Vegetarianism can be a healthy way to eat, provided that you design your meals carefully to give your body all the nutrients it needs. If your vegetarian diet lacks certain vitamins and minerals, you may develop deficiencies that can be damaging to your health and even life-threatening. Consider consulting with a nutritionist to come up with a meal plan, and discuss any changes with your doctor before making them.
Your metabolism is regulated by hormones in your thyroid, and these require iodine to function properly. The function and maintenance of your heart, brain and kidneys also depend on this mineral. Seafood is the best source of iodine, though it can also be found in dairy products and kelp. Being a vegetarian, especially one who also excludes dairy, can put you at risk for developing an iodine deficiency, which can lead to side effects like hypothyroidism and goiter.
Vitamin B12 helps your body produce red blood cells. However, this vitamin occurs naturally in animal products alone, so following a strict vegetarian diet can put you at risk for a deficiency, as well as increase your risk of developing anemia. Other signs of a B12 deficiency include numbness, fatigue, diarrhea, nervousness or a shortness of breath.
If you have a B12 deficiency, it may go undetected for a prolonged time due to the high amounts of folate a vegetarian diet often contains. Folate can mask the signs of a B12 deficiency until the more severe symptoms, such as neurological damage, begin to occur.
Without zinc, your immune system cannot properly function, and zinc also plays a key role in cell division and helping your body to form proteins. While zinc can be found in both animal and plant products, your body absorbs this mineral more readily through animal-based foods. Signs of a zinc deficiency may include a loss of appetite, unintentional weight loss, loss of taste or sense of smell, hair loss, poor wound healing and depression.
While these nutrient deficiencies can be severe, you can prevent most of them fairly easily. For example, consume iodized table salt daily, since just a 1/4 tsp. contains 95 mcg of iodine, and adults over the age of 14 need 150 mcg of this mineral per day. Both vitamin B12 and zinc can be found in items like fortified breakfast cereals and milk products, and you can ask your doctor about adding supplements as well to ensure your body is absorbing these key nutrients.