Part 2. 6 Factors to Keep in Mind
In Part 1 I shared my story of the evolution of my plant-based eating. Here I'm going to share with you six important factors to keep in mind when eating or transitioning to a vegan or more plant-based diet.
Vegan vs. Plant-Based
First, I wanted to make a note on what is the difference between being vegan vs. plant-based. A vegan diet does not include any foods produced by an animal. Foods not eaten include all meat, fish, eggs, dairy, and honey. A plant-based diet does not have a formal definition, but rather emphasizes incorporating whole plant foods. Any way of eating that seeks to add in a lot of plants can be considered plant-based. I consider how I eat plant-based, but not totally vegan.
1. Removing Entire Food Groups
It's important to understand that when we remove a whole food group, we are removing the nutrients that food group provides + we must get those nutrients in another way. Removing meat, fish, eggs, and dairy means we are removing our highest concentrated form of protein (as well as other nutrients I'll talk about soon).
We need protein to build up our muscles and other body tissues, to carry out all the various reactions that go on in our body, and to keep our hormones and energy balanced, to name a few. We also need more protein if we're under a lot of stress or healing our bodies.
Protein is made up of building blocks called amino acids and some of these are essential - meaning, we must get them from food because our bodies do not produce them. The nine essential amino acids include: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.
Animal protein sources are complete proteins and have all of the amino acids our body needs, while most plant-based proteins are incomplete proteins (except for quinoa and soy), meaning they are missing certain amino acids. Most legumes (lentils, beans, peas, peanuts) are lower in methionine, while most other plants are lower in lysine. Because plant-based proteins are incomplete, we need to be sure to include a variety throughout the day to ensure we're getting all the amino acids we need.
If we're simply cutting out meat, fish, dairy, and eggs without being mindful of what we're replacing as our protein source, then we're destined for low energy, crappy moods, and blood sugar imbalance. Lysine is in shortest supply in vegan diets so it's crucial to make sure we're eating a variety of plant-based foods to make sure we're getting enough.
The key points here are:
Am I getting enough protein?
Am I getting enough of the right types of protein?
Am I getting enough protein?
Vegans can typically get enough protein if they are eating adequate calories and are consuming whole foods that are nutritionally adequate and not highly processed. Vegans may also need to increase the total amount of protein they would be eating if they consumed animal foods.
Am I getting enough of the right types of protein?
To get all essential amino acids it's important to eat a variety of plant foods throughout the day and to ensure adequate calories. Also, including legumes (ex: peanuts/peanut butter, soy, beans, lentils, peas) is crucial to achieve enough total protein, but also ensure we're getting enough lysine. Lysine is also found in quinoa, amaranth, pistachios, and pumpkin seeds. I usually recommend incorporating a plant-based protein powder to make sure you're getting all of the amino acids you need. I like the Garden of Life Raw Organic Protein Powder or Sunwarrior Plant-Based Organic Protein.
2. Protein + Mood
Our four main mood chemicals (serotonin, dopamine, GABA, and endorphins) are built from amino acids (the building blocks of protein). If we're not getting enough of these from food our mood can suffer. Chronic stress, exercising too hard, and substances like caffeine, drugs, and alcohol also affect these mood chemicals. If you're struggling with your mood, supplementing with amino acids can be beneficial to support your mood. Read more about amino acid therapy here.
3. Deficiency Risks
Remember: no matter what eating pattern you choose to follow every body has nutrition non-negotiables - things we must get from food. The following nutrients are all found in animal-based foods that if we're not careful, we can run the risk of becoming deficient in while following a vegan diet.
Disclaimer: I recommend supplements brands, however, you should always consult with your healthcare provider before beginning any dietary supplements. Dietary supplements are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure or prevent medical conditions or disease.
This is the one I feel like we hear about most often. Vegetarians and vegans run the risk of vitamin B12 deficiency since B12 is found in animal foods. As we get older, we also may need to supplement with B12 because our bodies become less able to properly digest and absorb it. It's crucial for vegans to supplement with B12 as plants are not reliable sources. B12 can come in two main forms - methylcobalamin or cyanocobalamin - and it will state this on the label. Methylcobalamin is the form that is active in the body and what I recommend. A good vegan option is the Megafood Vegan B12.
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that plays a critical role in bone health and also impacts our mood. The best source of vitamin D for everyone is the sun - about 20 minutes of exposing your skin to the sun every day is really all you need. There are not a lot of plant foods that have naturally occurring vitamin D unless they're fortified. Cow's milk, egg yolks, fish, and liver are animal sources of vitamin D. So if there's not a lot of foods that have it, and especially if you live somewhere like I do where it's snowing in April as I write this, then supplementing may be necessary. I like the Garden of Life Vitamin Code Raw D3. I always base the need to supplement on blood work, so check your vitamin D level with your healthcare provider to see if it's appropriate for you.
Omega-3s are essential fatty acids we must get from our food. They play a role in heart + brain health, our mood, and also help prevent inflammation + menstrual cramps. We often associate them with fish or fish oil. Our body uses them in the form EPA or DHA and these are what are found in fish.
We also know that seeds like flax, chia, and hemp have omega-3s, however, they are found in the form ALA. ALA needs to be converted to EPA or DHA for our body to use these essential fatty acids and there are a lot of things that can interfere with this conversion (like not getting enough protein or crucial vitamins/minerals, drinking alcohol, or eating a lot of processed foods).
While you should definitely keep including these healthy seeds for omega-3s, it's important for vegans to include an EPA/DHA source. EPA and DHA are found in microalgae and can be taken in a supplement form. I like the brand Nordic Naturals, they have a vegan omega-3: Algae Omega.
I take Nordic Naturals Ultimate Omega fish oil and it has helped balance my mood + ease menstrual cramps.
Iron is a mineral that is needed to transport oxygen in the blood throughout the body. There are two types of iron - heme iron found in animal foods and non-heme iron found in both plant and animal foods. Heme iron is more readily absorbed compared to non-heme iron. Since vegans are not consuming heme iron, they often have lower iron stores than people who consume meat. The daily recommended amount of iron is 18 mg for women of child bearing and and 8 mg for men, however the Institute of Medicine recommends that those eating a vegan diet increase their iron intake by 80%.
Some plant sources of iron include: legumes (soybeans, tofu, lentils, chickpeas, bean), seeds, cashews, pine nuts, almonds, brazil nuts, leafy greens, and potatoes. Blood work will reveal if your iron stores are low and if you need to add an iron supplement (a chelated iron supplement is recommended). You can get chelated iron at Thrive Market. Work with your healthcare provider before starting an iron supplement to ensure correct dosing and to prevent possible interactions. It is possible to take too much iron.
Zinc is a mineral found in all cells of our body and plays an important role in immune function and cell growth. If we're low our immune system can be impaired and we can experience loss of appetite. If the diet is lacking in variety or has too few legumes, nuts, or seeds, or does not have enough calories, then vegans can run the risk of becoming low in zinc. Most multivitamins include zinc. I like the Megafood brand, which has a Women's One Daily or Men's One Daily.
We probably will always and forever associate milk and dairy as our prominent source of calcium thanks to the 'Got Milk?' campaign in the '90s. However, plenty of plant-based foods have enough calcium to reach adequate levels: non-GMO organic tofu made with calcium sulfate, green leafy veggies, tahini, beans. It's important to include calcium plant foods to maintain optimal bone health. Calcium is not typically included in a multivitamin and would need to be supplemented separately. I like the Country Life brand. Again, talk to your healthcare provider before starting a calcium supplement to see if it's right for you.
Vegetarians and vegans can also run the risk of iodine deficiency, which impacts thyroid function. Our thyroid is the controller of our metabolism, so if we are deficient in iodine we may have a hard time managing our weight. A lot of the healthy plant-based foods we eat have substances called goitrogens that can reduce the uptake of iodine by the thyroid. Goitrogen-containing foods include broccoli, bok choy, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and cauliflower. You can reduce this goitrogen effect by cooking these foods. This tends to only be a problem if we're not getting enough iodine in our diet.
4. StresS + Blood Sugar Balance
When we're stressed or in a healing state, our body needs more protein. Stress stimulates the release of cortisol - our main stress hormone. If we're not eating enough protein and consuming a lot of sugar or refined carbohydrate products then our blood sugar is going to go up. This stimulates a hormone called insulin to come pick up the sugar out of the blood and take it to the cell where we can use it for energy.
If we're chronically stressed + eating too much sugar/not enough protein we get stuck in the loop where cortisol and insulin are constantly high, leading to spikes and crashes and we feel miserable. It's important to keep this in mind because plant-based protein foods also contain higher amounts of carbohydrates (versus animal-based proteins), so we want to make sure we're eating balanced meals to prevent unstable blood sugar.
5. Hormone Balance
Over time, the build up of stress + blood sugar imbalance starts throwing off all of our other hormones. This can lead to burnout, PMS, insulin resistance, PCOS, mood swings, weight fluctuations, skin problems - all the things we don't want. All of this is important to keep in mind when making any sort of diet transition. Always, always, always listen what your body is telling you. If you're particularly stressed or dealing with anything I mentioned above it may be best to first focus on ways to remove some of your stress before doing a diet overhaul that could actually cause more stress on the body.
6. Stomach Acid + Gut Health
When we stop consuming as much meat + animal protein our body adapts by not making as much stomach acid to digest the proteins, however our body still does need adequate stomach acid for digestion (and absorption of vitamins and minerals). Low stomach acid (called hypochlorhydria) can lead to experiencing heartburn, acid reflux, gas, or bloating after eating. There are ways to boost your stomach acid (one being drinking a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar diluted in water before meals). This is something to keep in mind if you notice your digestion is off.
These are all the key nutrients + factors to keep in mind when on a vegan (or vegetarian) diet. It's important to make sure you are getting adequate B12, vitamin D, omega-3, iron, zinc, calcium, and iodine to prevent any deficiencies and symptoms that arise. If we are low in any of these our mood, ability to regulate blood sugar + energy, and proper digestion can all be impacted.
In Part 3 I'll be sharing what blood work you should monitor to make sure your body is in balance.
What's your experience with any of these factors? I'd love to know - leave a comment below!
Krista is a Chicago-based registered dietitian nutritionist, certified health coach, and certified personal trainer offering virtual nutrition coaching using a functional and integrative approach to help you feel vibrant, balanced, and confident. Looking to get your body + brain back?