of appetite, mouth ulcers, losing sensation to touch.

What should you do if you have a vitamin B12 deficiency?

Take a supplement containing vitamin B12 or have a vitamin B12 injection from your doctor.

Iron

How can I get enough iron in my diet?

As the richest sources are from animal source foods and produce you have to be really savvy with your food choices. Foods that contain iron are tofu, lentils, beetroot, spinach and spirulina (a blue green algae).

What do I use iron for?

Iron supports the formation of red blood cells to transport oxygen around the body.

What are the symptoms of iron deficiency?

Iron deficiency anaemia may cause symptoms like fatigue, pale skin, breathlessness and heart palpitations.

How much iron do I need?

According to the NHS

  • 8.7mg a day for men
  • 14.8mg a day for women

However, women’s requirements may differ if they have a heavy menstrual flow. If you are concerned about your iron levels, it is always recommended to have your levels checked by the doctor.

Calcium

How can I get enough calcium?

The richest sources of calcium are dairy and the edible bones of small fish such as sardines. Plant sources are dark green leafy vegetables, grains and fortified foods like orange juice and soybeans. Tofu is especially rich in calcium due to the processing that is used. Calcium sulphate is added alongside magnesium chloride to coagulate the soybean.

What do I need calcium for?

It supports the structure of bones and teeth, and muscle contractions such as your heartbeat. Calcium supports the clotting of your blood and a deficiency may be linked to poor bone formation and rickets.

What are the symptoms of calcium deficiency?

It can take a while for calcium deficiency signs to show. Calcium tends to be related to bones, but it goes so much further than that by supporting the nerves and muscles. Although brittle bones may be a key sign of a deficiency, more obvious earlier warning signs would be memory loss, poorly formed bones, depression and hallucinations.

My child doesn’t have milk, are they deficient in calcium?

Over the years, we are gradually realising that this can be a slight misconception, and many mothers are unnecessarily panicking that their children aren’t getting enough calcium in their diets as they avoid milk. We don’t actually absorb much calcium from milk regardless of the high content, and in actual fact, the milk may cause a loss of calcium from the bones. Milk is slightly acidic which may disrupt the body’s natural pH. To rebalance this, our body takes calcium from the bones to neutralise the food’s acidic effect. An animal based diet with too much calcium may actually have a negative effect by causing calcification (a buildup of calcium in the arteries) or kidney stones.

Does relying on plant food make someone calcium deficient?

This isn’t a straightforward answer. Although dark green leafy vegetables and tofu/soybeans are rich in calcium, the vegetables also contain something called oxalates which block calcium uptake. We actually make oxalates in the body as part of a natural process which produces them as an end product of metabolism, they have no beneficial effect on our health, we merely excrete them through urine. Your mum was right when she said ‘eat your greens’, they are an ideal source for many nutrient benefits and fibre and therefore important in the diet, so don’t avoid these foods, instead steam vegetables and discard the water, and drink plenty of fluid.

Following a plant based diet has not been found to cause a calcium deficiency, in actual fact it seems that the body utilises the calcium better by naturally increasing the proportion absorbed in comparison to those who include animal source foods.

What to do if I suspect a calcium deficiency

If you take a calcium supplement, ideally combine it with magnesium and vitamin D, as these nutrients support calcium absorption and its role in bone health and reduce the amount of calcium circulating the blood.

Vitamin D

How can I get enough vitamin D?

A deficiency in this nutrient seems to be a universal problem as it is made in the skin when in the sun. The problem seems to be that we all spend way too much time indoors, cover ourselves with suncream when outside, or the sun just doesn’t pop out often enough to say hello. Ideally we could all benefit from at least 20 minutes of sun exposure per day, and longer if you have dark skin. Darker skin contains higher amounts of melanin, the substance that gives skin its colour –this also blocks sunlight from getting to the layers of skin that make vitamin D. It is recommended that most people take a vitamin D supplement to support healthy levels.

What do I need vitamin D for?

Vitamin D supports the formation of bones and teeth alongside calcium. Vitamin D is related to mood and mind function and also supports a healthy immune function. A low vitamin D status may be interlinked with calcium deficiency related to an increase in rickets.

What are the symptoms of vitamin D deficiency?

Poor bone health, aching muscles, depression, autoimmune conditions.

Who is deficient in vitamin D?

It seems that everyone is at risk. All pregnant and breastfeeding women, people over 65 years of age, or those that don’t have enough sunshine are recommended to have 400iu vitamin D per day. You can have your levels checked by your doctor.

If you carry extra weight, be that fat or muscle, and you don’t get much sun exposure you are likely to be deficient and therefore should be supplementing. Carrying extra weight, both fat and muscle, can affect vitamin D levels as it acts as a sink affecting the vitamin D level available.

Selenium

How can I get enough selenium?

In an ideal world your plant based diet should theoretically give you enough selenium, as the soil would naturally be enriched with selenium and this, in turn, would nourish the food you eat. The only problem that we have is that due to harsh agricultural methods, our soil is deficient as the pesticides have stripped the soil of its goodness. Therefore we need to eat more nuts and seeds to gain some selenium.

What do I need selenium for?

Selenium supports your immune system, works as an antioxidant to support the health of your cells and supports the thyroid gland in supporting a healthy body temperature and metabolism.

Symptoms of selenium deficiency

Tiredness, fatigue, poor immune system, low fertility and thyroid issues, where losing weight is becoming an ongoing uphill struggle no matter what diet you follow.

What to do if you suspect a deficiency

Ideally the best thing for you to do would be take a supplement to support your levels and having some organic foods in the diet may also provide some benefits as they may naturally be richer in selenium.

Zinc

How can I get enough zinc?

Zinc does tend to be less available in plant food, however, that doesn’t mean you will have a deficiency. Plant based foods such as legumes, nuts and seeds are rich in protein which supports the absorption of zinc.

What do I need zinc for?

Zinc is needed to make new cells and enzymes, supports wound healing and reproductive development.

Symptoms of zinc deficiency

Loss of appetite, poor fertility and immunity, brittle nails, hair loss, poor wound healing, itchy dry skin.

Does having plant food make you likely to be deficient in zinc?

The argument here is that plant foods such as nut husks, seeds and grains contain phytic acid that blocks the uptake of zinc. If the diet is rich in these foods there may be a 50% higher requirement for zinc – heating and soaking these foods will help to reduce this affect. The counter argument would be that animal foods are highly acidic affecting the pH in the body which is neutralised by calcium and zinc, therefore putting more of a nutrient demand on zinc.

What to do if I suspect a zinc deficiency

A zinc deficiency is really common in many of us. Teenage boys have a high requirement due to their reproductive system developing resulting in more sperm production. In addition people that have a diet rich in processed foods or fizzy drinks may find that their zinc levels are lower. Zinc is one of the most common deficiencies that you can come across. Therefore having a supplement that supports zinc levels can be a good general level of support.

Essential Fatty Acids

How can I get enough fatty acids?

Essential fatty acids omega 3 and 6 are named essential as they can’t be made by the body and need to be taken in through the diet. The fats come from sources such as flaxseed, fish and plant oils such as evening primrose oil. The one essential fatty acid that can be the most challenging to obtain from a plant based diet is the omega 3 DHA which is readily available from oily fish such as sardines, anchovies and mackerel. You could get DHA from a plant based diet, it’s not impossible, you just have to be clever with picking your food choices by opting for lots of seaweed, so get your sushi kit ready.

What do I need essential fatty acids for?

Essential fatty acids are crucial for cell function and supportive to the immune system. Omega 3 is particularly important for cardiovascular health and mind function. Omega 6 is specifically supportive to hormonal health, skin health and mind function.

What are symptoms of omega 3 EPA and DHA deficiency?

Dry skin, hair and brittle nails, poor memory, sleeping problems, depression and other mental health problems.

I’ve heard that a westernised diet may be too rich in omega 6, is this true?

There are good fats and bad fats that can be obtained in the diet, you could be getting too many of the negative omega 6 if you are a bit of a cookie monster or a glutton for the packaged baked goods. Ideally we need oils such as evening primrose oil to support hormones, skin and mind function.