The long-term dangers of being vegetarian

Being a vegetarian is often seen as commendable and almost a moral high ground, this may even be true. However I don’t want to get into that as it’s a pretty intense subject.


Instead I want to help anyone who chooses a vegetarian or vegan diet stay healthy and thrive. Because contrary to popular belief, a vegetarian diet can be hazardous to health.


If a vegetarian diet isn’t correctly designed it could end up being more unhealthy and dangerous than a standard diet.


This is because although it’s clear eating more fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes is beneficial. Almost all vegetarian foods lack some very essential nutrients, these are:


  • Iron
  • B12
  • Omega 3’s
  • Vitamin K2


If you look at the above list and think hang on, I can get omega 3’s from seeds, Iron from spinach and B12 from marmite you might be surprised to find out that isn’t actually true.


Let’s start with Iron

There are two forms of iron in foods, Heme Iron and Non-Heme Iron:

  • Heme iron is found only in meat, poultry, seafood, and fish. Heme iron only comes from from animal proteins in our diet.
  • Non-heme iron, by contrast, is found in plant-based foods like grains, beans, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds. Non-heme iron is also found in animal products such as eggs or milk/dairy and it is also comprises more than half the iron contained in animal meat.

Basically meat and fish contain both forms of Iron, plant based foods only contain non heme Iron.

The way our body absorbs these two types of iron is very different:

Heme iron is more easily absorbed.

Non-heme iron is usually less readily absorbed than heme iron. Non-heme iron tends not to be a big source of dietary iron.

Why does any of this matter?

Our bodies absorb the iron from animal-based protein (heme iron) better than the iron from plant-based protein (non-heme).

This is one reason why a vegetarian is more at risk to develop iron-deficiency anemia than people who eat meat; the exclusively non-heme iron found in plants just isn’t as available to our bodies as heme iron is. People who eat meat are getting both non-heme and heme iron while vegetarians only get non-heme, even if they include dairy and eggs.

Non-heme Iron is Poorly absorbed

The absorption of non-heme iron in people is approximately 5-12%. This is because during digestion, the body has to alter non-heme iron in order to fully take it in. Tea(black and green), coffee and soya products also reduce iron absorption by 50-80%.(1)

Heme iron is a different story, it’s about is 20-30%. This difference in absorption can add up over years of following a vegetarian diet. Eventually with these stark differences vegetarians can become deficient in iron, especially females who heavy periods or who perform high levels of aerobic exercise. (2)

Symptoms of iron deficiency include:

  • Tiredness, lethargy, lack of energy
  • Shortness of breath
  • Paler complexion
  • Dry nails

How to increase your Iron levels

Obviously if you are very worried about this, I recommend consulting your Doctor for blood tests. If you simply want to make sure you are getting enough iron, here are a few options to help you out.

  • Reduce your intake of tea, coffee, around meals as they contain tannins that inhibit iron absorption.
  • Increase vitamin C intake through more fruits and vegetables as Vitamin C vastly improves absorption of iron.
  • Properly preparing whole grains and legumes before eating them. All whole grains and legumes (lentils, beans etc..) contain anti-nutrients that bind to minerals such as Iron and zinc decreasing the amount we can absorb. Soaking whole grains and legumes for 12-24 hours before cooking helps reduce the anti-nutrient profile of these foods and makes the minerals more available. (3)
  • Consider supplementation, although you don’t want to overdo iron, if you’ve had blood tests and your levels are low, supplementation for a short period of time may could be essential. Just be sure to keep an eye on your levels through regular blood tests.

Stay tuned for part two.


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