Veganism is becoming more and more popular. This is awesome news for the planet, the animals, and the people…especially those who get it nutritionally right. We will briefly look at why one might choose to live on a plant based diet, from a health perspective, but mostly we will focus on what it is essential to pay attention to in terms of nutrients.
Whenever we try something new we often have initial worries. In terms of veganism these are often in terms of nutrition. Am I getting enough of …(fill in your favourite nutrient)…?
Let us look at some nutrients that people are afraid of missing and see how you can get them on a vegan diet. And, let us see how you can make sure that you get plenty of them. But to start with we will see what usually goes bad on a vegan diet.
What nutritional problems do vegans tend to run into?
There have been large studies done on vegetarians and vegans and interestingly enough, they do not tend to show extended lifespan. It is thought that this is mainly due to three key issues, namely,
- lack of vitamin B12,
- lack of omega 3 fatty acids,
- and lack of vitamin D.
So, if nothing else, if you are a vegan please go to the sections talking about these and make sure you are getting enough.
And if you are not eating a plant based diet, then you might wonder why one would want to.
Why consider a plant based diet?
We will not go into the ethical reasons for a plant based diet, concern about the animals, about the environment, or the emotional wellbeing of humans. Please read this short article to get a quick overview of that.
Instead, our focus will be on the nutrition and health related aspects. So far a whole foods, low fat (10-15 energy per cent of fat), plant based diet is the only one that has shown the ability to systematically decrease and reverse degenerate disease, including heart disease.
Furthermore, there is a whole body of large scale research that indicates that diets with low levels of saturated fat, lower levels of proteins, most proteins from plants are related to health and longevity. So there is a firm basis for the plant based diet. And reducing the fat intake to 10-15%, while eliminating the animal protein seems to take it another level, where diseases are reversed.
At the same time a number of very different diets are becoming popular. We have the high fat, high protein diets that also show some positive short-term results. However these diets do not stand on large scale, long term studies and have not been shown to reverse heart disease.
One example of an alternative diet is the carnivore diet where one only eats meat and salt. Some go as far as only eating beef and salt and water. This may be a choice for someone having autoimmune issues and being sensitive to a number of plant based foods. However, we know nothing of the long term consequences. (An alternative to consider if suffering from autoimmune issues is 4 day fasting on a regular basis.)
However, if one chooses to go over to a plant based diet it is important to make sure that all nutrients are still present. If B12 or omega 3’s are missing the consequences can be dire. The other nutrients it is important to check and then possibly rearrange ones diet in order to maintain optimal health.
Let us start with the nutrient most people immediately ask about.
Some Health Advantages of a Plant Based Diet
There are many health advantages to a proper plant based diet. To learn more about them look through Dr Greger’s material. Or if you are into movies you can watch a documentaries like The Game Changers on Netflix, or What the Health, or Forks Over Knives, or Simply Raw.
And here are just a few automatic health benefits.
Short Chained Fatty Acids
A plant based diet automatically creates a different gut microbiome.
Unless it is a very unhealthy diet, based only on processed foods, the vegan will tend to eat quite a bit of different types of fiber. This will feed the beneficial gut bacteria and they will in turn produce short chained fatty acids, which have a large number of benefits in the human body.
This is in part due to the fact that they inhibit Histone Deacetylases (HDACs). As such, they affect the epigenetics and lead to a reduced level of inflammation in the body, prevent diseases like Alzheimers and even affect states like depression, schizophrenia, addiction, prevent obesity, diabetes, coeliac disease, and the list goes on…
This is not unique to vegans, as it depends on the consumption of a variety of plants, but it is often more prevalent in vegans, as they will usually tend to eat more plants.
Studies that that vegan guts tend to be free of bacteria that produce TMA, which is then converted into the hazardous TMAO.
Less Bile Salts
In omnivores we see colonies of bile eating bacteria. This then leads to a production of bile salts further down the digestive tract. These bile salts are cancer causing and in particular associated with colon cancer.
Unless you are eating large portions of soy or processed soy foods, you will be keeping your IGF1 at healthy levels, reducing your cancer risk. Read more about what IGF1 is and how it is related to health in our article here.
By now most people probably know that not getting enough protein on a vegan diet, or not being able to build muscles is more of a myth. But let us look into it.
The common problem in society in general is not lack of protein. It is protein excess. Really? Why and how? Let me explain.
Protein is a type of caloro-nutrient we cannot store in our body, like fat, or sugar (which we make into fat).
Instead we need to eliminate any excess of it. This process requires extra work for the kidneys and is acidifying for the body. In other words, the body needs something alkaline to restore balance. The substance it uses is calcium, from the deposits in our bones. So, eating a lot of protein will draw out calcium from our bones. This may lead to osteoporosis. High protein intake may also lead to other problems, like gout.
Also, there is a link between animal protein and cancer. Even the World Health Organisation has classified red meat as carcinogenic. The milk protein, casein (which composes 80% of cow’s milk protein), is also seen as a carcinogen as it promotes growth, including cancer growth. You can read about it in detail and see how it assists in the development, growth and spreading of cancer in the book The China Study. So, there is a series of possible health issues when it comes to excess consumption of protein and in particular animal protein.
How much protein do we need?
Let us start by seeing how much we get. On a standard diet we get around 17 energy percent protein. With effort we might be able to get up as high as 23%, but more than that is very difficult. Even if one were to eat meat only, a large portion of the meat is actually fat, even though we might not physically see the fat.
Let us then ask what the body needs protein for. It is needed to rebuild damaged tissue, build new tissue, and replace old cells. So, the people in highest need of protein would be babies and teenagers. These are times when our bodies grow the most and need to build the most new tissue. Since nature provides the perfect food for babies we can check how much they need. In human breast milk we find around 6% protein (this is energy percent). And so, a regular adult might perhaps get by on 3% or so. However, our digestive systems are not perfect. So a 3% protein in ones diet will be too low, as we will not be able to utilise all of it.
The recommendations are around 9.5% of protein as a minimum for the average person. This comes out to about 0.66 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. So, a person weighing 60 kg might need about 40 g of protein each day. A person weighing 80 kg might need 53 g of protein per day.
Now we can see that if we need around 9% protein and are getting around 17%, we are getting much more than we need. This is why we started off by saying that the common problem is that we have an excess of protein.
Having a protein intake of around 10% seems to be the healthiest way to go until you get to the age of 65. After 65 you may wish to add a little bit more protein, but only so that you reach a moderate and not high protein intake.
Having a protein intake of 10-15% is in line with a diet that has been shown to reverse degenerate diseases, including heart disease.
Protein is made up of amino acids. We need 20 different amino acids to synthesise our proteins. Out of those 20 amino acids 9 are essential amino acids. They are called essential because our body cannot produce them. We need to take them with our food. Out of the 9 essential amino acids there are two that will tend to be lower in plant based foods. They are lysine and methionine.
Besides the essential amino acids there are some amino acids that when the body is stressed it may have a hard time making. These are called conditionally essential amino acids. And out of these there are three that are of particular importance for babies and children and those are cysteine, arginine, and tyrosine.
It was once thought that we needed to have complete protein at meal time. But we can actually get some types of amino acids at one time, and others at another, and still make it all work very well in the body.
Soy is one of the few plant based foods that actually contains all of the essential amino acids, or is known as a complete protein source. This is why it is often spoken about when talking about supplementing a vegan diet with more protein. However, eating large quantities of soy is not recommended because of a number of reasons. For one soy is often genetically modified and has high levels of glyphosate. Then, soy also raises IGF-1 levels in the body. And, it is not advisable for men to eat large quantities of it as it contains phytoestrogens. Though this can actually be quite helpful for women going through menopause. Having organic soy, for both men and women, in the form of natto, however, brings many benefits.
An interesting source of protein, that is currently becoming more and more popular are aquatic proteins. Water lentils have more protein than soy and they contain B12.
If one of the amino acids is lacking, then protein synthesis is not going to work well. And that will lead to overall systemic problems. Where one sees it more acutely will depend on the particular weak points of the body. Often it will tend show up as a poor immune system. There may also be fatigue, poor recovery, muscle weakness, poor skin, poor hair, digestive problems, kidney problems, etc.
In your blood tests you would see already developed protein deficiency in low albumin levels and low transferrin.
If you are changing to a vegan diet, or have been on one for a while but never checked your nutrients it is advisable to write down everything you eat in a week and then see if any nutrients seem to be missing. Over time this will be important. And it is possible to be low on amino acids as a vegan.
Make sure you have enough protein
Write down everything you eat in Cronometer.com, or some other nutritional tool, and see if you tend to be constantly low on amino acids.
Are you generally feeling low, tired, poor skin, poor hair, low immune system? These may be symptoms of being low on amino acids. Check your albumin and transferrin levels next time you do a blood test.
To increase your protein intake:
- Have more greens (have some moringa if you live near the tropics)
- Consider making oat a staple food
- Add some legumes (lentils, chickpeas, beans but be sure to reduce the anti-nutrients and cook for long with bayleaves)
- Have organic natto (japanese fermented soybeans that also contain vitamin K2)
If you want to supplement your diet with extra protein take pea protein supplements. They still contain the fiber and are just as good for muscle building and strength as whey protein supplements. Pea protein also contains prebiotic fiber that helps with the digestion.
Isn’t cow’s milk the best source of calcium? This is what we may have been told by the media, and perhaps even in school. However, even though cow’s milk does contain calcium it also contains excess protein that in total makes us excrete more calcium than we take up from the milk.
If you are not on a high protein diet, which you are not likely to be as a vegan, then you may not need at much calcium as the person on a standard diet needs. So, one might not need a full 1000 mg of calcium a day.
Make sure you get enough calcium
Eating plenty of leafy greens will increase your calcium intake (avoid spinach because of the oxalates). If you happen to live near the tropics use moringa leaves as it will also supply you with iron, vitamin A and extra protein. It also has powerful isothiocynates that reduce inflammation.
Mulberry leaf tea has 27 times more calcium than milk. It also reduces blood pressure, does not let blood sugar rise as high, and is protective for the heart.
Blackstrap molasses is another source of calcium. Just two tablespoons give you 400 mg.
You also have fortified foods, like some types of orange juices that will also contain 300 mg in each large glass.
If you should consider taking calcium as a supplement you must always also supplement with vitamin K2, otherwise the new calcium is likely to end up in the wrong places in the body (like the arteries). It is always good to check with your health practitioner before you supplement with calcium.
Vitamin B12 is made from bacteria and not likely to be found on a plant based diet. And so, it is essential to supplement with B12.
Failing to supplement with B12 will first lead to high homocysteine levels, inflammations in the body, atherosclerosis (bloodvessles clogging up). Then, if not supplemented, it will lead to nerve damage that is irreversible.
This is one of the reasons why vegans did not show health and lifespan advantages over vegetarians or meat-eaters in the large studies. Their homocysteine levels were on average much higher (around 18), whereas they should not be above 12. This can easily be remedied by taking a B12 supplement.
Make sure you get enough B12
Measure your B12 levels in your blood on a regular basis. Make sure to also measure homocysteine, folic acid, and if the test is not too expensive do a methylomalomic acid test as well. See detailed explanations and values in our B12 article.
Take a supplement, preferably hydroxycobalamin, adenosylcobalamin, or metylocobalamine. If a person can absorb it well they can take an oral supplement. Otherwise taking it directly into your blood (through a patch, an agent like DMSO, an injection, etc) is a good option. Again, see the details in the B12 article.
If you are against taking supplements there are some new products that naturally contain active B12, like water lentils.
Iron is important for the transportation of oxygen in the body, in the hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells. But it is also used for connective tissue and some hormones.
There are two types of iron: heme and non-heme iron. Heme iron is only present in animal products and is absorbed more efficiently thank non-heme iron. This means that it is good to make sure you get at least the recommended dose of iron.
Men need about 8 mg of iron per day while women will need around 18 mg, and more if they are pregnant and less if they are after their menopause.
If you get low on iron the body will first use up the stored iron, before anemia sets in. Low iron can lead to the feeling of low energy. But you should not be taking more than 40 mg of iron a day.
Make sure you get enough iron
Check your iron levels when you take your next blood test to know how you are doing.
You can look for local food that contains iron. Example, in tropical Brazil, you have the fruit genipapo that contains a bunch of iron and you have moringa, or use sugar cane molasses or blackstrap molasses (2 table spoons 7 mg or iron). And the good news for dark chocolate eaters is that chocolate also contains iron.
Make sure you greatly reduce the amount of the anti-nutrients from legumes, nuts, and seeds by soaking, sprouting, or fermenting them.
Make sure you get plenty of vitamin C with your iron rich food, then you will increase the absorption. So, if you have acerola or camu-camu fruit you can get lots and lots of natural vitamin C.
If you are taking calcium supplements you should not take them with your iron rich food.
Do not take an iron supplement on your own. Always check with your health practitioner. Taking an inappropriate iron supplement can bring about health problems like constipation, nausea, vomiting, and higher doses will impede zinc absorption, and even higher can lead to coma, convulsions, and even death. Constantly eating high levels of iron may increase the risk of a series of degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, liver cancer, diabetes, etc.
Zinc is important for the immune system, wound healing, protein synthesis, DNA synthesis, metabolism, and even cell division. And it has sometimes been lower in people who eat a plant based diet. So, it is good to make you get enough.
You need around 10 mg per day (a little more if you are a man and a little less if you are a woman).
Make sure you get enough zinc
Make sure you greatly reduce the amount of the anti-nutrients from legumes, nuts and seeds by soaking, sprouting, or fermenting them. Anti-nutrients can steal your zinc.
Eat zinc rich foods. If you choose pumpkin seeds make sure to soak them first.
Selenium is an essential trace element. It protects against oxidative stress, is used in metabolism, helps fight off infections, and it is present in DNA synthesis.
Getting sufficient amounts of selenium can be a problem, especially if your food is grown in selenium poor soil. You should get from 55-70 micrograms of selenium per day.
Have a soaked brazilian nut a day (70 mcg) to get your entire selenium intake. You do not want to have much more than that as an excess of selenium is not healthy and the brazilian nuts also contain phytates that will tend to steal other nutrients. You should not get more than 400 micrograms of selenium per day.
We can get sulphur from eggs. Where in the vegan world do we get sulphur? Have you tried black Himalaya salt?
It smells like eggs! Wait…or is it that eggs smell like sulphur? That’s it. Black Himalayan salt can actually be used to give the taste of eggs to your dishes, because of the sulphur it contains.
Vitamin D is important for a number of functions in the body. One is a robust immune system. The flu season usually comes once vitamin D levels in the body start decreasing due to less sun exposure. Vitamin D is also essential for bone health. It allows the body to absorb the calcium that comes into it. Vitamin K2 will also be essential in bone health.
Make sure you get enough vitamin D
The best way to get vitamin D is to make your own. Get it from the sun, if possible. You can also get it from moderate use of tanning beds.
So, how much do I need?
A general rule is: half the time you need to get a slight sun burn. On fair skin it means half the time of getting a slightly pink colour within 24 hours of being in the sun. Usually a 15 minute exposure (without sunscreen) will be enough. In some places and for some skins as little as 5 minutes will be enough while others might need 30 minutes.
This will depend on where you live, your skin colour, your weight, and your age. It is important to know that the darker ones skin colour is, the more sun exposure the skin needs in order to make vitamin D. And so, dark skinned people who live in latitudes where there is little sun will need to take extra care when it comes to their vitamin D.
At some latitudes there are a few months a year when it is just not possible to get enough vitamin D from the sun. That is the time to supplement. Some people like to supplement by taking a two week trip in the middle of winter to a sunny place and then refill their vitamin D stores. Others may need to do so with an oral Vitamin D3 supplement.
Vitamin K2 is essential for the transport of calcium in your body. You can make your own K2 from K1 (which you will get from your leafy greens). However, K2 production is reduced as we age. Learn more about the benefits of K2 in our article about it.
Make sure you get enough K2
Get, or make your own, organic natto. This is the highest source of vitamin K2 and it gives you the best quality K2 (the MK7 chains). It is important to get organic natto because most soy is genetically modified and contains glyphosate. Natto will also help you up your amino acids.
180 micrograms of K2 (MK7) per day translates into about 80 g of natto every third day. And you can take it every third day because the K2 from natto stays around in the body for up to three days.
Omega 3 fatty acids:
This is a key issue for vegans because, in practice, many end up not getting a good enough ratio between their Omega 3 fatty acids and Omega 6 fatty acids. Omega 3 is very important to keep heart health and a well working brain. This is thought to be another key reason why vegans were not deriving the health and longevity benefits from their vegan diets that they should.
Omega 3 fatty acids are essential polyunsaturated fatty acids. Omega 3 fatty acids come in different chains. There are the basic building blocks, the ALA (alpha-linoleic acid) that you find in some seeds, like flax seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, or even walnuts. Then there are longer chained fatty acids where the best known are called EPA (eicosapentanoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). The EPA is anti-inflammatory and the DHA is especially good for the brain. Our body can make these longer chained omega 3 oils from ALA. However it is not very efficient at making them. And here is where the ratio between the Omega 6’s and Omega 3’s comes in. A ratio of 1:1 is great. However, in our society most people tend to get 16:1 (omega 6 : omega 3).
If we have much more Omega 6, then we will reduce our ability to make EPA. So, to increase the ability to make long chained Omega 3’s we need to take more ALA and reduce the intake of Omega 6.
You can get the ALA from flax seeds. Flaxseed oil contains 57% omega 3 and has a ratio of 3:1. But flaxseed oil does not keep well as oil. It needs to be kept in the fridge. So, it may be better to keep the oil in the seeds, until the time you are ready to eat them.
Which oils should you avoid?
To know which oils to avoid, in order to get a good omega 6 to omega 3 ratio you need to check for two things.
- The percentage of omega 6
- The ratio between omega 6 and omega 3
The best case scenario is low overall omega 6 content and a good omega 6 to omega 3 ration. However even if the ratio is poor but you only have very small amounts of omega 6 overall, it is ok. Coconut oil is an example. It does not contain omega 3 but it contains very little omega 6, and so it ends up being a good choice.
Omega 6 in large amounts is found in sunflower oil which actually is mostly made out of omega 6, a whopping 71% of it is omega 6 and the ratio is 71:1, corn oil, which contains 57% omega 6 with the ration 57:1, cottonseed oil with 54% omega 6 and 54:1. Then we have some oils that seem to have better ratios, but still contain substantial amounts of omega 6 and will therefore be difficult to off-set. These are soy oil, which has 54% omega 3 and a ratio of 6:1, or even an apparently healthier alternative like canola oil with 22% omega 6 and a ratio of 2:1. It is best to avoid these types of oils.
Is olive oil good or bad? Olive oil contains about
- 14% saturated fat,
- 74% monounsaturated fat,
- 10% omega 6,
- and 1% omega 3.
So, the ratio between omega 6 and omega 3 is 10:1. This is not a good ratio, but only a very small part of the oil is actually omega 6. Because extra virgin olive oil has a number of health benefits, and seems to actually reduce inflammation, it is still considered a healthy oil. One of the reasons why olive oil might be so healthy is potentially because of the monounsaturated fats. Lately it has been discovered that these activate sirtuins, our age-silencing genes. Read more about it in the article on ageing or watch the video on how it activates sirtuins more than resveratrol.
More omega 3 neutral oils are coconut oil which only has about 2% omega 6.
A good way to find out what your ratio is is to log all of your food for at least a week in a nutritional program.
But if for some reason the body has a hard time making them it is possible to supplement with them. The longer chained omega 3´s are commonly found in fish. But they are also available in vegan form from plankton.
Make sure you get enough Omega 3
Taking 2 tablespoons of flax seeds or chia seeds per day is enough to supplement with omega 3. However, the seeds need to be chewed very well or ground. Also, be aware that you should not buy and store ground flax seeds as they produce toxins once in contact with the air. It it better to grind them in the moment before you eat them. This way you will be supplying your body with ALA omega 3’s, which are the building blocks of the longer fatty acids.
Make sure you do not eat a lot of omega 6 oils, which make it difficult to convert the ALA into EPA and DHA. So stay away from sunflower oil (71:1), corn oil (57:1), cottonseed oil (54:1), soy oil (6:1).
Use coconut oil instead (or avocado or macademia oils).
You may wish to supplement with DHA and EPA from plankton. This is especially so if you eat much more Omega 6 fatty acids (check in Cronometer.com).
A culinary suggestion is to make chia pudding. You just mix some form of plant milk, add some flavour you like, such as strawberries or maybe cocoa, as a little sweetener and then when all is mixed stir in your two tablespoons of chia seeds and leave in the fridge for the next day.
Iodide and Iodine:
Most of us are actually low on iodine. We mostly get it from salt that has iodine added to it, or from seafood. Iodine is important for a number of reasons. It is especially important for young women developing their breasts (as breast tissue contains larger amount of iodine). And it is essential for anyone cancer or to help prevent cancer.
Make sure you get enough iodine
If you like algeas then you will probably have no problem with iodine. Just make sure you eat them. And check where they come from so that you are not supplementing your food with toxins.
Substances you don´t get on a vegan diet:
This is a substance that is made out of lysine and methionine. If the body has enough of the two it will make its own. But keep in mind that these are the two amino acids that may be lower on a plant based diet. So, it is good to make sure you get the amino acids.
However, it should be noted that supplementing with L-carnitine may present problems. Non-vegans, or vegans who supplement with carnitine tend to develop gut bacteria that produce TMA (Trimethylamine), which then gets converted into TMAO (Trimethylamine-N-oxide) in the liver. TMAO is associated with increased risk of heart attack, stroke, and death. Vegans do not produce these bacteria. In fact, even when fed a steak, which naturally contains high levels of carnitine, they do not produce TMAO. Omnivores, on the other hand, readily produce high levels of TMAO after ingesting a steak. Read more about it in this publication. Garlic will tend to reduce TMAO levels.
Another similar substance is choline, which is found in animal products. This too can lead to the development of TMA-producing gut bacteria.
This is a substance that may help if you are about to exercise and is not available on a vegan diet. But it is not essential as our body can make it.
This is a substance only found in meat. It is essential for the health of natural carnivores, like cats. However humans seem to do well without it and can create their own.
To watch out for:
Allergies and Intolerances
If you have any allergy or food intolerance, then you should avoid the foods that cause this. This may sound self-evident but it is not. There are entire communities where 80% of the people are lactose intolerant and still drink milk in their coffee every day.
We often think that we need to eat lots of beans, nuts, and seeds when we switch to a vegan diet. Even though these foods do contain valuable nutrients they may also cause trouble because of the anti-nutrients they contain. And so, one has to learn how to prepare them if they are to become a staple in the diet.
Go back to refresh the article on phytic acid to refresh your memory on anti-nutrients and how to diminish them.
Here a re-cap on some anti-nutrients:
Here are some ways of making sure you are getting your nutrients.
- So, making sure you eat your 300 g of leafy greens you will be taking in a lot of minerals you need.
- Natto will help keep your amino acids up and it will bring you lots of K2.
- Eat your two tablespoons of flax or chia seeds, freshly ground or well chewed or take a DHA and EPA supplement.
- Take a B12 supplement.
- Get your 15 min of sunlight (or more in the darker months, or a D3 supplement)
- Have some algeas or salt with iodine.
- Take some blackstrap molasses to get calcium and iron.
- Whenever using nuts, seeds, or legumes be sure to soak them, sprout them, or ferment them so that they do not steal your nutrients.
Also eat the occasional, soaked brazilian nut if your soils are poor in selenium.