The health benefits of the vegetarian diet are well documented. Vegetarians have a longer life span on average, and lower early mortality rate. They also have a substantially lower chance of developing cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. That said, there are some nutrients that might be lacking in a vegetarian diet because of the absence of meat. There are easy ways to compensate for these in ways that will ensure the overall health of a vegetarian.
Nutritional studies over the years have consistently pointed to vitamin B12 lacking in the vegetarian diet, and even more so in the vegan diet (who do not eat any animal products, such as dairy and eggs). B12 is an essential nutrient that helps red blood cells carry oxygen. Lacking B12 can result in anemic symptoms, ranging from lethargy and poor memory in minor cases, and psychosis in severe ones. B12 is not actually a mineral, but a form of bacteria that is found naturally in the soil – not in food. As a result, it is typically only found in meat, as it is less sanitary than plant based foods. Vegetarian sources of B12 include: dairy, eggs, tofu, nutritional yeast, fortified foods (such as cereal and soy products), and some beer with high yeast levels. Vitmain B9 (folates) have been found to perform many of the same functions as B12 – and are much more easily obtained on a vegetarian diet – but B12 is superior, all the same.
Zinc deficiency is one of the most common nutritional deficiencies in the world, with around 25% of the world’s population at risk – or 2 billion people. Zinc performs essential jobs in the brain, bones, blood stream, and individual cells. Zinc defiency symptoms are wide ranging, which is why it is such a health risk. Stunted growth in children and their brain development, diarrhea, weakened immune system, and reduced appetite are all symptoms of severe zinc deficiency. Eat more legumes, milk, eggs, tofu, almonds, and cashews if you’re worries about your zinc levels.
This is also an essential nutrient that is used by the blood to carry oxygen in the body. It also includes anemic symptoms, such as depression, paleness, headaches, and brittle nails. In the worst cases, iron deficiency can be fatal. This is more common in developing countries with limited access to food, but even in developed countries, iron deficiency can take on more mild forms in people’s diets. The type of iron found in meat – heme iron – is superior to plant based iron - non-heme iron – which is difficult for the body to absorb. That said, eating a well rounded, balanced vegetarian diet will result in proper iron levels in the blood. Green beans, dark greens, molasses, and brussel sprouts are all excellent sources of iron that should be worked into the vegetarian diet weekly.