iLet’s jump straight in! Unless you have a nutrient tracker like my fave, Cronometer (available on your desktop or device), then you are simply guessing at your nutrients. Cronometer costs a few bucks, but you can keep it forever! I have not seen another app that so eloquently displays not just energy, fibre, fats, protein and carbs – but also breaks it down into specific amino acids, vitamins, and minerals such as zinc and iron. The other bonus of Cronometer over other apps is that it doesn’t have many highly processed packaged foods listed – you’ll quickly learn if you’re eating a highly processed diet as many foods just won’t show up!
The Usual (and Unusual) Suspects
According to Dr Michael Greger, one of the most prominent online vegan endorsers, vegans can literally kill themselves by missing out on these nutrients, and need to supplement:
B12 is only found in animal products, and is needed for a healthy gut flora and energy levels. As well as supplementation, you can eat foods that are fortified with B12 such as non-dairy milks and cereals. Fortified nutritional yeast is also a fave of vegans, as it tastes like a nutty cheese, melting down just the same.
ALWAYS CHECK THE LABEL! Some nutritional yeasts also contain flavour enhancers. Even if the label says organic, check the label to see what you’re really getting.
Clinical Testing: It is wise to get your B12 levels tested once a year to make sure you are not under range, or overdosing on supplements! B12 deficiency symptoms are: dizziness, shortness of breath, muscle weakness, confusion, memory loss, fatigue, heart palpitations and dementia. B12 deficiency can look the same as iron deficiency anaemia (and are often related). The B12 healthy range is normally given as 200-900pg/ml, but realistically, for optimum function aim for at least 500pg/ml.
Are you eating and supplementing enough B12? Use a nutrient tracker such as Cronometer to find out.
Because your digestive tract bacteria help your body to make and utilise B12, any gut inflammation can hinder your absorption. People who are allergic to gluten (celiac) or have Chron’s disease often have low B12 levels. Anyone with IBS, diarrhoea, constipation, food intolerance’s or SIBO can also be affected. For this reason it is best to start managing IBS with a low FODMAPs way of life, and take a sublingual (under-tongue) B12 supplement, absorbed directly into the bloodstream, bypassing gut absorption.
Supplements should contain L-methyl-cobalamin (or methyl-cobalamin) – not cycanocobalamin, cobalamin or anything else. Some people cannot convert cobalamin to a usable form – be safe and get L-methyl-cobalamin.
Omega 3 Essential Fatty Acids
Omega 3’s are part of the unsaturated fatty acids, to be more specific – polyunsaturated. Omega 3 fats are essential for cell membrane health, mental health, skin health, heart and circulation, plus they are anti-inflammatory (think joint pain or period pain being soothed).
A commonly known source of Omega 3 is oily fish – but of course you are not eating that anymore – so where else can you get enough? Flax seeds and chia seeds are potent sources. Spirulina is also a great source so load it into your smoothies! Flax seed needs to be ground to make the nutrients available – blend them in a smoothie, or buy them ground. CLICK HERE to find out what other foods are high in Omega 3.
TIP: Ground flax or LSA should always be refrigerated at the store and at home. If its on a standard shelf in the shop – give it a miss and visit the health store.
TIP: Spirulina and other green powders need to be organic. These nutrient power-houses soak up everything around them, including atmospheric pollution – which you will eat! Go organic for green powders and teas and coffees.
Supplementing Omega 3 can be done with flax seed oils. It is however important that you have a balance of Omega 3 and Omega 6 fats to get the benefits (find out more about that here). If you want to get your Omega 3 ratio tested, an Omega-3 index test is available. Contact your local Functional Health Practitioner to find out where you can get the test. Once again, a good nutrition tracker will show your Omega 3 nutrient levels.
You can eat Vitamin D, take a supplement or get it from the sun!
How can vegans eat Vitamin D when the usual sources are animal derived? Many vegan products are fortified including milks, cereals and soy products.
How is Vitamin D made in the skin?
“Vitamin D is formed when a particular type of ultraviolet light (ultraviolet-B) interacts with 7-dehydrocholesterol, a molecule in the skin. Fair skin produces about 10,000 to 25,000 IU of vitamin D in response to twenty to thirty minutes of summer skin exposure, while those with darker skin may need to spend up to two hours in the sun to obtain the same amount. We now know that vitamin D deficiency is a major predisposing factor in at least seventeen varieties of cancer, as well as heart disease, stroke, hypertension, autoimmune disease, type 2 diabetes, depression, birth defects, infectious diseases, and more”. Chris Kresser
Can I get enough Vit D from sunlight?
Take a look at this map. If you live north of the red line, then you only get UVB light to make Vitamin D, for 5 months of the year!
So what should you do in the other 7 months? Make sure you get food sources of oily fish, eggs, other meats, cheese, mushrooms grown in sunlight, products fortified with D (check the label – some cereals/dairy) OR of course you can supplement with 2000IU-10,000IU a day, or a cod liver oil. Plenty of options for vegetarian, vegans and carnivores alike.
“Vitamin D deficiency is a major predisposing factor in at least seventeen varieties of cancer, as well as heart disease, stroke, hypertension, autoimmune disease, type 2 diabetes, depression, birth defects, infectious diseases, and more” Chriss Kresser
You can find out if you have enough Vitamin D in your body by getting a test for VitD25OH – that’s a specific form of Vitamin D. Get your Vitamin D level to 70ng/ml. If you need to supplement, you are in luck! Vitamin D is one of the cheapest supplements available. A general recommendation is to start with 2000IU a day. Don’t forget that Vitamin D, also known as cholecalciferol, is fat soluble – so take it with a meal that contains healthy fats like avocado, nuts or flax seeds. Just make sure your supplement is vegan certified – it will say on the label or you can call the company.
Now that we have covered 3 of nutrients that are most essential for your heart and brain health, it is worth mentioning a few more:
As the type of iron in meat is more readily available, than the iron in plants, it is essential you keep a check on your iron levels. Once again a nutrient tracker will help you see if you are getting enough. Green leafy vegetables, beans, raisins and fortified foods contain the most vegan iron.
Even if you are eating enough, it is a good idea for every woman to get her iron levels checked at least annually. The most common test is Ferretin, which measures how much iron you have stored. Traditional lab ranges are 10-300 for women (lab ranges differ at every testing facility). However, 10 is the number where you will be feeling disabled by low iron, and require medical intervention.
I recommend keeping your ferretin at minimum of 50, and ideally keep it in the range 70-90.
If you have any gut issues such as IBS, particularly SIBO or any other dysbiois then you may find it hard to absorb iron, no matter how much you eat. People with low thyroid hormones also have trouble absorbing iron and may not be able to raise their ferretin levels. If this is the case you can contact myself or another health professional to help you address the underlying cause. There are many other ways to assess iron levels so if you are feeling dizzy, short of breath, tired, pale and weak, but your ferretin levels are between 50-70, then you will need additional iron panel tests and B9, B12 and MMA tests.
It is not a good idea to supplement iron unless you know you need it, as this is one mineral that is toxic at higher levels. Supplementation should contain 50-100mg elemental iron per day, alongside regular testing to check ferretin levels.
Whilst less common, some people do have iron overload conditions such as haemochromatosis.
It’s really easy to get enough protein on a vegan diet. Vegetables contain protein, as do nuts, seeds and legumes (not forgetting nut and seed butters). Some people like to eat lots of organic tempeh and tofu and other soy products to get their protein.
If there is any chance you could have a estrogen hormone imbalance, then it is best to limit soy products to once a week and use organic tempeh
Protein supplementation is easily achieved with protein powders. So many kinds exist now – pea, rice, hemp and all sorts of vegan blends. Do your best to get one that promotes organic, or at least GMO-free to reduce your toxic load. I have tried many brands of protein powder and usually purchase them from Healthpost.co.nz or Amazon.co.uk where they are cheaper than most retail stores.
Some people with IBS will not tolerate protein powders well. You can go to a health store and ask them for samples, or contact companies directly for samples. Otherwise, buy only a small packet and keep trying brands until you have found one you like.
How much protein do you need? This depends on your health status, age and activity levels. As a general rule, aim for 1g/kg per day. E.g. if you weigh 60kg, aim for 60g a day. Active people, and people healing from surgery will need more.
Other carbohydrates, Fats, Fibre, Vitamins and Minerals not mentioned:
How many nutrients you need is unique to you. I recommend using a tracker to get an all-round idea of which nutrients you may be getting too much or too little of. From there you can tweak things. Supplement as needed and keep an eye on essential nutrient levels by testing.
If you have a health condition, or start becoming tired, or become pregnant then it is wise to seek professional advice.
Generally speaking, all people can benefit by covering at least half their plate with diverse colours of veggies and salads!
If you have questions about vegan nutrients, IBS or any other health topics, ask away using the comments box.