I’ve been vegan for 5-ish years, and vegetarian for 15-ish years before that, and the only “special” thing I’ve ever done, or ever “worried about,” is taking a B-12 supplement. (And that’s something meat-eaters should probably do, too.)
That said, meat-eaters are very concerned about my protein and iron! And this makes sense: if folks assume that we only eat lettuce, then the math really doesn’t add up. So let me address some of these concerns.
All vegans should take a B12 supplement! But here’s the kicker: everybody else probably should, too!
Recent studies have shown that as many as 2/5 of Americans are fully or borderline B12 deficient. Here’s another doozy: they also found that it was harder for people to absorb B12 from meat, because the vitamin is tightly bound to the meat proteins. Regardless of whether people consumed animal products or not, supplementing B12 was successful in getting them out of the danger zone. (More info here.)
An easy place to get a B12 supplement is from your primary care physician, and depending on your healthcare coverage, the prescription typically only costs a dollar or two for a month’s supply. If you aren’t currently covered, you can also find B12 in the vitamin section of any grocery store or pharmacy.
I’ve never worried about iron. Apparently veg foods have plenty of iron in them, but I didn’t even really know which ones had it until now, because it has never been an issue. Despite not eating meat for decades, I’ve never been anemic (although I know meat-eaters who are), and that’s even with me being a woman all this time, along with all that entails in the iron-loss department.
While an actual deficiency can be a serious medical condition, and should be monitored carefully and resolved, it’s important to remember that there are many other causes for anemia that have nothing to do with diet — and even diet-related causes can be resolved with simple supplementation — so be sure to check with your doctor before assuming that eating veg isn’t an option.
Despite the deep-seated fear of osteoporosis that was hammered into me from a young age, this is another nutrient that I don’t worry about much. I do consume calcium-fortified foods, like soy milk and cereal, as well as naturally calcium-rich foods, like leafy greens, but I don’t take a supplement or keep extensive tabs on it.
Mainly I keep an eye on the research, which lately seems to show that taking calcium supplements and eating dairy may do nothing at best, and may do harm at worst (taking supplements didn’t reduce bone fractures, and drinking milk may have actually increased them, alongside some other nasty side effects). Current evidence seems to suggest that exercising more and cutting down on alcohol is more likely to help our bones, so it probably makes more sense to focus on those things instead.
OMG protein. Judging by the amount that I get asked about this, you’d think that protein was another word for “oxygen” or “water.” It’s clearly a nutrient of extreme concern for people. But please, allow me to assuage your concerns — and I promise not to blow away in a cloud of protein-less dust before doing so!
First of all, veg folks likely already get enough protein just by eating normally. Secondly, getting protein from a plant-based instead of an animal source has a lot of benefits.
But if you’re a super strong, muscular person who’s worried that you can’t achieve your peak performance without animal protein, fear not — you can find solace in the fact that fellow powerhouses like champion body builders, Venus and Serena Williams, and all these NBA guys do just fine eating veg.