Recently I’ve received a number of questions about plant based nutrition. Having been on this journey almost four years there is a lot that I have learned about this diet along the way. If you are taking steps to eat more plants, this is some of the best advice I have learned through my own research, trial, and error. There are 5 areas where vegans can be deficient if they are not cognizant of certain nutritional intakes. I would like to highlight these as well as provide some thrifty ways of maximizing health with a plant powered lifestyle.
Vitamin B12 is crucial to maintaining healthy nerves, energy production, and supporting the heart and immune system. B12 is produced by bacteria, is found in the soils, and used to be in present in drinking water(pipes are too clean now). It is more commonly found in meat and dairy products, so vegans like to supplement with a sublingual B12. However, B12 can be found in nutritional yeast, fermented foods such as kombucha, yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, tempeh, and miso. Additionally, if you want to save some time, you can leave a little dirt when washing your organic vegetables from the farmers market since B12 is in the soil.
Yes, our bodies produce vitamin D when exposed to the sun, but in today’s modern world with lots of clothes and indoor jobs, most people(vegans and omnivores alike) are deficient in this crucial vitamin. Vitamin D is in fact not actually a vitamin but a pro-hormone responsible for an array of functions in the body. It has shown benefits in mood, cancer resistance, autoimmune diseases, heart health, bone density, metabolism, thyroid function, and is aids in the intestinal absorption of calcium, magnesium, and phosphate.
D3 has also been shown to reduce the risk of dementia, Alzheimer’s, and death in elderly which is just another reason to make sure your levels are sufficient. It is found naturally in fish and mushrooms, and fortified in products such as milk. Relying on these might not be enough, especially in winter months, so it is recommended to supplement.
If you think you may be deficient, it is definitely one thing I would recommend getting tested in. A simple at-home test is to press into your sternum with your thumb. If a moderate amount of force produces discomfort then you may be deficient. Additionally, there is the 25-hydroxy vitamin D test to get your exact levels.
The three types of Omega-3 fatty acids are ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). ALA is converted into EPA and DHA by the human body, but in limited quantities. DHA is critical for brain function whereas EPA helps to decrease inflammation and lowers the risk of coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, and high triglyceride levels. Many plants such as flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, and tofu contain significant amounts of ALA which have similar beneficial effects as EPA.
Additionally, it is important to monitor your ratio of Omega-3’s to Omega-6’s. The Standard American Diet is heavily laden with processed foods and refined oils high in omega-6’s. The typical western diet contains almost 10 times more of inflammatory omega-6’s to Omega-3’s where as an optimal ratio is between 2:1 and 1:1. Of course our body needs inflammation to recover from an injury or workout, however having such an out of balance ratio can produce chronic inflammation which is one of the culprits in cardiovascular disease, obesity, cancer, and diabetes.
So what is one to do about Omega-3s? The simplest answer would be to eat a whole foods, plant based diet, low in processed products, and high in ALA containing foods. This isn’t always possible, so we can get it where the fish do in order that EPA and DHA requirements are met. There are starting to be more and more seaweed products on the market, but I personally like to supplement with an algal oil simply because the brain benefits are so important in day to day functioning as well as the reduced risks down the line.
Not talking about skiing or mountain climbing here although this vitamin is associated with bone health an a healthy heart, especially when combined with vitamin D. K2 is on this list because it is so critical for shuttling calcium where it needs to go. Without enough K2 osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease can develop. The former by not having the resources to get calcium to the bones and the latter by not having the resources to remove calcium from artery walls. With the rise of calcium supplementation and fortification in foods, it is imperative that K2 is part of one’s diet.
While vitamin K1 is found in many plants and especially in leafy green vegetables, K2 is less prevalent in foods. K1 is converted to K2 in our bodies at about 15% efficiency(declining as we age) so levels could be met with sufficient greens. However this isn’t the case with most people, myself included. K2 can be supplemented or found in fermented products mentioned previously and can be found in abundance in natto.
Zinc is incredibly important for your body’s immune system and plays a role in cell growth, production of testosterone to prevent estrogen dominance, wound healing, and the breaking down carbs. Zinc deficiency can lead to hair loss, increased susceptibility to colds, hormone imbalances, and acne.
Zinc is sometimes overlooked but can be easy to get in a plant based diet with beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds. I’ve mentioned soaking and sprouting previously(HERE!), but it bears mentioning again. Most of these items can be soaked overnight(beans and legumes can easily be sprouted) to reduces phytates which can inhibit nutrient absorption. In addition, zinc can be found in oats, wheat germ, and the versatile nutritional yeast.
Taurine is not an essential amino acid, however levels in vegans are often much lower than meat eaters. Taurine is synthesized in the body with cysteine(found in red peppers, onions, garlic, broccoli, brussel sprouts, oats, and wheat germ) vitamin B6, and methionine(found in spinach, potatoes, corn, sesame seeds, Brazil nuts, and other nuts). Taurine plays a role in development of skeletal muscle and the retina, protecting cell membranes, regulating heart beats, and protecting the heart from calcium overload. Additionally, it is the highest concentrated amino acid in the brain of a fetus and newborn. All of these indicators have led me to supplement Taurine every week or so.
A whole food, plant based way of eating is lifestyle more than just a diet! It can supply all your dietary needs, however if you have a food allergy or intolerance or have other restrictions, there is a chance of becoming deficient in certain key nutrients. It is important to examine what you are eating with a wide lens to see if you are neglecting a type of food or if it would be beneficial to supplement in certain areas. Striving for a more vegetable centric plate will meet most of your nutritional needs but everybody is an individual and had unique needs. These are the most commonly missed pieces in a plant based diet, so hopefully this can serve to help you if you’re striving to eat the rainbow.
Comment below if you take any of these or if there are others you would recommend to optimize building a plant based body.