Most people desperately need to eat more plant-based foods (myself included), but just like any diet that completely excludes certain food sources, diets that completely exclude animal products put those dieters at risk from receiving many of the vital nutrients our bodies evolved to expect from animal meat consumption over time. It’s a bit ironic that vegetarians, particularly vegans, are committed to consuming “natural” foods. Truly “natural” and wholesome food choices are fantastic, but avoiding one of the primary sources of food humans absolutely needed to survive for tens of thousands of years is far from natural, and it has its consequences.

Western diets are notoriously low in well-balanced natural foods and high in refined sugars, processed meats, nutrient deficient food consumption. By no means would this qualify as a truly natural diet. Natural diets involve a balanced consumption of local, seasonal, fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, meat and dairy products. There are dozens of vitamins and minerals our bodies need and no one food source can supply them all, so unless you plan to use over-the-counter supplements to complete your nutritional profile, you should at least consider including some foods from each of the aforementioned categories.

Nutrient deficiencies don’t always reveal themselves through immediate, apparent side effects, but that doesn’t mean they are not already taking toll on your body. There’s a reason people almost immediately feel better after cleaning up their Western diet by opting for more lean meats and fresh fruits and vegetables. The list of illnesses a nutrient deficiency can lead to over time is just as long and complicated as human biology, but here are some of the most common nutrients plant-based diets tend to deprive people of.

  1. Protein – Humans need 20 amino acids to synthesize a given protein, and 9 of those amino acids actually can not be synthesized by the body; they have to be acquired via our diet. Plants have protein, but very little of their composition by weight is protein, and even fewer have all the amino acids we need to form complete proteins. Animal meats have much higher concentrations of protein by weight, as well as all of the amino acids we need to utilize them for our muscular, skeletal, cellular and even metabolic needs.
  2. Iron – Plants can be high in what’s called non-heme iron, which is harder for the human body to absorb. Heme iron (iron from animals) is much more efficiently absorbed, and women in particular require more iron, as they’re only able to store half as much as men and they lose significant quantities during menstruation. Consuming adequate Vitamin C can increase the absorbency of non-heme iron, but supplementation is often suggested for those who don’t consume animal meats regularly.
  3. B-12 – Vitamin B-12 is produced by a bacteria primarily found in animal products, so despite some foods being fortified (added) with B-12, it is suggested that vegetarians supplement their diet with B-12 capsules or drops.
  4. EPA/DHA – EPA and DHA are long-chain forms of Omega 3 fatty acids. The human body produces negligible quantities of these essential oils which are found primarily in fatty fish like salmon, tuna and mackerel, but can also be found in marine algae. Since none of these are regularly consumed by the average Western adult, supplementation is recommended. Keep in mind that Omega 3’s found in seeds like Flax and Chia are mostly ALA, which is not the same as EPA or DHA.
  5. Vitamin D – While sunshine on the skin actually stimulates Vitamin-D synthesis in the body from cholesterol, foods like fish, eggs, and certain mushrooms have significant levels of Vitamin D that can help our bodies maintain optimal levels. Be aware that Calcium plays a direct role in Vitamin D regulation, which is just one more reason to aim for a diet composed of a wide variety of natural, wholesome foods.
  6. Zinc – Meat products are not only higher in Zinc concentrations, but they contain compounds that improve the bioavailability for absorption. Plants actually contain acids that inhibit the absorption of zinc, so vegetarians are said to need up to 50% more Zinc in their diet.

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