21 days of veganism – am I iron and B12 deficient?

Photo by Nanxi wei on Unsplash

I woke up the other morning and I felt knackered. I just wanted to stay in bed. I didn’t know why I felt like this as in the previous few weeks, I’d had quite a lot of energy. Enough to do a half-marathon.

Was it something to do with veganism. I checked Rich Roll’s book and yes he does mention that vegans can be iron deficient and vitamin B12 deficient if not monitored. Doh! I quickly did some more research:

Iron deficiency

From this article by the Mayo Clinic:

Initially, iron deficiency anemia can be so mild that it goes unnoticed. But as the body becomes more deficient in iron and anemia worsens, the signs and symptoms intensify. Iron deficiency anemia signs and symptoms may include: Extreme fatigue Weakness Pale skin Chest pain, fast heartbeat or shortness of breath Headache, dizziness or lightheadedness Cold hands and feet Inflammation or soreness of your tongue Brittle nails Unusual cravings for non-nutritive substances, such as ice, dirt or starch Poor appetite, especially in infants and children with iron deficiency anemia

I didn’t know that iron comes in two forms: heme and non-heme. Heme is from animal products and is easily absorbed by the body. Non-heme is from plant-based products and isn’t easily absorbed by the body. You need to 18mg of iron a day and getting that from plants alone isn’t straightforward and it’s another thing too to get that iron absorbed. Certain foodstuffs such as tea and coffee actually inhibit the absorption of iron. Other foods such as those rich in vitamin C actually help iron absorption.

B12 deficiency

Apparently a key vitamin doesn’t appear in the plant kingdom. B12 only appears in the animal foods such as meats, fish, poultry and eggs. From this Healthline article:

It plays an essential role in the production of your red blood cells and DNA, as well as the proper functioning of your nervous system.

From this WebMD article:

If you have vitamin B12 deficiency, you could become anemic. A mild deficiency may cause no symptoms. But if untreated, it may lead to symptoms such as:

  • Weakness, tiredness, or lightheadedness
  • Heart palpitations and shortness of breath
  • Pale skin
  • A smooth tongue
  • Constipation, diarrhea, loss of appetite, or gas
  • Nerve problems like numbness or tingling, muscle weakness, and problems walking
  • Vision loss
  • Mental problems like depression, memory loss, or behavioural changes

The same article also had this to say about mothers who are breastfeeding whilst on a vegan diet:

Are you a pregnant woman on a vegan or vegetarian diet, and plan to only breastfeed your baby? You should talk to your doctor before you have your baby, so that you have a plan in place for how you’ll get enough vitamin B12 to keep your baby healthy. Without enough vitamin B12, your baby could have developmental delays and not thrive and grow like he should.

Vegans and vegetarians can get their B12 through a supplement tablet or through food such as nutritional yeast (I bought some and it’s very much like fish food flakes!)

From this article from WebMD:

To increase the amount of vitamin B12 in your diet, eat more of foods that contain it, such as: Beef, liver, and chicken. Fish and shellfish such as trout, salmon, tuna fish, and clams. Fortified breakfast cereal. Low-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese. Eggs.

So I’m going pause the vegan experiment and modify it

It takes a while for your iron stores to become depleted and it takes time to build it up again. So for my own health and Angelique’s health, we’re going to load up on meat and eggs for the next couple of weeks to get our iron and B12 levels back to normal. I’m going to eat much the same meals as on the vegan diet (lots of veg, lentils, rice, fruit, mung beans, tempeh etc) but also add in regular lean red meat like liver and steak, as well as eggs and increase my vitamin C intake. I’m also going to start drinking cow’s milk again so that I don’t get a calcium deficiency. I realise that means that I’m no longer vegan but it’s helped me be more intentiaonl about the meats and foodstuffs that I eat. I’m still leaning to a ‘5 days vegan/2 days not’ balance.

Update

In the 10 days since pausing the vegan diet, I’ve been loading up on liver (high in iron and B12). I’ve had this three times. Plus a couple of steaks, some eggs, some oily and non-oily fish, plus some B12 tablets with 25 micrograms of B12 (not even close to the highest strength ones you can get on Amazon). I feel a lot better, with a lot more pep and energy.

It made me think that lots of people could be wandering around with a mild (or serious) mineral deficiency and that this could impact their daily energy levels, their moods, their ability to concentrate etc. How much could change with a nutrient-rich diet as well as the right supplements to complement that?

Disclaimer: I’m not a medical professional and I have self-diagnosed myself using the internet. Please seek medical advice from a qualified professional before starting any major dietary changes. Thanks!

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