Becoming Healthier: Fixing Nutritional Gaps While Being Vegan

I know it’s been over a month since my last post, but things in my personal life have been a little more stressful than normal, and that’s been demanding most of my attention.

I’m currently working on the remaining Product Master Lists, so you can expect more in the imminent future. In the interim, I figured it didn’t hurt to upload a short-and-sweet post on some mistakes I made in the first year of being vegan, what I learned, and the diet changes I’ve made to address them.

Roughly six months into my becoming vegan, I started experiencing some weird health things that were atypical for me. I started getting acne, my circadian rhythm was completely out of whack (I’d reliably be wide awake at 4-5am, I was so wired), I was experiencing all sorts of weird mood swings… It wasn’t pretty.

It’s worth mentioning that I’ve always had high levels of stress because I’ve struggled with depression and an anxiety disorder for two decades, but these things I was experiencing weren’t normal for me, even when the aforementioned bad stuff was. Concerned, I went to the doctor and got bloodwork done, but my panels indicated I was “fine,” even when I didn’t feel it. I went to the dermatologist to figure out why on earth I was getting acne when I’ve never before had it in my life. The dermatologist said “oh, it’s hormonal” and gave me a prescription to an oral steroid that would affect my hormone levels. Ugh.

Frustrated and feeling hopeless, I’ve spent the last few months tracking literally everything that’s gone into my body to try to figure out what changed to make me feel so off. After collecting enough data, I spent time analyzing my diet and I ended up identifying some nutritional deficiencies to help explain why I wasn’t feeling “normal”.

Ultimately, this exercise extended beyond just diet, since I realized that nothing, especially one’s health, happens in a vacuum. For the sake of brevity, I’ll stick with just the core nutrition components in this post, but I’ll definitely try to come back to this topic in the future to discuss all the other things I’m trying to help address the negative health impacts stemming from my depression, anxiety, stress, and irregular sleep patterns.

Vitamins, Minerals, and Dietary Deficiencies in a Vegan Diet

I’d say that the most popular response to hearing someone is vegan is asking “how do you get enough protein,” but sadly, that’s hardly the question people should be asking. In actuality, if people are genuinely concerned about a vegan’s diet, they should be asking “are you taking all your supplements to cover your deficiencies?”

Many (ill- or totally uninformed) vegans will insist to you that being completely plant-based is totally healthy and requires zero supplementation “when done right.” Sadly, unless you’re prepared to spend hundreds upon hundreds of dollars on food per month and consume more than 3000-4000 calories a day, that’s complete and utter rubbish.

Not only is that belief erroneous, it’s potentially really dangerous, since many of the vitamins and minerals that vegans are likely to lack from diet alone are vital to a healthy, functioning body. Here are some vitamins and minerals that vegans are likely to not get enough of:

  • Calcium: while completely possible to get your daily recommended calcium from plant-based sources, it takes a lot of servings to do so. More importantly, it’s worth noting that it’s not ideal to source all of your calcium from dark, leafy greens (or any single source, for that matter) as plants are living things, too, and have created their own bio-defense mechanisms to deter animals (like us) from eating them — in the case of kale, it’s oxalic acid, which can cause kidney stones.
  • Iodine: weirdly enough, most of my googling when I first started researching how to be a healthy vegan didn’t surface anything about iodine. This is alarming beyond belief, because iodine is essential to thyroid function, and most Americans get their iodine from dairy products. You can get iodine from certain sea plants, but unless you’re either going out of your way to eat your daily batch of kelp or you consciously bought and use iodized salt, you’re likely not getting any of one of the most important compounds to your hormonal health.
  • Iron: although there are tons of plant-based sources of iron, none of them offer the more bio-available form of iron known as “heme iron,” which only comes from animal sources. If you’re eating heaps of leafy greens, lentils, and legumes, this probably isn’t an issue, but if you’re not living your absolute healthiest life and being a junk food vegan, you’re at real risk of an iron deficiency (especially if you’re a menstruating female).
  • Omega-3s: all plant sources advertised as being “rich” in omega-3 fatty acids (think mostly seeds and high-fat legumes) have a less than 1% conversion rate to essential EPA and DHA (the compounds for which you take fish oil). You would need to drink literal gallons of flaxseed oil daily just to hit the daily recommended values
  • Vitamin A: like with calcium, it’s completely possible to get your daily recommended Vitamin A from a vegan diet, but it’s worth noting that the conversion rate of Beta Carotene (the type of vitamin a found in plants) to usable vitamin a in the body is significantly lower than Retinol, which is the vitamin a found in animal products: 1 IU of beta-carotene from food is equal to 0.05 mcg retinol activity equivalent (RAE) in the body. To make matters more complicated, it’s estimated that about 25% of the population has a genetic variation that makes that conversion rate of beta-carotene to RAE even lower.
    The good news is that a full sweet potato and a daily multi will likely will get you to your daily recommended value (DRV). The bad news is that it’s a lot harder to get to your DRV if you’re not eating orange root vegetables every day.
  • Vitamin B-12: only naturally occurs in animal-derived products, and is only available (outside of supplementation) through artificially fortified nutritional yeast or certain breakfast cereals.
  • Vitamin D: same as vitamin b-12, vitamin d only naturally occurs in animal-derived products. No plant sources will ever cover you for this one.
  • Zinc: most high-concentration sources of zinc come from animal sources. High-concentration plant-based sources of zinc like legumes and beans contain phytates, which can reduce the body’s absorption of vitamins and minerals (like zinc) during a given meal.

When I first became a vegan a little over a year ago, I started with supplements (I was taking Garden of Life’s Vegan Once Daily for Women, which, irritatingly enough, does not include iodine). For some reason, though, I decided to stop about six months in — presumably because I thought I was “healthy enough” without them. Fast forward another six months, and I realized that I was definitely wrong in being so cavalier about supplementation. I examined my diet, and, sure enough, I had some sizable nutritional gaps.

Here’s what I’m taking now to make sure I get enough of what I need:

Author’s Note

Before supplementing with any vitamin or mineral, please make sure to do a thorough tracking of your diet to make sure you’re not over supplementing. Over-supplementation of anything can potentially be very dangerous to your health, as too much of a good thing can have similarly negative effects as too little.
  • Multivitamin: Country Life Max for Vegans. I decided on this one because I take only ONE out of the four recommended capsule (they give you way too much of everything in a full dose). Because I take only one capsule out of four, one bottle lasts me four months, which makes this an economical multivitamin from a reputable company (in a glass, not plastic, bottle!). As I mentioned earlier, I used to use Garden of Life’s Vegan Once A Day Multi, but because they don’t offer certificates of analysis for their products, I’m no longer comfortable buying products from them if I can find alternatives. Moreover, they were bought out by Nestlé in 2017, and Nestlé is a brand responsible for heaps of icky, environmentally-irresponsible, animal-unfriendly things. Thank you, next.

  • Calcium: Bluebonnet Calcium Citrate Plus Magnesium.
    I like this option because calcium citrate is one of the most bio-available forms of calcium, magnesium aspartate is one of the most bio-available forms of magnesium, and magnesium has been shown to further improve calcium absorption. Moreover, this version of calcium gives you a full DRV (1000mg) across four tablets. That may seem like a lot of pills to take, but having the DRV divided across four tablets gives you a nice amount of flexibility when deciding how much you need to supplement on a given day. (If you’re eating well, you likely won’t need all four tablets.) If you’re super sensitive to magnesium; want a more wallet-friendly option; or just want the same dose in fewer pills, consider trying Country Life Vegan Calcium Citrate + Vitamin D, instead, which offers the same 1000mg DRV across two tablets and comes without the magnesium.

  • Iodine: Pure Encapsulations Iodine. At first, I was using Hain Pure Foods Iodized Sea Salt, but forcing myself to consume 5/8 of a teaspoon of sea salt to hit the 150mcg DRV of iodine didn’t always feel great — especially on days when I wanted to eat some junk food (which is usually full of sodium). Using a dedicated iodine supplement gives me the freedom to use salt normally. I considered using Nature’s Plus Potassium Iodide, but I ultimately decided to start with Pure Encapsulations for two reasons: 1) I wanted an initially higher dose of iodine than the minimum DRV to compensate for my several months of iodine deficiency; 2) I’ve used several different products from Pure Encapsulations over the years, and the brand has often been recommended to me by professionals.

  • Omega-3s: Nordic Naturals Algae Omega. I’m convinced this is one of my best nutritional finds ever. Algae is the reason for fish being rich in the omega-3s we need, so going straight to the source is an ultimate winning argument for being plant-based. If that weren’t enough, this also helps dodge the issue of mercury poisoning stemming from fish consumption. As far as I see it, there are only two downsides to these pills: 1) they contain carageenan, which some studies have shown can cause inflammation in high quantities; 2) they’re expensive. Downsides aside, they’re still better than all other algae competitors, if only because they don’t use “caramel color,” which is a carcinogen, to dye their pills a dark brown (they instead use “carob color”).

  • Vitamin B-12: Jarrow Formulas Methyl B-12 500mcg. Although you need comparatively more of methylcobalamin than
    cyanocobalamin to hit your B-12 DRV, methylcobalamin doesn’t convert into cyanide in the body, whereas cyanocobalamin does. Even though my multivitamin satisfies my DRV of B-12, I take an extra 500mcg separately (thus far, a safe upper limit for the body hasn’t been established, since there seems to be virtually no toxicity from high intakes of B-12. Moreover, the body doesn’t store B-12, so whatever mine can’t use, it will just flush out).

  • Zinc: Pure Encapsulations Zinc 30. I used to use Garden of Life Vitamin Code Raw Zinc, but as I said before, I’m personally not a fan of Garden of Life, since they’re notoriously unable to provide certificates of analysis for their supplements (also, in this case they’re double the cost of Pure Encapsulation’s Zinc 30). I went with the Zinc 30mg option instead of Pure Encapsulations Zinc 15 for two reasons: 1) zinc is anti-inflammatory, and I’m predisposed to higher levels of inflammation due to having an anxiety disorder; and 2) legumes and beans are a staple in my diet, and they caused reduced zinc absorption. (That said, the 15mg variety is probably a better bet for those who don’t deal with a whole lot of inflammation.)

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