Frequently Asked Vegan Health Questions
Are you looking to become vegan and unsure of how to start? Are you already vegan but not sure if you are making healthy choices? Maybe you just have a few questions to get you headed on the right path. You are not alone. Good nutrition isn’t easy, it requires healthy habits and making informed choices. That’s where I come in. I’ve partnered with Anya Todd RD, LD – a registered dietitian who specializes in vegan nutrition – to put together a list of the most common and frequently asked questions about vegan health.
1. Where Do Vegans Get Protein & How Much Do We Need?
Protein intake is a common concern and often a misunderstood issue when speaking with regard to a vegan diet. Its function in the body is to assist with cell growth and repair, as well as to assist in immunity and hormone production. The daily human body requirement is approximately 0.8-1 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight. (To get kilograms, just divide your weight by 2.2.) Therefore, a healthy person weighing 130 lbs would require approximately 60 grams of protein per day. Please note that these requirements vary through life stages (childhood, pregnancy, lactation).
In today’s society, we tend to have the mentality that one can never have too much of anything – and this applies to protein as well. Though the Atkins craze is slowing, Americans still consume considerably more protein than what is recommended. Excessive amounts of animal protein have been linked to osteoporosis and kidney disease. There are a variety of plant foods that can provide substantial amounts of protein without the cholesterol and saturated fat that is offered in animal protein.
Protein is a big subject- be sure to check out the guide below for absolutely everything you need to know about getting quality protein from plants.
RELATED: Vegan Protein Guide
2. Do Vegans Need to Take a Vitamin B12 Supplement?
Yes. In any way, shape or form, we cannot stress enough the importance of having a reliable source of this powerhouse vitamin in your diet. This is one nutrient that vegans absolutely need to supplement and not doing so can have very serious consequences.
Vitamin B12 is essential to the body for maintenance of the nervous system and the production of DNA (and consequently for cell division). A deficiency can lead to Megaloblastic anemia and neurological damage, which can include everything from depression, mental uncertainty, blurred vision, memory loss, and even paralysis. While Megaloblastic anemia is reversible with Vitamin B12 therapy, neurological damage may not be.
From Ginny Messina, MPH, RD, a registered dietitian specializing in vegan nutrition:
Although anemia usually occurs first, this isn’t always the case. One problem is that another B vitamin, folate, can “mask” anemia due to B12 deficiency. Folate steps in and prevents anemia, but it can’t prevent nerve damage. So, if your diet is rich in folate but low in vitamin B12, nerve damage can actually be the first symptom of a B12 deficiency. This is a concern for vegans in particular, because our diets are often high in folate which is abundant in leafy greens and beans.
According to Messina, a blood level of Vitamin B12 about 200 pg/ml (picograms per milliliter) is enough to prevent anemia and nerve damage- but levels need to be above 400 pg/ml for optimal health. Recent research has also shown that adequate vitamin B12 levels can lower homocystein levels in the blood, which is great news since elevated homocysteine levels can cause heart disease and strokes.
Recommeded Reading: Vitamin B12: A Vegan Nutrition Primer
Unfortunately, there is no reliable plant food that will provide vegans with this essential vitamin. You might read that sea vegetables (seaweed), mushrooms, or tempeh are good sources of Vitamin B12 but these claims are unfounded. Many contain inactive B12 analogs- compounds similar to B12 but without vitamin activity. Relying on these foods to meet the RDA of Vitamin B12 is dangerous and can raise your risk for B12 deficiency. Therefore, it is critical to include a fortified food or supplement of Vitamin B12 in your diet.
The only two reliable sources of Vitamin B12 for vegans is fortified foods and supplements. The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for Vitamin B12 is 2.4 mcg per day. But Messina recommends 4 to 7 mcg a day to prevent potential deficiency symptoms, including elevated homocystein levels.
Figuring out appropriate dosages of B12 gets tricky, though, because of the way this vitamin is absorbed. Small amounts of vitamin B12 attach to receptors for absorption. These receptors quickly become saturated by just 1 to 2 mcg of vitamin B12 and they stay that way for several hours. This is the amount of vitamin B12 you might expect to get from a single meal that includes animal products or fortified foods. If you ingest a big dose of vitamin B12 from a supplement you can still absorb a little bit of the excess that can’t attach to receptors. But absorption of that extra amount is just a very small percentage of the total.
You can easily meet the RDA for this nutrient by consuming several small servings of Vitamin B12 fortified foods throughout the day. However, if you are taking a supplement to meet your RDA needs, you’ll need a lot more since the absorption rates are so low. The following recommendations provided by Messina will help you meet your Vitamin B12 RDA:
- Eat two servings per day of foods fortified with at least 2 to 3.5 mcg of vitamin B12 each, consumed at least 4 hours apart for optimal absorption.
- Take a daily supplement providing 25 to 100 mcg of (cyanocobalamin) vitamin B12.
- Take a supplement providing 1,000 mcg of (cyanocobalamin) vitamin B12, twice per week.
A Note About Cyanocobalamin
Cyanocobalamin is the form of Vitamin B12 that is recommended by vegan nutrition experts, however many brands of Vitamin B12 supplements that are widely available contain methylcobalamin instead. Before Vitamin B12 can do its job, the body must convert cyanocobalamin into methylcobalamin. So why not just take methylcobalamin directly? It’s not because one is better than the other, it’s because there is more reliable information about appropriate dosage levels for cyanocobalamin. For that reason, we recommend only those supplements that contain cyanocobalamin.
If you are taking a supplement that contains methylocobalamin in place of cyanocobalamin, taking 1,500 mcg per day will likely meet your RDA for Vitamin B12.
Shop for Vegan B-12 Sublingual Tablets
Without a doubt, the easiest way to meet the RDA of Vitamin B12 is to take a sublingual tablet. These are tablets that you place under your tongue and allow them to dissolve. The Vitamin B12 is then absorbed into your body through the blood vessels in your mouth. The following supplements are vegan and contain Vitamin B12 in the form of cyanoobalamin:
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3. Is Soy Safe to Eat or Not?
With all of the misinformation about soy being dispersed (mostly by industries opposed to a plant-based diet), it is no wonder that there is mass confusion about this precious bean. Soy foods, like tofu and soy milk, are staples in many vegans’ pantries because they are plentiful in protein and other nutrients, like B vitamins, and they are free of artery-clogging saturated fat and cholesterol.
The concern is the effect isoflavones have on our health. Theses soy myths focus upon the “phytoestrogens” found in soybeans, called isoflavones, and how these compounds can allegedly cause breast cancer. Some claim isoflavones act like the female sex hormone, estrogen, would in the body and hence, potentially increase the risk of cancers (especially breast), as well as reduce testosterone levels in men. Science, based on well-planned research studies, has yet to uphold any of these claims.
Often the studies quoted by those opposed to soy have been conducted on animals in labs who are injected with amounts of isoflavones that far exceed normal human consumption. The latest human-based research recently followed women in Asia and showed that pre-menopausal soy consumption has a protective effect in regard to breast cancer. At this time, there is no reason to believe soy causes cancer. And as far as men and soy consumption goes, there are over 30 studies which conclude that soy has no effect on testosterone levels in men. The few studies that may be cited by the naysayers are again poorly designed.
4. Where Do Vegans Get Calcium?
Despite what the dairy industry claims, milk is not the only way to obtain calcium and maintain strong bones and teeth. There are many plant sources that will supply calcium while leaving out the cholesterol and saturated fat found in milk from animals. It is recommended that the average adult under 50 consumes approximately 1000mg of calcium per day. For those people over 50, the amount increases to 1200mg of calcium per day.
Luckily, more common foods in a vegan diet are being fortified – everything from soy milk to orange juice to granola bars now provides an ample amount of calcium. An 8-oz glass of fortified soy milk or rice milk provides 300mg of calcium. Tofu processed with calcium can provide 250mg in a 4 oz. serving. Blackstrap molasses, soy yogurt, and collard greens are also excellent sources. Like any other nutrient, calcium is best obtained by eating a variety of foods. If you think you would benefit from a calcium supplement, it is important to note this mineral is best absorbed in amounts of 500mg or less.
Related Reading: Why Osteoporosis Prevention Should Be a Priority – Even for Vegans
5. Will a Vegan Diet Help Me Lose Weight?
Diet is just one of many factors that affect weight loss, along with physical activity level, genetics, and hormones. That being said, a whole-foods vegan diet, which is rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains, can help you lose weight.
Vegans in general have lower BMI levels than vegetarians and omnivores. BMI stands for “Body Mass Index” and is a standardized measure based on your height and weight. Though it is not perfect, BMI is a useful tool for most people to assess where they fall in terms of the weight categories “ideal,” “overweight,” and “obese.” Higher BMI levels are associated with increased risk of chronic diseases.
The Standard American Diet is one that is very dense in calories- many of them called “empty calories.” This means that the foods and beverages are quite low in nutrients compared to the number of calories they have. Sadly, soda and processed foods are staples for most people. Our reliance on these foods, combined with a lack of physical activity, has promoted increased chronic disease rates in our country and around the globe.
Does a vegan diet have its fair share of junk food? Certainly! A trip to the local market reveals new snack foods and frozen dessert treats on practically a weekly basis. Any diet with a backbone of excessive calories from junk rather than whole foods will likely make weight loss a challenge.
If you are looking to a vegan diet to shed pounds, remember a few things: Eat a diet rich in real foods- vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains. Make sure to include some small amount of whole-food sources of fats, like nuts, avocados, and seeds. Not only will such a diet provide an abundance of fiber to keep you full, but these foods are rich in nutrients to fuel your body. This fuel is needed to energize you during vigorous physical activity, which you should participate in regularly, and is essential to any weight-loss program- not to mention maintaining overall health and well-being.
Opting for a vegan diet not only benefits your waistline, it is a compassionate choice that benefits the animals and the planet.
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I am committed to providing accurate information to the vegan community. The information and data presented on Your Daily Vegan has been meticulously researched, and is based on information available at the time of publication. Guides are periodically reviewed for accuracy and updated as necessary. Update dates can be found at the end of every guide. Please contact me if you find out-of-date or incorrect information.
This guide is authored by KD Angle-Traegner with direct nutrition guidelines and recommendations from Anya Todd RD, LD and published recommendations from Ginny Messina, MPH, RD. Last update January 2017.