Most Americans don’t eat enough vegetables, so you’d think vegetarians and vegans (vegetarians who consume no foods that come from animals) would be the healthiest people around. It’s true that reducing red meat consumption can lower your risk of heart disease, and eating a vegetarian diet may also lower your risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, and even cancer. But research, including a study published in 2016 in the journal Nutrients shows that vegetarians 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, RD, a therapeutic nutrition specialist at Abbott in Houston, TX. “Vitamin B12 deficiency [can manifest] as the disease megaloblastic anemia, characterized by a low red blood cell count, with the red blood cells being larger than normal.” Symptoms that may company anemia can include fatigue, weakness, constipation, not wanting to eat and weight loss. Signs of vitamin B12 deficiency without anemia might be tingling in your hands and feet, depression, confusion, memory problems and balance issues. To make sure you’re getting enough B12, try having nutritional yeast, fortified ready-to-eat cereals and soy milk, 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 foods such as fortified breakfast cereal, pumpkin seeds, yogurt, cashews and chickpeas—but keep in mind you may still need a supplement or multivitamin to get your daily dose of 8 mg (for women) or 11 mg (for men). And 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.