A vegetarian lifestyle can be rewarding for both mind and body, but there are certain conditions like vegetarian anemia that can be a real concern. Fortunately, a person on a vegetarian or vegan diet plan does not need to fear anemia once the causes are better understood and some basic tips for prevention are followed.
Vegetarianism, considered by many in the mainstream as a fringe or lunatic dietary practice, has been with humanity for millennia. Some religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, observe strict vegetarian regimens. In the modern world, interest in such dietary practices led to the formation of the Vegetarian Society of Manchester (in England) in 1848 to promote a healthier lifestyle through better food selections.
However, many non-vegetarians will argue that a person cannot get all of the required nutrients from a strictly vegetarian diet. Similarly, they will argue that only meat (animal flesh) or other foods with animal sources (eggs, dairy products) provides adequate supplies of protein. Although both suppositions are wrong, there is some merit to carefully selecting the amount and types of foods to eat in a balanced vegetarian diet to insure an adequate intake of nutrients. This will also prevent what is commonly called “vegetarian anemia”, a condition resulting from deficiencies in minerals and vitamins.
Vegetarian anemia prevention begins in the gardens and grocery stores of the consumer. Anemia, a clinical term for low red blood count, begins when the manufacture of red blood cells in the bone-marrow that produces them is impeded. The fewer red blood cells in the body, the less that oxygen – carried by the red cells – is able to be delivered to vital organs and tissues.
A vegetarian diet can certainly supply the body its necessary protein, iron, zinc, and calcium. However, these may be consumed in lower-than-required quantities in a poorly planned vegetarian diet (no animal flesh). This nutrient shortfall can be even more pronounced in a strictly vegan diet (absolutely no animal products – no honey, eggs and dairy, or even molasses that has used pork lard as an anti-foaming agent in bottling, etc.). Similarly, by its very nature a vegetarian diet is lower in calories than a diet including red meats and organ meats; thus a vegetarian’s intake may give a satisfied feeling of fullness (because of the bulk) but is less caloric.
One of the most common causes of vegetarian anemia is a Vitamin B12 deficiency, and it is this vital substance the bone-marrow uses to make red blood cells. Because Vitamin B12 is commonly found in many meats and dairy products a deficiency can occur in those people who do not eat eggs (an excellent source) or are not careful in supplementing their intake with the proper vegetarian foods. A severe Vitamin B12 deficiency can become very serious, leading to megaloblastic anemia (a condition that causes irregularly shaped and immature red blood cells to form), nerve degeneration, and even irreversible neurological damage.
Vegetarian anemia related to B12 deficiency can be relieved with a B12 supplement. Or, better still, proper planning of meals to ensure adequate intake of this essential vitamin (as little as 3 μg per day) can be more enjoyably obtained with B12-fortified vegetarian foods such as nutritional yeast, veggie burgers, textured vegetable protein, soy milks, or vegetable and sunflower margarines.