Growing concerns about the need to eat better quality foods are leading many of us to make improvements in our diet. The extent of these changes vary widely from my own simple addition of a daily glass of freshly juiced fruits and vegetables, to those who make big lifestyle changes by permanently eliminating from their diets certain foods such as sugar, meat, dairy, or wheat.
There are wonderful benefits in any effort at eating healthier – small or large. But there are risks as well. The good news is that these risks are rare and avoidable. But it’s sobering to learn that our health-conscious efforts at improving our nutrition can sometimes lead to nutrient deficiencies.
First, it’s important to realize what vegetarians have long known and nutritional science confirms. You CAN get all the nutrients the body needs by only eating fruits and vegetables. It just takes careful attention to insuring that you get enough of the nutrients that are difficult to find in fruits and veggies alone. So this article is not meant to discourage anyone from eating fruits and vegetables alone. Not only is a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle a great choice for some people, it is also better for the environment since growing fruits and vegetables is much more sustainable than raising animals. The bottom line is that when it comes to poor eating habits, change is good, if done wisely.
Who is at risk exactly? Those who eliminate animal products entirely from their diet for prolonged periods of time are at risk of nutrient deficiencies. Also, children and teenagers who experiment with eating only fruits and vegetables are at risk of nutrient deficiencies. Finally, women in and past menopause are particularly susceptible to nutrient deficiencies, especially calcium deficiency and an increased risk of osteoporosis.
What are the symptoms? According to Dr. Nicole Sundene, a physician who specializes in natural remedies to treat the root causes of disease, patients who make dietary changes, particularly those who eliminate animal products, may experience the following symptoms: fatigue, dry hair, dry skin, brittle nails, hypoglycemia (anxiety, sweating, intense hunger, palpitations, nausea, and weakness), frequent colds and infections, and osteoporosis. All are due to nutrient deficiencies.
Additionally, there is a greater risk of gum disease and tooth decay. According to Dr. Ludwig Leibsohn of the Academy of General Dentistry, nutritional deficiencies that lead to gum disease and tooth decay are greatest among children and teenagers who decide to become vegetarians without knowing enough about their nutritional needs, and among vegans who neglect critical nutrients that are not easily found in a strict fruit and veggie diet.
What are the nutrients? There are 5 nutrients to be concerned about: iron, calcium, zinc, Omega 3, and B12. You may be surprised that I didn’t list protein since many people think that protein is a common deficiency among those who reduce or eliminate meat in their diets. Not true. Protein is found in all plant food, and most vegetarians have no problem eating enough protein. Surprisingly, meat eaters tend to eat too much protein which is also a problem. High protein intake of more than 30% of your diet can actually cause bone loss and fat gain.
Iron – The primary symptom of iron deficiency is anemia, and it’s interesting to note that anemia is prevalent in the general population especially among children. Studies show rates that range from 10% to 50%, and rates among vegetarians are not significantly different from the general population.
Dr. Sundene lists the following vegetarian sources of iron from highest to lowest: tofu, black strap molasses, amaranth, lentils, Swiss chard, dulse, lima beans, potato, wheat germ, pinto beans, kidney beans, dandelion greens, kale, pumpkin seeds, black beans, spinach, broccoli, almonds, pumpkin, beet greens, brewer’s yeast, quinoa, teff, figs, raisins, prunes, green beans, millet, whole wheat, parsley, kelp, oats, corn, peanuts, cashew butter, almond butter, blueberries, bananas and raspberries. Note that the veggie form of iron needs vitamin C in order to be absorbed by the body, and the very best source of vitamin C is fresh fruits and veggies. An additional non-meat source of iron is cooking in iron pots and pans.
Calcium – As with iron, calcium deficiency is prevalent in the general population, particularly among women over 40 primarily due to a poor diet. Osteoporosis, gum disease, and tooth decay are symptoms. The best vegetable sources of calcium are cooked leafy greens. Those that are highest in calcium are turnip, collards, and spinach, but all greens are good. Other non-dairy sources of calcium are rhubarb, oatmeal, tofu, broccoli, molasses, almonds, filberts, oranges, kale, tahini, and garbanzo beans.
Zinc – Skin problems and increased colds and infections are most likely an indication of zinc deficiency. The RDA of zinc is 15mg daily. Non-animal sources of zinc will provide 2-5mg of protein per serving such as toasted wheat germ (1/4 cup), Swiss chard, lima beans, baked potato, oats, mustard greens, pumpkin seeds, soybeans, rice, kidney beans, ginger root, wild rice, peas, leeks, lentils, cashews, sunflower seeds, and lima beans.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids – Almost all Americans are deficient in Omega 3, and it’s critical for a healthy nervous system and for fighting inflammation. The best vegetarian sources are flaxseeds and raw walnuts. Don’t cook them. Rather, grind them in your coffee grinder and add to soups, salads, brown rice, smoothies, applesauce, or yogurt.
B12 – This vitamin is difficult to get in a diet that’s free of animal products. In fact, most vegans take a B12 supplement. Symptoms of this deficiency are anemia and nervous system problems. The recommended daily allowance as established by nutritional science is 3 mcg. You can get your RDA from non-meat sources by eating the following on a daily basis: two eggs and 2 cups of milk, or 2 eggs and 2 servings of cheese, or yogurt, or 3 tablespoons of brewers yeast, or a teaspoon of spirulina or chlorella, or three sheets or nori seaweed.
So eat more fruits and veggies! And be wise about it too! I want to thank Alison Buck, a classical homeopath who first brought to my attention these concerns, particularly tooth decay. If you would like to contact her simply drop me a message.