Most Americans don’t eat enough vegetables, so you’d think vegetarians would be the healthiest people around. It’s true that reducing red meat consumption can lower your risk of heart disease, and a vegetarian diet may also lower your risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, and even cancer. But studies have shown that vegetarians and vegans (those who don’t eat any animal-based products, including dairy and eggs) also run the risk of deficiencies in certain nutrients, notably not getting enough vitamin B12. “Vitamin B12 is important in maintaining appropriate brain functioning and blood flow throughout our bodies and is mainly found in animal products, which is why someone following a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle may develop a deficiency,” explains Amanda Hostler, a dietetic intern at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health. “Vitamin B12 deficiency occurs as the disease megaloblastic anemia, characterized by a low red blood cell count, with the red blood cells being larger than normal.” Symptoms include fatigue, disorientation, memory loss, and rapid heart beat. To make sure you’re getting enough B12, try having nutritional yeast, soy milk, fortified ready-to-eat cereals, and (if you eat some animal products), dairy, eggs, fish, and shellfish. While whole foods are the best source, supplements can assure the adequate intake of 2.4 micrograms a day, especially if you’re vegan.
You may have heard that zinc is important in warding off colds—and in fact, this mineral plays a role in regulating the body’s immune system. But it can be hard to get it naturally if you’re a vegetarian. “Since zinc is found in limited amounts in plant-based foods, and zinc absorption from plant-based foods is reduced, a deficiency can occur,” says Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, author of Belly Fat Diet For Dummies. “A zinc deficiency may lead to an impaired immune system, slow wound healing, hair loss, diarrhea, and loss of appetite.” Try food sources such as whole-grain breads, leafy greens and root vegetables, dried beans, peas, and nuts, although you may still need a supplement or multivitamin to get your daily dose of 8 mg (for women) or 11 mg (for men). But be careful—you don’t want to overdo it on zinc because too much can lead to nausea and vomiting, so ask your doctor before starting. When choosing a zinc supplement, “look for brands that are USP-certified to ensure that the supplement meets purity and potency standards,” Palinski-Wade says.