It’s been said that it can be easier to change a person’s religion than their diet. This says a lot about how strongly people believe in the choices they make relating to food – especially where issues such as ethics and morals come into play.
Movies such as Cowspiracy, Forks Over Knives, and Food, Inc. have gone a long way in pushing people towards a more plant-based diet – or even an exclusively plant-based diet. These movies simultaneously pull at the heart strings, while appealing to your inner environmentalist – the parts of you that don’t want to ever see another living creature harmed, and that does want to see a thriving, healthy planet for your children.
So what do we mean by plant-based?
At Feel Fresh, we are seeing an increasing number of people who are identifying as vegans – people who eschew all animal foods and products derived from them. This includes all meats, fish, shellfish, eggs, dairy, and for some, even products like honey. There are also raw vegans, who forgo the above in addition to all foods cooked at a temperature about 48 degrees Celsius. Veganism is different from vegetarianism, which may allow some fish or seafood, dairy, or eggs, depending on the guidelines the person chooses to follow.
There are many reasons to want to go vegan, ranging from perceived health benefits, through to ethical reasons and sustainability. One thing that every nutritional paradigm (from vegan, through to conventional) seems to agree on is that we need to eat more plant foods. We’re all for that!
There are both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ ways to eat a vegan diet. For example, if you’re a vegan who relies on Oreo cookies and tofurkey to get you through, you’re likely to end up in trouble quite quickly. If you’re a vegan who prepares the majority of their own food, eats a broad range of plant foods, supplements wisely, and keeps a close eye on their protein intake, you’ll probably be okay.
However, there are a number of things you should consider carefully prior to committing to a vegan diet. We aren’t here to tell you whether it’s right or wrong to go vegan – we’re here to help you make the best choices possible to maintain optimal health.
1. We live in New Zealand.
We don’t have the massive CAFO (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) farms that they have in the States. And while most conventional pork and chicken will be treated in a less-than-humane way, there are a number of far more powerful ways to vote with your dollar than withdrawing from ‘the system’ entirely. New Zealand is such a small country that the industry has to move with demand. What do we mean? In order to influence the market here in NZ, you can:
- Choose free range, organic chicken instead of conventional chicken.
- Buy free range, organic eggs – or better yet – make friends with a farmer at your local farmer’s market, and support your local small businesses. Have space in your backyard? Get a few chooks of your own.
- Avoid pork that’s not marked with the SPCA’s seal of approval, and instead only buy pork products that are endorsed by the SPCA as being humane.
All of these options allow you to continue to eat nutritious animal products with a clear conscience.
2. Deficiencies (and their Controversies)
Many people who go vegan believe that if they simply eat a ‘balanced’ diet, they’ll obtain an adequate intake of all of the vitamins and minerals needed for optimal health. There are many, many problems with this assumption - the first of which is what’s balanced for us may not be balanced for you!
There is a general misconception that plant foods contain all of the vitamins and minerals necessary to support optimal health. While it can’t be denied that plant foods are in fact some of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet and that on the whole, we need to be eating more of them, it must also be acknowledged that they do not contain everything we need to thrive - either by nutrient breakdown, or by quantity.
There is also a lot of confusion and misunderstanding (as well as a whole lot of individual variation!) around conversion of certain nutrients into other substrates - for example, vitamin K1 into vitamin K2, and ALA (a form of omega 3) into EPA and DHA (two other forms of omega 3).
If you’re vegan, or thinking of going vegan (or even vegetarian) - here are some nutrients you will need to consider in order to stay fit and healthy. All RDIs listed below are taken from the Ministry of Health’s Nutrient Reference Values for Australia and New Zealand which can be found here.
Protein is an essential nutrient (meaning it must be obtained through the diet), and is made up of chains of one or more amino acids strung together. Protein has many critical roles throughout the body, such as growth and repair, hormone production, enzyme production, antibodies, and cellular metabolism. (1).
There are other many great reasons to eat enough protein, including:
- Satiation -protein is the most satiating of the macronutrients. Eating enough protein can help curb appetite, resulting in fewer calories consumed, leading to weight loss. (2) (3).
- A low calorie, high protein diet is more effective at maintaining lean muscle mass than a more conventional high carb, low-fat diet in women. (4).
- Gelatin consumption (or supplementation) may help alleviate joint pain. (5).
- Adequate protein intakes can help offset the catabolic effects of chronic stress (and you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who isn’t affected by chronic stress in today’s modern world!). (6) (7).
There are 20 amino acids, eight of which are ‘essential’ - or must be consumed. The body can manufacture the remaining 12 amino acids from these if necessary, though it is inefficient to do so. Foods which contain all eight amino acids are called ‘complete’ proteins, and those which are lacking in one or more essential amino acids are called ‘incomplete’ proteins.
Almost all animal products contain all eight essential amino acids, and are therefore of a higher nutritive value. Two plant foods - soy and quinoa - both contain all eight, though in much smaller quantities. Foods can be combined to provide all essential amino acids. Foods which do not contain all essential amino acids are generally poorly utilized by the body, so we require more of them in order to meet our protein requirements. 50 grams of protein from animal foods will be more efficiently utilised by the body than the equivalent amount from plant foods.
It is for this reason that it can be difficult to obtain enough protein for optimal health on a vegan or vegetarian diet. It is a commonly held belief that grains and legumes are good sources of protein, and while it’s true that they DO contain protein, you’d need to eat a significant amount to meet your daily requirements.
For some perspective, the RDI for protein for a woman aged between 19 and 30 years old is 46 grams per day. In food terms, this looks like approximately 400 grams of tofu, nearly a kilo of baked beans, about 400 grams of hummus, or over a kilo of quinoa. One thing to note about RDIs is that they are generally the amount needed to prevent outright deficiency in any given nutrient, and not the amount needed to thrive and meet performance goals. In order to achieve this, we need much more than the baseline recommendation. Take into account that these amino acids aren’t as efficiently used by the body as those found in animal foods, and the amount required for optimal health increases further.
An inadequate protein intake can have many negative effects, including loss of lean muscle mass, weakness, fatigue, amenorrhea (loss of menstruation) in women, as well as loss of libido in both men and women.
What about protein intakes and disease states, such as cancers?
To date, there is little to no concrete evidence that diets rich in protein - whether from plant or animal sources - are directly related to the development of cancer. According to the Ministry of Health, “High protein intakes have been assessed in relation to a number of chronic diseases including cancer, renal disease, obesity, coronary artery disease and osteoporosis, however, the evidence is not convincing.”
Getting enough quality protein can be a real challenge on a vegan diet, but it is essential that you do so in order to remain fit, strong, healthy and thriving.
Iron deficiency anemia (IDA) is one of the most common nutritional deficiencies in the world. (8). According to the Ministry of Health, the prevalence of IDA in females aged 15 years and over increased from 2.9% in 1997 to 7.2% in 2008/09. It is associated with fatigue, lethargy, impaired immune function, gastrointestinal disturbances, and cognitive impairment.
There are three stages to developing IDA. In the first stage, the body’s iron stores become depleted, but red blood cell production is not affected. A person with this level of deficiency is unlikely to experience any symptoms. In stage two - called iron deficiency - body stores of iron are depleted and levels of circulating iron begin to fall, although blood levels of haemoglobin may remain normal. This person may begin to feel symptoms of deficiency. The third stage is full-blown iron deficiency anemia where body stores and circulating iron levels are extremely low, affecting red blood cell and hemoglobin concentrations. This person will almost certainly be symptomatic.
Iron is found in two forms in foods.
Heme Iron is found in animal foods, such as red meats and shellfish. It is efficiently absorbed by the body, and its absorption is not overly impacted by other components of the meal.
Non-Heme Iron is the type of iron found in plant foods, such as spinach and broccoli. Non-heme iron is not efficiently absorbed by the body, with absorption being heavily reliant on other components of the meal, such as vitamin C. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, “The bio-availability of non-heme iron requires acid digestion and varies by an order of magnitude depending on the concentration of enhancers (e.g., ascorbate, meat) and inhibitors (e.g., calcium, fiber, tea, coffee, wine) found in the diet.”
Maximising the absorption of the iron found in your meals is paramount to your health. There are many clever ways in which you can combine foods and supplement wisely in order to achieve maximum absorption, and this is something that we can help you with in the clinic. Even as a meat-eater it can be difficult to hit the RDI for iron for a woman aged between 18 and 30 years old of 18 mg. 950 grams of lean sirloin steak only just does it! (You’d need to eat 22 cups of raw spinach to achieve the same amount, but with only about 5-12% of this iron actually absorbed. (9).
Unfortunately, a diet based on plant foods will not easily meet iron requirements - especially in a pre-menopausal woman who need it most due to the monthly loss of blood through menses.
The Fat Soluble Vitamins. A, D, E and K
There are several vitamins which are what’s called ‘fat soluble’ - i.e. they need fats to be absorbed efficiently and are stored in your own fat stores. It’s essential that you eat a good amount of fat in order to maximise absorption of these nutrients. Due to storing these nutrients in our own body fat stores, is possible to reach toxic amounts of these vitamins, though it’s unlikely when eating a wholefood diet, and is more likely to occur with unguided supplementation.
Fat-soluble vitamins A, D, and K all work together in harmony to perform untold numbers of biological processes, and it is important that the ratios of these vitamins remain in balance. Of course, that’s easier said than done!
Vitamin A comes in two forms - beta-carotene (or carotenoids), also known as pre-vitamin A, which is found in abundance in vegetables, and retinol (retinoids), which is true vitamin A, and is found in animal foods - especially liver, eggs, and dairy products. The plant form of vitamin A must be converted into retinol before it can be efficiently used by the body. According to the Weston A Price Foundation, “Dependence on carotenes for vitamin A calls on large reserves of enzymes to make the conversion.” Depending on your genetics and health status, you may or may not be an efficient converter of carotenoids into true vitamin A. There are many factors that can impair this conversion, such as:
- Low thyroid function
- Low fat intake
- Diarrhea (or impaired digestion)
- Compromised bile production (think gallbladder conditions)
A vegan diet may impair thyroid function due to inadequate iodine intake, which is found mainly in fish and seafood. If your conversion rate of pre-vitamin A into pro-vitamin A is poor for any reason, it can be difficult to obtain enough on a vegan diet. However, supplementation must also be handled with care.
Vitamin A is essential for healthy vision (there’s some truth to the saying carrots help you see in the dark!), immune function, and a healthy reproductive system. Although deficiency is rare in the developed world, the most common symptom is night blindness.
Wait, what?! Don’t you get vitamin D from the sun??
Yes! You do. However, there are also a number of foods which provide dietary sources of vitamin D, such as oily fish (like salmon, tuna, and mackerel), egg yolks, and dairy products.
Many of us do not get adequate exposure to sunlight for many reasons - we don’t spend nearly as much time outdoors as we did even several decades ago (we go from our houses, to our cars, to the office, and back again), and when we DO go outside, we’re usually slathered in sunscreen, or covered in layers of clothing. We’re not disputing the importance of preventing sunburn, however smart sun exposure can help you produce enough vitamin D to meet your health needs. It is estimated that a whopping 50 - 60% of the world’s population do not have a satisfactory vitamin D status! (10).
Low vitamin D has been associated with many negative health outcomes, such as increased risk of cardiovascular mortality (11), low bone mineral density (a double blow for the bones when combined with inadequate calcium intake), an increased risk of cancer (12), and high blood pressure (hypertension). (13).
Supplemental vitamin D is usually derived from wool, or comes in the form of something like cod liver oil. Metagenics’ D3 supplements are made from sheep’s wool (just like a wool jumper), but no animal byproducts remain in the final product as it is heavily processed. Vitamin D3 can be very unstable, so Metagenics go to great lengths to ensure this stability. You’ll want to choose the liquid instead of the capsules, as the coating on these are made from beef gelatin.
Other vegan sources of vitamin D contain vitamin D2, rather than D3. D2 is less potent than D3, and isn’t always enough to prevent or reverse a deficiency. To the best of our knowledge, there is no vitamin D2 supplement available in New Zealand.
Symptoms of vitamin D deficiency may include:
It is easy enough to get your vitamin D status tested in New Zealand - simply request the test the next time you visit your GP, or go to Labtests and request the test yourself. You’ll pay $47 for the test either way.
The last of the synergistic fat soluble trio, there is once again two forms of this vitamin - K1, and K2. K1 is found abundantly in plant foods, such as leafy greens (think kale and spinach), but K2 is found only in some bacteria, and animal foods such as dairy, organ meats, and eggs.
There ARE viable vegan sources of K2... Fermented foods like sauerkraut and natto - a sticky, stinky fermented soy bean product, contain K2. If you enjoy these foods, you should definitely include them in your diet regularly - if not daily - both for the K2 content, and for the beneficial probiotics they provide.
For years it was thought that vitamins K1 and K2 were essentially the same vitamin, with the same biological functions. However, according to Chris Kresser (an integrative medicine practitioner), “...vitamin K2 has so many functions not associated with vitamin K1 that many researchers insist that K1 and K2 are best seen as two different vitamins entirely.” It is now understood that vitamin K2 has many important roles in the body including promoting cardiovascular health, strong bones and teeth, healthy skin, and even supporting brain function. It helps calcium go where it needs to go (into the teeth and bones), and prevents it from being deposited into the soft tissues (such as the arterial walls). K1 is best known for its role in blood clotting, which is indeed an important function.
Human beings do have the capacity to convert K1 into K2 in the body, however, this conversion rate is highly variable, and relies on things like genetics, and overall health status. Kresser states that the strongest evidence to this effect comes from epidemiological and intervention studies that show that K2 is far superior than K1, such as evidence that K2 is three times more effective than K1 at activating proteins related to skeletal metabolism. He also mentions that it is commonly thought that bacteria in our intestines make all the K2 we need by fermenting the foods we eat. Although it’s true these bacteria produce K2, this K2 is embedded in bacterial membranes, and cannot be absorbed or used by us. (16).
Signs and symptoms of vitamin K deficiency include:
- Difficulty with blood clotting
- Bruising easily
- Cartilage calcification
- Susceptibility to dental caries, such as Denise Minger’s case.
- Weak or brittle bones
Fermented foods such as sauerkraut and natto (both vegan) are sources of highly available K2. If you can, do you your best to work ferments into your diet regularly to ensure that you’re getting adequate amounts of this vital nutrient. You can also supplement with K2 (most effective when combined with Vitamin D).
There is one last fat soluble vitamin...
We haven’t covered vitamin E here as it is easily found in nuts such as almonds, and in oils such as olive oil. However, it’s importance isn’t to be overlooked! It primarily functions as an antioxidant, however, supplementation should be done with caution.
That about covers the fat soluble vitamins. Now for some other nutrients that require consideration.
Calcium is an extremely important consideration for ALL people who avoid dairy products - and not just vegans. Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body, and it isn’t just responsible for keeping our teeth and bones strong. It’s also vitally important for things like muscle contraction, and cell and nerve functioning.
So, if you don’t eat dairy, how can you ensure that your teeth and bones remain strong, and you don’t end up with a calcium deficiency?
Firstly, why do we need calcium? Some of the key roles of calcium in the body include:
- Maintaining the strength and integrity of teeth and bones
- Muscle contraction
- Cell signalling
- Blood clotting
- Nerve function
Calcium needs also change throughout the life-cycle, with increased needs during puberty, old age (over age 70), and pregnancy (as well as breastfeeding). If you’re not under 18 or over 70 years of age, and aren’t pregnant or breast-feeding, then you probably need about 1,000mg per day. (17). Keep in mind also that a ‘recommended daily intake’ is meant to prevent deficiency, but isn’t necessarily going to help you achieve optimal health. This is the same for all vitamin and mineral RDIs.
Even if you were to include dairy as part of your regular diet, you’d still need a fair amount of it to hit your RDI. For example, here is the calcium content of some standard dairy products (Source: Nutrition Foundation):
As you can see, you’d have to drink close to a litre of milk a day to get enough calcium! So what about non-dairy, vegan sources of calcium? How to they stack up?
Many of these sources have nutritional problems in and of themselves, such as soy milk (GMO/estrogens) and bread (gluten and phytates). You’d have to eat a kilogram of tofu, or 17 cups of boiled broccoli to hit your RDI.
It becomes quite obvious then that eating enough calcium on a vegan diet is going to require a lot of thought and effort. So, what can you reasonably do to ensure you get enough?
Eat lots of green leafy vegetables: As well as broccoli, spinach, kale, kelp, bok choi, and silverbeet all contain good amounts of calcium.
Eat Blackstrap Molasses: Okay, I admit this one is a bit strange! However, one tablespoon gets you 17% of your RDI. Eat it on its own, mix it into sauces for a bit of sweetness and depth, or use it in place of maple syrup. It has a strong flavour and can be quite bitter, so fair warning!
Supplement with vitamin D: As said previously, vitamin D and calcium work synergistically to get calcium to where it needs to go (vitamin A and K are also very important).
Avoid things that inhibit calcium absorption: Even if you’re eating a lot of calcium-rich foods, you may not be efficiently absorbing it. Avoid things like caffeine, smoking, and alcohol (especially close to eating a calcium-rich meal). The phosphorous found in soft drinks can also impair calcium absorption.
Be aware that oxalates inhibit calcium absorption: Oxalates are naturally-occurring compounds found in foods like dark leafy greens, chocolate, and tea. So, even though dark leafy greens are high in calcium, they also contain oxalates, which will result in reduced absorption.
As you can see, it can be an incredibly difficult and complex task to hit your calcium needs when you aren’t eating the foods richest in it. If you are concerned about your calcium status, work with a qualified professional such as a nutritionist to best manage your needs. Calcium status needs to be managed in conjunction with vitamins A, D, and K.
Zinc is an essential trace mineral that you get from the foods you eat, or through supplementation. It plays a vital role in wound healing, immune function, skin health, reproduction, vision, taste, smell, blood clotting, and insulin and thyroid function. Overall, a very important mineral!
Zinc also plays as role as an antioxidant in the body, meaning that it helps to neutralize the effects of free radicals in the body (such as premature aging). Although it is relatively rare to have an overt zinc deficiency when living in a developed country, deficiency can develop when absorption is impaired (IBS, leaky gut, Crohn’s Disease, or Celiac Disease), a person’s diet is too restrictive, or they drink too much alcohol.
Symptoms of zinc deficiency include:
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Lack of taste or smell
- Poor wound healing
- Skin issues, such as acne or psoriasis
- Lack of menstruation
- White spots on the fingernails
It should be noted that zinc reduces the amount of copper you absorb, and so supplementation needs to be carefully considered.
Zinc is found in a wide-variety of foods, with the greatest bio-availability found in animal foods. It is best absorbed when eaten or taken with a source of protein. Good vegan sources include legumes (black beans, lima beans, pinto beans), miso, tofu, brewer’s yeast, cooked greens, mushrooms, and sunflower seeds.
Iodine is best known for it’s role in thyroid function and metabolism (about 70-80% of the body’s iodine is found in the thyroid gland, located in the neck). Without enough iodine, you can develop hypothyroidism (low thyroid hormone levels).
Symptoms of hypothyroidism include sluggishness, fatigue, weight gain, dry skin, and sensitivity to temperature changes (i.e. feeling the cold easily). A classic symptom of deficiency is an enlarged thyroid gland - the extreme version of which is called a goiter. Deficiency is more common in women than in men - particularly during pregnancy. (18).
There are a couple of vegan-friendly sources of iodine, such as:
- Sea vegetables, such as kelp, seaweed, and spirulina
- Iodized table salt
Iodine supplementation is a very delicate balance, and should not be done without the advice of your doctor. It is therefore best to obtain enough iodine through your diet, so be sure to cook with iodized table salt, and eat sea veggies.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3s are one of the areas of contention between plant-based diet followers, and omnivores. However, we can remove that bias and simply look at what the science tells us about vegan omega-3 sources, such as flax seeds, which are claimed to provide all the omega-3s you need for optimal health.
Omega-3s are an ‘essential’ fat, meaning we must obtain them through food or supplements, and are found in animal foods in the form of long-chain fatty acids eicosapentanaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Plant foods (such as flax, hemp, and pumpkin seeds) contain a short-chain omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).
Omega-3 fats are well-known for their anti-inflammatory properties, as well as their function in brain health (likely owing to the fact that the brain is largely composed of fat), and the protection they seem to confer from cardiovascular disease. DHA is used to synthesize compounds that play an active role in helping to reduce inflammation in the body.
Conversion of ALA to DHA depends on pyridoxine (Vitamin B6), zinc, and iron, but it is possible for the body to perform this conversion. As discussed above, iron can be very hard to obtain on a vegan diet, which will further impact on one’s ability to convert ALA to DHA. It is also far easier for the body to absorb pre-formed DHA than it is for it to make them from precursors. This study suggests that only 6% of ALA gets converted into EPA, and a highly restricted 3.8% into DHA. Furthermore, if the diet is rich in omega 6 fatty acids (found in vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds), this conversion rate may be reduced by 40-50%.
It is very important for vegans to supplement with omega-3 fatty acids so that they do not develop a deficiency. Deficiency symptoms include fatigue, poor memory, dry skin, heart problems, mood swings or depression, and poor circulation. (19).
B12 (B Vitamins in general!)
Both plant foods and animal foods are rich sources of (most) B vitamins, but only animal foods contain true vitamin B12. B vitamins are water soluble, and so we require a steady supply of them - we don’t store them the same way we store fat soluble vitamins. B12 deficiency has been referred to as a ‘silent epidemic’ by some, and data from the Framingham Offspring Study suggests that 39% of adults have plasma B12 levels in the ‘low-normal’ range. Although their levels still technically fit into what’s considered ‘normal,’ many individuals will experience symptoms of deficiency at this level. According to this study, a whopping 83% of vegans may have inadequate B12 levels.
So what are the symptoms of deficiency?
The symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency can mimic the symptoms of many other serious illnesses and diseases such as cognitive decline and memory loss, Multiple Sclerosis, mental illness, male and female infertility, and cardiovascular disease.
According to the NHS in the United Kingdom, symptoms of vitamin B12 may include (but is not limited to):
- Yellow-tinged skin
- A sore and red tongue
- Mouth ulcers
- Pins and needles (especially in the hands and feet)
- Changes in the way you walk and move around
- Disturbances in vision
- Tinnitus (a ringing in the ears)
- Fatigue and weakness
- Depression, or changes in the way you think or feel
- A decline in your mental abilities, such as memory, understanding, and judgement (similar to dementia).
Many variables impact on vitamin B12 status, such as the amount consumed, the amount absorbed (pernicious anemia*), drug or food interactions, and inadequate storage. (19). Even people who eat a lot of B12-rich foods can still have low levels of B12.
Vitamin B12 works together with folate in the synthesis of DNA and red blood cells. It is also involved in the production of the myelin sheath - the sheath that protects nerve fibres - and the conduction of nerve impulses. Myelin is like insulation for the delicate fibres that form our central nervous system, and is therefore integral in how these fibres conduct impulses.
*Pernicious anemia is an autoimmune condition where the body destroys something called ‘intrinsic factor’ - a protein that is necessary for the absorption of B12.
According to Chris Kresser in his e-book B12 Deficiency, the absorption of B12 is a highly complicated process with many steps - any of which can go wrong. Causes of malabsorption include:
- Gut dysbiosis
- Leaky gut, and/or gut inflammation (and conditions such as ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s Disease, or IBS)
- Low stomach acid (naturally occurring, or caused by antacids)
- Pernicious anemia
It should be noted that, once neurological symptoms appear (the third stage of B12 anemia), the damage may be irreversible.
Another very contentious issue is whether or not vegan foods (such as nutritional yeast) contain true vitamin B12. B12 contains a trace element called cobalt, which is where the name ‘cobalamin’ comes from. Cobalamin is produced in the guts of animals, which is why animal products are rich sources of B12. While plants contain analogues (cobamides) of B12, they have no need for cobalamin, and so do not store it. Plants therefore do not contain true vitamin B12, but instead contain pseudo-B12.
A test for serum B12 can be requested through your GP, who will likely also test your folate status as these two vitamins work synergistically. Supplementation is easy, cheap, and effective.
B12 is just one of many B vitamins - all of which are water-soluble, and so require a steady supply (unlike fat soluble vitamins). Plant and animal foods alike contain many B vitamins. When eating a vegan diet, it is therefore extremely important to eat a wide variety of minimally processed plant-foods to ensure all B vitamins are covered. A diet based on soy products and vegan junk foods just won’t cut it!
Introducing your other seven B vitamins...
Vitamin B1 (Thiamine): Involved in metabolism, and helps maintain healthy hair, nails, and skin. Sources include baker’s yeast, nutritional yeast, squash, pine nuts, sunflower seeds, black beans, lentils, and oats.
Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin): The vitamin responsible for turning your urine bright yellow! Also involved in metabolism. Sources include soy milk, spinach, beet greens, tempeh, mushrooms, and almonds.
Vitamin B3 (Niacin): Like all B vitamins, aids in the metabolism of carbohydrates. It also helps improve circulation and may help suppress inflammation. Sources include beetroot, brewer’s yeast, sunflower seeds, and peanuts.
Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic Acid): As well as the usual role in metabolism, B5 plays a critical role in the formation of red blood cells, and sex and stress-related hormones. It is also needed to synthesize cholesterol. Sources include brewer’s yeast, corn, cauliflower, kale, broccoli, peanuts, and tomatoes.
Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine): Vitamin B6 helps the body make many neurotransmitters - chemical messengers that carry signals from one cell to another, including serotonin and norepinephrine. Needed to absorb vitamin B12. Sources include lentils, beans, spinach, carrots, brown rice, sunflower seeds, and bananas.
Vitamin B7 (Biotin): Needed to metabolize, carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, and is often recommended for strengthening nails (though evidence to support this use is weak). Found in brewer’s yeast, almonds, peanuts, pecans, walnuts, soybeans, cauliflower, and bananas.
Vitamin B9 (Folate or Folic Acid (synthetic form): Folate is essential for cognitive function and mental and emotional health. It aids in the production of DNA and RNA - especially when growth is rapid, such as in pregnancy. Works closely with vitamin B12. Sources include dark leafy greens, asparagus, turnips, beetroot, root vegetables, and legumes.
Now that we’ve covered off some of the key considerations of vitamins and minerals that can be lacking on a vegan diet, let’s turn our attention to some components of vegan-friendly foods that may not be so friendly to your health.
But plant foods are all healthy, right?
Well, yes and no. Plants contain a lot of good things, but they also contain some things called ‘anti-nutrients’ that we need to be aware of when constructing a nourishing vegan diet. Anti-nutrients can affect the absorption of other nutrients in the diet, and can also interfere with hormones - such as in the case of soy.
Phytates are found in many foods, but in the greatest quantities in grains and legumes. They block the absorption of positively-charged minerals, such as iron, zinc, and magnesium. Consider for a moment that the USDA (and even NZ’s government) recommends that we consume 6-11 servings of carbohydrates a day, with the bulk coming from whole grains. According to Dr. William Davis, “The phytate content of one bagel, or two slices of wholegrain bread, is enough to block iron absorption by up to 90%.”
As covered above, iron deficiency anemia is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in New Zealand, and New Zealand’s bread (and grain consumption in general) intake could be part of the reason why.
A quick word on processed foods
Transitioning to a vegan diet can be an understandably daunting task given all that we’ve covered in this article so far (and there is still so much more we could cover!). Reliance on pre-packaged foods that are suitable for vegans can, therefore be really tempting, and can certainly play an important part in the transition from a diet that includes animal foods, to one that contains none.
However, these foods DO need to be recognised for what they are - processed foods - and processed foods do not form the basis of ANY healthy diet - vegan or not. Even if you start out relying heavily on packaged convenience foods, you should work towards minimizing these as much as possible while working towards a nutritionally balanced, wholefood vegan diet. An over-reliance on these foods can add further complications down the line.
This is certainly an area we can help with. Inspiration, support, and advice often make or break our eating patterns, and we’re here to support you and your health goals, 100%.
One final word...
We hope that you have found our ‘Vegan Epic’ to be a worthwhile and informative read. We hope that we’ve educated - providing you with all of the information you need to consider to remain healthy, and thriving. We aren’t here to challenge you, your beliefs, or your reasons for wanting to pursue a vegan lifestyle. We’re here to inform, support, and educate. We hope we’ve done that.
Thanks, from Jenna Osborne and the Team at Feel Fresh Nutrition.
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Image: Adam Jaime.