Topic: nutrition tips

Vegan and Vegetarian Diets?

There are many reasons why someone may decide to go vegan or vegetarian. Some are compelled by environmental animal feeding operations while others by ethical or religious reasons. I respect these choices, even if my own exploration of these questions has led me to a different answer.

But many choose vegan or vegetarian diet because they believe it’s a healthier choice from a nutritional perspective. For the last 50 years we have been told that meat, eggs, and animal fats are bad for us. This is has been so drilled into our brains that very few people ever question it anymore.

Plant-based diets emphasize vegetables, which are very nutrient dense, and fruits, which are somewhat nutrient dense. However, these diets often include larger amounts of cereal grains (refined and unrefined) and legumes, both of which are low in bioavailable nutrients and high in anti-nutrients such as phytate. They also avoid organ meats, meats, fish and shellfish, which are among the most nutrient-dense foods you can eat (1).

Vegan diets, in particular, are almost completely devoid of certain nutrient that are crucial for physiological function. Several studies have shown that both vegetarians and vegans are prone to deficiencies in B12, calcium, iron, zinc, the long-chain fatty acids EPA and DHA, and fat soluble vitamins such as A and D.

Let’s take a closer look at these nutrients on a vegan or vegetarian diet:

  • B12: This vitamin works together with folate in the synthesis of DNA and red blood cells. It’s also involved in the production of the myelin sheath around the nerves, and the conduction of  nerve impulses. Studies have shown that 68% of vegetarians and 83% of vegans are deficient, compared to 5% of omnivores (2). B12 deficiencies can cause symptoms of: fatigue, lethargy, weakness, memory loss, neurological and psychiatric problems, anemia, and much more! It’s also a myth that it’s possible to get B12 from plant sources such as seaweed, fermented soy, spirulina and brewers yeast, but these foods actually contain B12 analogs called cobamides that block the intake of, and increase the need for B12.
  • Calcium: The bioavailability of calcium from plant foods is affected by vegans levels of oxalate and phytate, which are inhibitors of calcium absorption and thus decrease the amount of calcium the body can extract from plant foods (3). So while leafy greens like spinach and kale have a relatively high calcium content, the calcium is not efficiently absorbed during digestion.
  • Iron: Ferritin, the long-term storage form of iron are notably lower in vegetarian and vegans (4). As with calcium, the bioavailability of the iron in plant foods is much lower than in animal foods. Plant-based forms of iron are also inhibited by other commonly consumed substances, such as coffee, tea, dairy products, supplemental fiber, and supplemental calcium. This explains why vegetarian diets have been shown to reduce non-heme iron absorption by 70% and total iron absorption of 85% (5).
  • Zinc: Although deficiencies not often seen in Western vegetarians, their intake still often falls below recommendations. This is another case where bioavailability is important. Many plant foods containing zinc also contain phytate, which inhibits zinc absorption by about 35% compared to omnivorous diets (8). Therefore, deficiency may still occur. This study suggested that vegetarians may even require 50% more zinc than than omnivores (9).
  • EPA and DHA: Plant foods contain both linoleic acid (omega-6) and alpha-linolenic acid (omega-3) which are both considered to be essential fatty acids, meaning that they cannot be synthesized or produced by the body and therefore must be obtained through food. Of the two essential amino acids, EPA and DHA from omega-3 fatty acids play a protective role in the body such as fighting disease, cancer, asthma, depression, cardiovascular disease, ADHD, and autoimmune disease by greatly reducing inflammation in the body. Although it is possible for some omega-3 fatty acids from plant foods to be converted to EPA and DHA, that conversion is poor: between 5-10% for EPA and 2-5% for DHA (10). Vegetarians also have 30% lower EPA and nearly 60% lower DHA (11).
  • Fat-soluble vitamins: Probably one of the biggest problems with vegetarian and vegan diets is their near total lack of the fat-soluble vitamins A and D. Fat-soluble vitamins are critical to human health. Vitamin A promotes healthy immune function, fertility, eyesight and skin. Vitamin D regulates calcium metabolism, immune function, reduces inflammation and protects against many forms of cancer. These fat-soluble vitamins are concentrated and found almost exclusively in animal foods: seafood, organ meats, eggs and dairy products (12). Also, the idea that plant foods contain vitamin A is a misconception. Plants contain beta-carotene, the precursor to active vitamin A (retinol). While beta-carotene is converted into vitamin A in humans, the conversion is inefficient (13).

With care and attention, it is possible to meet nutrient needs with a VEGETARIAN diet that includes liberal amounts of pasture-raised, full-fat dairy and eggs, with one exception: EPA and DHA. These long-chain omega fats are found exclusively in marine algae and fish and shellfish, so the only way to get them on a vegetarian diet would be to take a microalgae supplement (which contains DHA) or to take fish-oil or cod-liver oil as a supplement (which isn’t vegetarian). Still, while it may be possible to obtain adequate nutrition on a vegetarian diet, it is not optimal—as the research above indicates.

I do not, however, think think it’s possible to meet nutrient needs on a vegan diet without supplements—and quite a few of them. Vegan diets are low in B12, bioavailable iron and zinc, choline, vitamin A & D, calcium, and EPA and DHA. So if you’re intent on following a vegan diet, make sure you are supplementing with those nutrients.

When working with clients who I believe may suffer from nutrition deficiencies I often run a micronutrients blood test to see exactly where we need to fill in the gaps. Click here more information on testing and nutrition consulting.




The Top 10 Lies the Food Industry is Feeding You

1. Low-Fat, Reduced-fat, or Fat-Free 

Less fat = better, right? WRONG! These snack items may seem like they are helping you out with your waistline, but in reality these items are often loaded sugar and other additives in order to make up for taste. Fats have been unfairly demonized in the past but evidence now shows that it is excess sugar and simple carbohydrates that are the real cause for weight-gain.

2. Includes Whole Grains

Over the past decade, whole grains have been advertised as healthy. And I agree, that whole-grains are better than refined, processed grains. But grains in general are very inflammatory to the body and often spike your blood sugar just as fast as their refined counterparts. Plus, even if a product has a small amount of whole grains in it, it is often loaded with other harmful ingredients like sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, shelf-stabilizers, and fillers.

3. Gluten-Free

Just so we are clear, I fully support a gluten-free diet as there is evidence that a large proportion of people may be sensitive to gluten and wheat. However, processed items labeled as “gluten-free” does not mean that they are healthy. These foods are made from highly refined, high-glycemic starches, like corn starch, potato starch and tapioca starch, and often loaded in sugar. Eating gluten free should be about ditching refined foods, like cereals, cookies, chips, and replacing them with real, whole foods.

4. Hidden Sugar

It bewilders me that most people will not even look at the ingredients list of an item before purchasing it. But EVEN for those who do, food manufacturers have ways of disguising the true contents of their products. On ingredients lists, the components are listed in descending order by amount in that product. If you see sugar in the first few ingredients listed, then you know that product is loaded in sugar. However, food manufacturers often put different types of sugar in their product, or label them with different names. For example, corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, fruit juice concentrates, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, invert sugar, lactose, maltose, malt syrup, raw sugar, sucrose, sugar syrup, cane crystals, cane sugar, crystalline fructose, evaporated cane juice, corn syrup solids, malt syrup, are all different names for the exact same thing—sugar!

5. Calories per serving.

A manufacturer can decide that a chocolate bar or soda bottle is two servings, even though that most people do not stop until they have finished the whole thing. Food producers use this to their advantage by saying their product is low in calories, when in reality the whole product is not. When reading labels, check the number of servings the product contains. For example, a 24-ounce (.7-liter) bottle of soda may contain 100 calories and 27 grams of sugar per serving. If the entire bottle contains three servings, the total amount is 300 calories and 81 grams of sugar. I do not know about you, but back in my soda drinking days, I could easily down 24 ounces in one sitting!

6. Fruit-Flavored

A lot of processed foods have a flavor that sounds natural, and it even sometimes uses to word “natural” along with describing it. But just because a product has the flavor of a real food, like blueberry, strawberry or orange, does not mean that any of it is actually in there. For example, orange-flavored Vitamin Water tastes like oranges. However, there is no actual oranges in there! The sweet taste is coming from the sugar and the orange flavor is coming from artificial chemicals.

7. Small Amount of Healthy Ingredients

Processed products love to sell you on the little healthy ingredients that are in their products. This is purely a marketing trick, just because there are some ingredients that are commonly considered healthy, it does not make up for the harmful effects of the other ingredients. This way, clever marketers can fool consumers into thinking they are making healthy choices. Some examples of ingredients often added in tiny amount and then displayed prominently on the packaging are: Omega-3s, antioxidants, whole-grains, and fiber. Basically, if a food is trying to CONVINCE you it is a healthy choice through advertising, it probably is not the best choice. You never see broccoli yelling at you with all of its health benefits!

8. Hiding Controversial Ingredients

Many people choose to avoid certain food ingredients for health reasons. However, food manufactures often hide these controversial ingredients by referring to them with technical names that people don not know. For example, in Europe MSG (monosodium glutamate) may be called E621 and carrageen may be called E407. The same can be said for many types of sugar, such as “evaporated cane juice”—it sounds natural, but it is really just sugar!

9. Low-Carb Junk Foods

Food manufacturers catch on to the latest trends in nutrition and start offering products to fit the consumers. With low-carb diets on the rise, low-carb options are now about as prevalent as their low-fat counterparts.  The problem with these “low-carb” foods is the same as the “low-fat” foods—they not necessarily healthier. These are usually processed junk foods filled with unhealthy ingredients. Just look at the ingredients on an Atkins bar, for example.


Does this look like real food to you? These bars are highly processed with a massive amount of artificial chemicals, some of which are potentially harmful. There are also examples of low-carb breads and other replacement products that contain many more carbs than the label claims.

10. “Organic” Unhealthy Ingredients

I do believe buying certain organic whole foods is better because it avoids the use of chemicals and pesticides in farming. But the way many food manufactures use the word “organic” is misleading. For example, when you see raw organic cane sugar” on an ingredient list, this is the exact same thing as regular sugar. Junk food is still junk food, even if it’s organic.

The Bottom Line

Try to limit your intake of processed foods altogether and focus on eating real, whole foods instead! That way, you don not have to worry about labels, ingredients list, false advertising, or any of the other tricks the food industry tries to scam you with! Real food doesn’t even need an ingredients list. Real food IS the ingredient!