For Vegans

by Denise Minger

I promise this page isn’t scary or mean!

Despite rumors to the contrary, I’m actually not on a rabid, foaming-at-the-mouth, steak-fueled mission to unveganize the world. My own diet is mostly plants, and I benefit in no way—financially or otherwise—if you decide to put an egg in your mouth instead of a lump of texturized vegetable protein. My sole goal with this blog is to squash out bad science and give folks access to accurate information about diet. What you decide to do with the stuff I say here is completely up to you.

As a former decade-long vegetarian (and vegan for the last few years of that), I understand and respect that food choices are sometimes based on more than our own health. Maybe you’re ethically opposed to killing animals for any reason, are concerned about the treatment of livestock on farms, or simply developed a crippling case of carnophobia after getting locked in a meat freezer when you were five (worst game of hide-and-seek ever). If this is you, I’m not here to talk you out of your choices or values—and even if we disagree on the specifics, I encourage you to live your life in whatever way you find most fulfilling.

Even though I don’t believe strict vegan diets are optimal from a health perspective, I do think there are ways to make the best out of a meatless, eggless, and dairyless situation. I’d like to offer some of those ideas on this page so that anybody personally committed to veganism can maximize their chance of staying healthy, and hopefully avoid the most common pitfalls us annoying ex-vegans blather on about. (Please note that this isn’t an endorsement for current omnivores to convert to veganism, and there’s no guarantee you’ll truly thrive even if you follow all the suggestions below—but I do think these guidelines will give vegans the best chance possible for warding off health problems.)

In no particular order of importance, here’s a summary of the list, followed by a more detailed version of each point:

Eat real food—no fake meats, processed soy products, vegan junk food, etc.
Avoid high omega-6 vegetable oils and take a vegan DHA supplement.
Supplement with vitamin K2.
Supplement with a vegan form of vitamin D3.
Enhance your beta carotene absorption and conversion.
Properly prepare any grains, legumes, or nuts you eat.
Maximize iron absorption using vitamin-C-rich foods.
Keep your thyroid in good shape.
Take vitamin B12.
Try going gluten-free.
Eat some fermented foods.
Supplement with taurine.
Consider adding oysters or other non-sentient bivalves to your diet.
The long version:

1. Eat real food. I wholly believe the plant-based-diet doctors like Caldwell Esselstyn, John McDougall, and Joel Fuhrman are on the right track when they recommend eating things that actually still resemble food—leafy greens, fruit, tubers, squash, legumes, root vegetables, seaweeds, some nuts and seeds if they sit well with you, and so forth. Although I think many folks would do well with a higher fat intake than some of those doctors recommend (with some caveats we’ll talk about next), the concept of eating real food is a winner. This means ditching the fake soy meats, high-fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, convenience snacks, TV dinners, and pretty much every single thing on this page. It may have been an exciting moment when you learned that Kellogg’s Unfrosted Pop-Tarts are vegan… but pop-tarts they remain. Occasionally indulging in something junkier won’t kill you, but don’t expect to stay healthy if everything on your plate was made by Morningstar Farms or Tofutti.

2. Avoid high-omega-6 vegetable oils like soybean oil, corn oil, cottonseed oil, sunflower oil, peanut oil, or margarines made from these oils. Instead, use heat-stable fats like coconut oil or red palm oil for cooking, and use macadamia nut oil or olive oil for cold dishes like salads. (Depending on where your city falls on the boondocks-to-urbia scale, the linked oils may be easier to order online than track down locally, but you can sometimes find them at specialty markets or request them through Whole Foods.)
Note: slashing your intake of omega-6 fats will reduce your omega-3 requirements, but I also recommend taking an algae-based vegan DHA supplement (like DEVA’s) and getting some ALA from ground chia seeds, hemp seeds, or flax seeds (always raw and not heat-treated, because their fats are extremely unstable). This is particularly important if you’re pregnant or breast-feeding.

3. Secure a source of vitamin K2, pronto—especially if you want to stave off dental nightmares (like my own 14-cavity adventure). Woefully unknown to the public and mainstream health experts alike, vitamin K2 is critical for a healthy heart and skeletal system. Among other things, it helps shuttle calcium out of your arteries (where it contributes to plaque formation) and into your bones and teeth, where it rightfully belongs. There’s a new book out called ”Vitamin K-2 and the Calcium Paradox” discussing this nutrient depth, but you can also find plenty of information on K2 online, like here and here.

Unlike vitamin K1, which is abundant in some vegan foods like dark leafy greens, vitamin K2 is only found in certain bacteria and animal products such as dairy, organ meats, and eggs. The chief vegan source is natto—a (not-so-appetizing) fermented soybean product that contains K2-producing bacteria. If you avoid soy, eat a raw food diet that disallows natto, or simply don’t want to shovel slimy ammonia-scented globs into your mouth, look for a vitamin K2 supplement containing menaquinone-4 or menaquinone-7 (usually abbreviated to MK-4 or MK-7). I personally use this brand for myself, both due to quality and cost, and can vouch for the incredible dental benefits it bestows.

4. Take enough vitamin D3 to get your blood level up to the 35 ng/ml mark. Unless you’re a Hawaiian lifeguard (or otherwise lucky enough to lounge outside all day in the sun), there’s a decent chance you’re deficient, especially if you live at a far northern latitude. Vitamin D is crucial for a wide variety of functions—everything from helping you absorb calcium to protecting against certain cancers—and it works in synergy with vitamins K and A to keep your teeth and bones strong. Unfortunately, since supplemental vitamin D3 is usually derived from wool, nearly all vegan versions contain vitamin D2, which is less potent and not always effective for preventing or fixing deficiency.

Source of Life Garden Vitamin D3 and Vitashine Vegan Vitamin D3 are currently the only vegan vitamin D3 supplements in existence. I highly recommend using either of those over the D2 versions more commonly available. I personally take about 5,000 IUs a day, but you may need to adjust your intake depending on your body size, how much sun you get, and whether you’re trying to aggressively treat a deficiency versus maintaining healthy vitamin D levels. (Also be aware that a small number of people react negatively to vitamin D supplementation, so be on the lookout for any adverse symptoms.)

5. Get the most out of your beta carotene. Vitamin A is crucial for healthy bone tissue, vision, proper hormone function, making fully-intact babies, and other things generally regarded as good. But plants don’t contain “true” vitamin A—only certain provitamins, particularly beta carotene, that your body converts into vitamin A. Unfortunately, the conversion process is wildly inefficient: most folks absorb only a tiny fraction of the beta carotene they consume, and only a fraction of that ever becomes vitamin A—leaving some vegans deficient even if they rival Bugs Bunny in carrot consumption. Although some people are just genetically doomed to be poor converters and will probably struggle as vegans no matter what they do, there are a few ways to maximize your absorption and conversion of vitamin A precursors:

-Eat beta-carotene-rich foods along with some fat—such as oily dressing or avocado slices on a salad—to greatly increase the amount you absorb.

-Identify and treat any food allergies, celiac disease, parasite infections, H. pylori infection, or low stomach acid, which can disturb your gut ecology and hinder absorption.

-Make sure you’re getting sufficient iron and zinc from your diet, since these minerals are critical in converting beta carotene to vitamin A. If you’re deficient in them, your vitamin A status will probably be impaired.

-Lightly cook some of your beta-carotene sources to break down fiber and improve absorption.

6. Properly prepare any grains, legumes, or nuts you eat. These foods contain phytates that block the absorption of minerals like calcium and iron, along with enzyme inhibitors and tannins that can cause digestive distress. If you choose to include grains, legumes, or nuts in your diet, you can neutralize some of the anti-nutrients and increase mineral availability by giving your food some tender lovin’ prep. For whole grains, do the following:

1) Put the grains in a bowl filled with enough warm water to cover.
2) Add apple cider vinegar or lemon juice at a ratio of 1 tablespoon for each cup of grain.
3) Let it all soak for at least 7 hours at room temperature.
4) Drain the soak water and cook the grains as you usually would.

For most legumes except dried lentils and split peas, follow the same steps as with grains—but soak larger beans for at least 24 hours (changing the soak water if they start to ferment) and double the amount of vinegar or lemon juice if you’re dealing with really small beans (2 tablespoons per cup of beans). Lentils and split peas should be soaked for 7 hours, but without any vinegar or lemon juice added. Raw nuts, too, should be soaked in warm water for 7 hours without an acidic medium, but you can sprinkle the soak water with sea salt (and then air-dry them once they’re done).

This may sound labor intensive, but it really doesn’t take all that much actual work—and your digestive system will thank you!

7. Eat high-vitamin-C foods along with iron-rich foods to enhance iron absorption, especially if you’re a pre-menopausal woman or otherwise struggle with anemia. Non-heme iron, the form found in plant foods, is less bioavailable than heme iron in animal products—but its absorption increases quite a bit in the presence of vitamin C. Try combining high-iron foods like chard, spinach, beet greens, lentils, beans, and quinoa with vitamin-C-rich foods like tomatoes, bell peppers, lemon juice, strawberries, oranges, papaya, kiwis, pineapple, grapefruit, or whatever else strikes your fancy. If you’re into green smoothies, those are prime opportunities to blend up something fruity and vitamin-C-packed with an iron-rich leafy green. Also avoid drinking tea or coffee with high-iron meals, since these beverages contain substances that reduce iron absorption.

8. Be kind to your thyroid. Health-conscious vegans may unintentionally wind up with two strikes against their thyroids: lack of iodine (either from cutting back on salt or switching from iodized salt to natural sea salt), and a menu packed with goitrogenic vegetables. Impaired thyroid function can result in fatigue, cold hands and feet, hair loss, poor concentration, trouble losing weight, and short-term memory rivaling your grandma’s—all of which you’ve probably heard a disgruntled soon-to-be-ex-vegan complain of at some time or another.

The best vegan source of iodine is seaweed, but some varieties contain much more than others. Here’s a table with the iodine content (among other nutrients) of several common sea vegetables.

Goitrogenic foods—which interfere with thyroid function—include cruciferous veggies like broccoli, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts, kale, kohlrabi, mustard, turnips, rutabaga, and cabbage, as well as soy products and millet. Strawberries, peaches, and spinach are also somewhat goitrogenic. You don’t have to give up these foods completely (crucifers in particular have some great anti-cancer compounds), but definitely scale back on them if they’re currently a large part of your diet, especially if you already have hypothyroid symptoms.

9. Take vitamin B12—about 10 mcgs a day, or 2000 mcgs once per week. I’d like to think this would be pretty obvious by now, but there are some lingering vegan authorities who seem to underplay the B-12 issue or even deny it altogether. Even “The China Study” makes B12 seem like small potatoes, when T. Colin Campbell writes: “If you do not eat any animal products for three years or more, or are pregnant or breastfeeding, you should consider taking a small B12 supplement on occasion.” This is sort of scary, since virtually every study conducted on the subject shows that vegans experience much higher rates of B12 deficiency than omnivores or vegetarians and have elevated homocysteine as a result (which increases blood clotting and raises your risk of heart disease). In fact, low B12 and high homocysteine probably contributed to the early demise of prominent vegans like H. Jay Dinshah and T. C. Fry (PDF).

Especially if you’re avoiding processed vegan foods (which are often fortified with vitamin B12), you’ll need to find a supplement and take it consistently, since there are really no reliable dietary sources of B12 for vegans. (Algae like spirulina, often rumored to contain B12, only has B12 analogues that won’t actually improve your B12 status.)

10. Try going gluten-free at least as a 30-day experiment, especially if you have possible “gluten sensitivity” symptoms like bloating, abdominal pain, joint pain, headaches, or migraines that aren’t improving from tweaking your diet in other ways.

11. Ferment some stuff. Raw, unpasteurized fermented foods contain lovely bacteria that can help restore your gut flora, improve your digestion, and ultimately increase the nutrition you absorb from what you eat. It shouldn’t take more than 30 seconds on Google to find recipes for sauerkraut, kimchi, “real” pickles, fermented salsa, and other delectable vegan-friendly fermented fare, and most health food stores carry some of these things pre-made. “Wild Fermentation” by Sandor Katz is a great resource if you want to get your hands dirty in the lactobacillus-y goodness.

12. Consider supplementing with taurine, especially if you’re pregnant, nursing, or extremely active. Taurine is an amino acid found only in animal foods, and it plays an important role in brain development, maintaining healthy blood pressure, controlling blood glucose, reducing oxidative stress, and preventing damage to your retinas. Although your body can synthesize taurine from a combination of other amino acids, many folks—including children and pregnant or breast-feeding women—can’t produce enough of it to satisfy their needs without a direct dietary source, and at least one study has shown that vegan men have much lower levels of plasma taurine than nonvegetarians. NOW makes a vegan taurine powder, and there may be other brands out there if you do some sleuthing.

13. Look into “bivalveganism,” a combination of plant foods and non-sentient shellfish. It’s unfortunate this one ended up as unlucky #13, because I honestly think it could be a solution for a lot of struggling vegans. Bivalves—such as oysters and clams and mussels—are incredibly rich in nutrients that are absent or hard to get from plant foods. Oysters in particular are a great source of iron, B12, zinc, selenium, copper, and vitamin D, and have a small amount of true vitamin A as well. Bivalves don’t have a central nervous system and are generally not considered sentient by traditional criteria, so vegans who avoid other animal products may be more ethically comfortable consuming a few oysters per week. (If you want to hear about the potential role of bivalves in vegan diets from someone else’s mouth, here’s a very relevant article by Christopher Cox.)

That’s it for the Big Important Things. But for the sake of making this page insufferably long, here’s another pile of odds ‘n ends:

Keep in mind that it’s not what you eat—it’s what you absorb (or convert). Some diet-scrupulous vegans use programs like Cron-o-Meter to track their nutrient intake and ensure they’re hitting the RDA for vitamins, minerals, and amino acids. Unfortunately, these programs don’t distinguish between vitamin K1 or K2, don’t have RDAs set for nonessential amino acids like taurine, usually record beta carotene as “vitamin A” and don’t adjust for its abysmally low absorption rate (meaning that what looks like 100% of the RDA on paper might only be 1% of the RDA in your body), can’t tell you how much iron/zinc/magnesium/calcium you’re losing to phytates, can’t tell you how much non-heme iron you’re really absorbing—on and on. In other words, nutrient trackers can only show you what you’re putting in your mouth, not what your body can actually grab onto. (Worse yet, the USDA’s nutrient values may be wildly different than what’s on your own dinner plate, since the nutritional content of plant foods varies depending on growing conditions, soil quality, season, geography, and a host of other factors.)

Blood tests can’t tell you if you’re “deficient” in calcium. I don’t know if this belief is as common among regular vegans as it is among raw vegans, but some folks seem to think that a normal calcium value on their blood test is proof that they’re getting enough from their diet. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Calcium in your blood and calcium in your bones are two very different things, and in times of shortage, your body will happily yank calcium from your skeleton so you’ve got enough in your blood to stay alive. (Calcium is an electrolyte that helps keep your heart from spazzing out, and your body generally prioritizes “not dying” over losing bone density.)

When seeking health advice from pro-vegan resources, choose your sources wisely. This applies to pretty much any authority that dispenses advice about a diet they’re emotionally or financially invested in, and veganism is no exception. Steer clear of websites and forums that tend to “whitewash” bad experiences people have with veganism or that ban members who report health problems (not to name names). If someone says you can get all the B12 you need from licking your wrist, not washing your vegetables, or making sacrificial kale offerings to the Coenzyme Gods, run, far and fast. And as somebody who used to put full faith in everything I read on, I’d also recommend doing your own research before trusting what you read on vegan sites about human digestive anatomy, meat studies in the news, and the miraculousness of seitan.

That said, my absolute favorite vegan expert is Jack Norris. Norris is a vegan RD who’s astoundingly honest about the shortcomings of a vegan diet, offers science-based solutions to health problems, and—unlike some others in his position—doesn’t sweep veganism’s potential pitfalls under the rug. Among all the plant-based health authorities out there, he is hands-down the most likely to give you the truth. Peruse his blog to get a balanced perspective of vegan issues without having bacon shoved in your face.

And last but not least…
Don’t beat yourself up if you’re doing everything “right” and still not feeling awesome. Just like all those great-grandmas out there who lived to be 96 smoking a pack a day and choosing Guinness as their main food group, there are some folks who really do survive without animal products for a very long time. I have my doubts about how it’ll play out across generations, but on an individual basis, thriving vegans do exist (such as the phenomenal 60-year-old Lou Corona who’s been a raw vegan for 39 years (and who’s huge on fermented foods—hint hint)). But unlike the resilient great-grandmas who are viewed as lucky anomalies, the resilient vegans tend to get held up as universal examples of “Hey, if this person can do it, so can everybody.”

If you take nothing else away from this page, at least listen to this: humans are much, much more genetically diverse than most of us realize, and one person’s success as a vegan doesn’t guarantee your own. You may be truly physically incapable of absorbing or converting certain nutrients in their plant form. Your health history, your gut ecology, your medical conditions, and even what your mom ate while you were gestating all influence your current nutritional needs. Veganism is a modern experiment—a dietary situation humans have never before faced—and its full repercussions are still unknown. Trouble thriving is not a personal failure. As much as veganism roots itself in compassion, please consider that you, as a living breathing human, also deserve your own kindness.

andrewt • October 15, 2013

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