Part 3. 5 blood tests to monitor
Now that we've gone through the six factors to keep in mind in Part 2, it's important to get your blood checked to establish your baseline, bring awareness to any deficiencies, and correct any imbalances. It's important for everyone to know their numbers, but it's especially important if you are moving toward this way of eating.
The last thing you want is for something that is supposed to be a healthy change actually cause more harm than good.
Some of these labs are included in a typical blood test you would get done at your annual physician visit, others you may need to request. Again, it's all about becoming your own health advocate - ask for what you want tested and take a role in monitoring your health. You are the only person who truly knows your body!
1. Complete Blood Count
A Complete Blood Count (CBC) is typically run on a standard blood panel
White blood cells - tell you about immune health
basophils, eosinophils, lymphocytes, monocytes, neutrophils
Red blood cells (rbcs) - carry oxygen in the body
hematocrit: % of whole blood volume made up of rbcs
hemoglobin: protein in rbcs that contains iron and transports oxygen
MCH: (mean corpuscular hemoglobin) amount of hemoglobin/rbc
MCHC: (mean corpuscular hemoglobin concentration) average concentration of of hemoglobin in a given # of rbcs
MCV: (mean corpuscular volume) - average size of rbcs
mean platelet volume: average volume of a platelet
platelet count: # of platelets (part of blood that plays a role in clotting)
RDW: (red blood cell distribution width) - variation in rbc size
red blood cells: - total # of rbcs in the blood
We want to look at red blood cells to make sure anemia isn't present
Anemia is a condition where the body does not have enough healthy red blood cells to transport enough oxygen throughout the body. There are many types of anemia each with different causes. What we're typically looking at with vegetarian or vegan diets are:
Iron deficiency anemia: low iron stores
hematocrit, hemoglobin, MCV low
Vitamin deficiency anemia: low folate or B12
2. Full Iron Panel
Iron is essential in production of red blood cells + transporting oxygen throughout the body
A full iron panel includes:
total iron: blood iron level
total iron binding capacity (TIBC): the amount of iron transferrin is able to bind
transferrin: protein in blood that binds + transports iron
ferritin: storage form of iron
Make sure to double check with your healthcare provider that ferritin is included on your blood test
low iron: total iron + ferritin low, TIBC + transferrin high
Note that you may be iron deficient and not anemic - you can discuss this with your healthcare provider.
3. Vitamin B12 + Folate
B12 and folate are two B vitamins that are imporant for producig red blood cells, synthesizing DNA, and repairing tissues and cells. If you're following a vegan or vegetarian diet and not supplementing, you run the risk of vitamin B12 deficiency. It's also important to make sure your folate levels are adequate.
serum B12: amount of B12 in the serum (liquid) portion of the blood
you can get you serum level checked, however, it can be beneficial to also check MMA if serum B12 comes back okay but you still suspect low B12
methylmalonic acid (MMA): this is a functional test that tells if your body has enough vitamin B12 - B12 converts MMA into something called succinyl Coenzyme A. If there's not enough B12 to covert it, then MMA builds up. High MMA can mean B12 is low. You will likely need to ask for this one if you want it tested.
serum folate: amount of folate in the serum (liquid) portion of the blood
RBC folate: amount of folate in rbcs
homocysteine: an amino acid found in the body. B12, B6, and folate all play a role in metabolizing homocysteine, so if it is elevated B12, B6, or folate may be low
4. Vitamin D
When I coordinated onsite health screening events, vitamin D was always in the top 3 labs that was out of range. So many people are living with low vitamin D, and our moods can be greatly affected. If you're living in an area with limited sunlight year round (like me in Chicago), you may need to supplement, especially in the winter.
You can order a home test kit through EverylyWell - click here to check your vitamin D at home! You can also do the Vitamin D and Inflammation Test that includes a marker called high sensitivity C-reactive protein, which is elevated if inflammation is present.
5. Full Thyroid Panel
It's a good idea to check a make sure your thyroid is functioning properly. At a regular physician visit you may see TSH and Free T4 measured routinely. Free T3 may or may not always be included. Reverse T3 is a test you can request or would be able to get done with a functional provider. Thyroid antibodies are typically tested when looking for an autoimmune response to the thyroid.
You can also order a home thyroid test kit through EverlyWell - click here check your thyroid levels in the convenience of your own home!
TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone): TSH is high in hypothyroidism (low thyroid function), TSH is low in hyperthyroidism (high thyroid function)
free T3: the active form of thyroid hormone
free T4: the inactive form of thyroid hormone that coverts to T3
reverse T3: inhibits T3 function (may be elevated if T3 is low)
thyroid antibodies: to see if your body is having an immune response to they thyroid gland (such as in Hashtimoto's thyroiditis)
Typically doctors will run TSH and Free T4, you may need to request free T3, reverse T3, and thyroid antibodies.
Get Clear on Your Reason
The main reasons for eating a vegan diet are either for health reasons or for environmental/animal welfare reasons or a combination of both. If your reason is "I feel like I should", take a minute to get clear on your intention behind the decision. Talk all factors into consideration. If you choose to eat animal foods because that works best for your body (which is the conclusion I came to in my own health) make sure they are the highest quality and sustainably sourced. If you choose to eat a vegan diet, make sure you body is balanced and you are getting everything you need from food + supplements.
Overall Answer: It Depends
Q: Can I get everything I need from a vegan diet?
A: Yes it is possible to get everything you need from a vegan diet, HOWEVER, you must be sure to carefully plan your meals, ensure you're getting enough protein (and lysine), check your blood to prevent or heal any deficiencies, supplement appropriately, support your mind + emotions to handle stress in a healthy way, and most importantly:
LISTEN TO YOUR BODY
Your body knows best and it's time to listen to what it has to say. For me, it wasn't until I finally starting digging into why I had low energy, never wanted to exercise, had mood swings, terrible cramps, thin, dry nails, and was cold all the time (to name a few) that I uncovered nutritional imbalances and ultimately how to heal them.
We should all be eating more plants
If we do include animal products, make sure they are the highest quality
Get your blood tested!! - I cannot stress this one enough
Monitor how you feel - you are the only person who knows what is actually working for your body
Have you gotten your blood checked lately? Have you experienced deficiencies or imbalances you had to correct? What have you found works best for your body? 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?