Last week, I was contacted by a young Pakistani vegan who asked me about some of the nutrients that are difficult to obtain through a vegan diet. She pointed out to me that many things that are recommended in the vegan community are difficult to get a hold of in Pakistan. While Greece clearly doesn't have as many vegan resources as Germany, and I sometimes struggle to find certain products, I realized that it could be much worse.
A search on Happy Cow revealed that there is only one vegetarian restaurant in all of Pakistan with another listing which had some vegan options. That's all. No health food stores, let alone all-vegan shops. We can safely assume that Pakistan is not the only country lacking a vegan infrastructure. This means that some of the suggestions made on popular Western vegan websites and blogs are simply not feasible for the majority of the world. While fruits and vegetables can be found anywhere in the world, some things that vegans in Western countries take for granted can make it difficult to be vegan in a less privileged country.
The following nutrients can be difficult to get from a vegan diet:
- Vitamin B12
- Omega 3
- Vitamin B2/Riboflavin
- Vitamin D
The biggest concern for vegans is B12 deficiency. Vitamin B12 is the only vitamin that is not found in plant products. It is necessary for the nervous system, so deficiency can have very serious effects. This is why it is important to either consume fortified vegan products or take a B12 supplement.
Many plant milks are fortified with B12, and nutritional yeast is another source that can help with the intake of B12. If we go back to the example of Pakistan, however, it might not be possible for everyone to purchase something like plant milk and nutritional yeast. In that case, the best option would be to take a B12 supplement.
There are several vegan B12 supplements on the market, such as Terranova and Solgar with the former being my personal favorite. Terranova's supplements only contain active ingredients without any fillers or additives, and their entire range is vegan. They are a bit on the pricier side, but you get what you pay for.
If you don’t have access to vegan supplements at your local pharmacy, ask them if they can import them for you. If that’s not possible try ordering online, but make sure you get the original product.
Omega 3 is another nutrient that can be low in vegan diets. It can be obtained from oils and seeds as well as seaweed, the latter being the most important vegan source of omega 3 fatty acids.
However, omega 3 fatty acids are more complicated. Only the DHA type can be transported to the brain, and for this the only vegan source is seaweed. The other sources contain ALA which needs to be converted by the body into DHA. This is done at a very low rate, so one should make sure to have a high intake of vegan omega 3 sources. If you are worried that you might be deficient in DHA, you should look for an omega 3 supplement. Again, I would suggest a Terranova product. Their Life Drink contains chlorella and spirulina which are both seaweeds that contain DHA. It also contains an omega 3-6-9 blend with a good amount of ALA, and, remember, this will partially be converted into much-needed DHA.
Be aware that omega 6 slows down the conversion of ALA to DHA, but, in general, DHA deficiency in vegans is not as likely as often suggested by the media.
Calcium is far less difficult to obtain from a vegan diet. Almonds, hazelnuts, and many greens (especially kale) contain large quantities, and there are several plant milks that are fortified with calcium. Dark leafy greens are generally recommended as they also help to provide enough iron and vitamin B2 (riboflavin).
Overall, in order to make sure that you get enough nutrients (including iodine, choline, and zinc, which I have not listed separately), you should focus on the following foods:
- seaweed (for example, wakame)
- nuts and seeds as well as their oils (almonds, peanuts, hazelnuts, walnuts, pistachios, chia seeds, flax seeds, hemp seeds, sesame)
- legumes (in particular, kidney beans)
- fruit (especially, figs, avocados, bananas)
- grains (such as quinoa, brown rice, wild rice, oats)
- vegetables (okra, broccoli, cauliflower, and more)
- greens (for example, kale, spinach)
- fortified foods (particularly, nutritional yeast, plant milk)
Vitamin D is a tricky nutrient, even for non-vegans. The quantities that we can get from food are not enough to cover our daily needs, and the most reliable source of vitamin D is direct sunlight. In warmer climates, this is not difficult to achieve in the summer by exposing a significant portion of your skin to direct sunlight for at least 20 minutes a day. In the winter, when only the face and hands are exposed, a lot more time would have to be spent in the sun.
An awful lot has been said about the risks of direct exposure to the sun, but we are forgetting that human life depends on the sun. I am not suggesting to hit the beach at noon without sunscreen after not having been in the sun for half a year. However, in recent years many people have been so afraid of the sun that they are not getting enough vitamin D. This is not a vegan concern, but shouldn't be forgotten by vegans either.
Finally, contrary to what many people think, it is not difficult at all to obtain enough protein from a vegan diet. Most people in the Western world actually consume too much protein, so less is more.
Don't be discouraged by a vegan diet, just because some nutrients are harder to get on a vegan diet. Remember that most of the animals that meat eaters consume have to get all their nutrients from a plant based diet as well, so there is no reason you won't be able to do the same.
If you have any personal favorites as far as supplements go please post them in the comment section, especially if they are available in non-Western countries.
Half Bulgarian Turk, half German living life as an expat in Greece.