It’s a question you might have silently asked yourself over and over. Perhaps you have done some research on the internet or thumbed through a magazine article, only to quickly glance at the headlines. This subject can be rather humbling as it is not a topic to breeze through. A plant-based diet can be one of healthiest for humans and coincidentally, good for the planet. The mistakes people run into are:
- Beginning a plant based diet when they are already deficient in key nutrients and minerals
- Eating foods that do not satisfy their nutrient needs
- Under-eating calories and/or over-exercising
- Being a very athletic, pre-menopausal woman that does not supplement with iron or does not eat enough iron rich plant-based foods
- Having a very high phytate diet (high in bread, legumes, nuts) and low in zinc/minerals (for example, hemp, cashews, pumpkin seeds, adzuki beans are the best veg sources of zinc)
- Not supplementing with vitamin B12 (symptoms of deficiency are numbness and tingling in the extremities
You may identify with one or more of these issues, but the real questions are – how should you really be eating and what should you do about it?
In my vegan/veg nutrition classes, I always recommend a little CYA that can go a long way with supplements. For example, not everyone is a huge consumer of veg sources of zinc such as hemp seeds, cashews, pumpkin seeds and adzuki beans. Zinc is crucial in anyone’s diet. In fact, those with gastrointestinal issues such as IBS/SIBO, colitis, Crohn’s Disease and IBD (Inflammatory Bowel Disease) tend to need more of it.
Zinc is a co-factor in many metabolic reactions that provide energy, strength, vitamin A, active omega 3 fatty acids, etc. It is also used firsthand by the immune system when there are pathogens on board. I find that if someone is not having 1-3 foods (above) containing zinc per day, then I will recommend a zinc supplement in the range of 15-45 mg/day based on the patients individualized needs.
Additionally, things that I screen for in the diet are:
- Vitamin B12
- Omega 3 Fatty acids
- Vitamin D
A person strictly following a plant-based diet (vegan/vegetarian) may want to look into getting testing done for iron, vitamin D and B12. Omega 3 fatty acids can be consumed from ……
- Flax seeds/flax seed oil
- Chia seeds
- Hemp seeds
- Dark green leafy vegetables
- Algae based supplement of EPA/DHA
…..as long as the body is well nourished enough to do the conversion of ALA to active omega 3 (EPA/DHA). A pinch of kelp powder daily can meet the minimum recommendation for iodine. The best testing for B12 is micronutrient testing (such as testing done by SpectraCell or Genova) or serum/urinary MMA. Advanced cardiovascular testing offered through Boston Heart Labs or Cleveland Heart Labs can show serum B12 and/or omega 3 levels.
Here are most important things to integrate daily into your plant-based diet –
- 3 cups per day of dark, green, leafy vegetables (kale, collard greens, bok choy, spinach, chard, etc)
- 1-2 cups per day of legumes (lentils, black beans, adzuki beans, chick peas, split peas)
- One or more sources of vitamin C every day (oranges, green pepper, broccoli, peaches, strawberries, tomato, potato, camu camu, acerola, rose hips, a supplement)
- A source of iodine from seaweeds such as kelp, nori, dulse
- A vitamin D supplement (get tested first and take if needed)
- A plant based iron supplement (easier on the gut). Do not take iron without getting your levels checked first (ferritin, hemoglobin, hematocrit) as that can be dangerous
- Take a B12 supplement daily – opt for adenosylcobalamin/methylcobalamin as the form
- Consume flax/flax oil, chia or any of the foods mentioned above for omega 3 fatty acids. Dry skin can be an indicator of omega 3 fatty acid deficiency. You can take a algae based EPA/DHA supplement if you feel your are not getting enough
- Eat plenty of fruit throughout the day to fuel your brain. Feasting on healthy, natural sugar can reduce cravings for refined/processed sugar and can help prevent fluctuations in blood sugar level (provided the diet is not too high in fat).
It is very helpful to seek the help of a plant-based nutritionist/dietitian that can help you create a personalized regimen including a meal plan and potential supplement recommendations.
Tammy Russell, MS, RD is an integrative nutritionist living in Portland, OR. She creates comprehensive protocols including meal plans, recipes, and specific nutrition guidelines to help people achieve their health and wellness goals.