Frequently Asked Vegan Health Questions
By KD Angle-Traegner / Last Update: September 2019
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Do you want to live vegan but are unsure of where to start? Are you already vegan but not sure if you’re making healthy choices? Maybe you have a few questions to get you headed on the right path. You’re not alone.
Proper nutrition isn’t easy. It requires healthy habits and making informed choices. That’s why I’ve talked to experts in vegan nutrition to get answers for a few of the frequently asked vegan health questions.
Here’s what they had to say.
1. Where do vegans get protein? How much do we need?
Fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes, whole grains, and foods like tofu, tempeh, and seitan are sources of vegan protein.
Compared to all of other frequently asked vegan health questions, this one may the most popular. There are several things to know when discussing vegan protein.
First, it’s good to know the role of protein in the body. Its job is to assist with cell growth and repair. Also, it helps in immunity and hormone production. Next, it’s entirely possible to get enough protein eating vegan. In fact, you don’t need as much as you might think. Finally, you should know how to calculate the amount of protein you need to ensure you’re getting enough.
According to Anya Todd, MS, RD, LD, it involves a little know-how and a bit of math.
“The daily requirement of protein is approximately 0.8 – 1 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight. To determine your weight in kilograms, divide your weight in pounds by 2.2.”
Using this formula, a 130-pound person would need 60 grams of protein daily. Todd mentions keeping in mind that requirements can vary through life stages like childhood, pregnancy, and lactation.
You won’t miss out on protein by choosing plants either she says, but you will have vegan gains.
“Excessive amounts of animal protein have shown links 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 in animal protein.”
Protein is a big subject. Visit the Vegan Protein Primer for everything you need to know about getting quality protein from plants.
Summary: Where Do Vegans Get Protein?
It’s wholly possible to get enough protein eating a well-planned vegan diet. Plant-based sources of protein include fruit, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and foods like tofu, tempeh, and seitan.
2. Do Vegans Need to Take a Vitamin B12 Supplement?
Vegans must supplement with vitamin B12. Not doing so can have severe consequences. It’s essential for maintenance of the nervous system and the production of DNA (and consequently for cell division).
Especially relevant, a deficiency can lead to Megaloblastic anemia and neurological damage. Symptoms include depression, mental uncertainty, blurred vision, memory loss, and paralysis. While it’s reversible with therapy, the neurological damage may not be.
Ginny Messina, MPH, RD, a registered dietitian specializing in vegan nutrition, talks about the signs of deficiency:
Although anemia usually occurs first, this isn’t always the case. One problem is that another B vitamin, folate, can “mask” anemia due to a 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.
A Blood level of 200 pg/ml (picograms per milliliter) of this vitamin is okay. It’s enough to prevent anemia and nerve damage according to Messina, but levels should be above 400 pg/ml for optimal health.
How Much Vegan B12 Do You Need?
Of all the frequently asked vegan health questions, this one might be the most important. That’s because there is no vegan food source of vitamin B12. You might read that seaweed, mushrooms, or tempeh are good sources, but these claims are unfounded. These foods contain inactive B12 analogs. The compounds are similar but without vitamin activity. Relying on these foods to meet daily allowances is dangerous and can raise the risk for deficiency.
Therefore, it is critical to include fortified foods or supplement in your diet.
Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of Vitamin B12
The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for Vitamin B12 is 2.4 mcg per day. But Messina recommends 4-7 mcg a day to prevent potential deficiency symptoms.
Figuring out appropriate dosages of B12 gets tricky…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…and they stay that way for several hours. If you ingest a big dose…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.
It is easy to meet the requirements for this nutrient by consuming several small servings of fortified foods throughout the day. However, if you’re relying on a supplement to meet your needs, you’ll need a lot more.
Messina suggests the following options:
- 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 or,
- Take a daily supplement providing 25 to 100 mcg of (cyanocobalamin) vitamin B12 or,
- Take a supplement containing 1,000 mcg of (cyanocobalamin) vitamin B12, twice per week.
Cyanocobalamin or Methylcobalamin?
Cyanocobalamin is the form of Vitamin B12 that is recommended by vegan nutrition experts. However, many brands contain methylcobalamin instead. Before the vitamin can do its job, the body must convert cyanocobalamin into methylcobalamin.
So why not just take methylcobalamin directly? According to Messina, it’s not because one is better than the other. It’s because there’s more reliable information about appropriate dosage levels. For that reason, only supplements containing cyanocobalamin are featured.
If you are taking a supplement that contains methylcobalamin in place of cyanocobalamin, Messina recommends taking 1,500 mcg per day.
Shop for Vegan B12 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 nutrients are 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 cyanocobalamin:
Summary: Do Vegans Need to take a Vitamin B12 Supplement?
Yes, vegans must supplement with vitamin B12. Not doing so can have severe health consequences. The daily requirements are 2.4 mcg per day. However, some experts recommend 4-7 mcg a day to prevent deficiency.
3. Is Soy Safe to Eat?
Long recognized as a nutrient-dense food by registered dietitians and medical doctors, soybeans contain all of the essential amino acids as well as an impressive list of vitamins and minerals like calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, selenium, B vitamins, and zinc. Soy also contains fiber, omega-3 and six fatty acids, and is an excellent source of protein.
Not too shabby, nutritionally speaking. Much like the other frequently asked vegan health questions, I turned to Anya Todd MS, RD, LD to get her thoughts.
According to her, the nutrition in soy foods can vary among different preparations. She recommends consuming whole soy foods to guarantee the highest amount per serving. “Bottom line, soy is perfectly healthy in moderation. Two to three servings of whole soy foods a day is a safe recommendation.” In fact, research shows that people who eat one to two servings of soy foods per day gain many health benefits such as reducing the risk of heart disease, osteoporosis, and specific forms of cancer. (2)
But what about soy isoflavones, cancer, and genetically modified soy? Glad you asked.
Soybeans contain phytoestrogens called isoflavones. Some people claim that these soy isoflavones act like the female sex hormone estrogen in the body and can potentially increase the risk of cancers — especially breast cancer — as well as reduce the testosterone levels in men.
But concerns about adverse effects are not supported by the clinical or epidemiologic literature available at the time of this writing.
Soy is one of the most researched foods; there are nearly 2,000 soy-related papers published annually. Based on the health benefits of these epidemiologic studies along with the benefits noted in clinical trials, soy is not only safe, but it’s also beneficial when eaten in moderation. (2, 3)
Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)
Some people avoid soy because they’re afraid to consume GMOs. A genetically modified organism (GMO) is an organism whose genetic material has been manipulated in a lab using genetic engineering techniques.
Scientists alter genes to get specific traits such as resistance to disease or tolerance of herbicides or pesticides. (4)
Soybeans are the second-largest crop grown in the US after corn, and they’re also one of the top genetically altered crops. These numbers are significant because even if you’re not eating soy foods directly — if you’re eating animals — you’re likely still eating soy. Currently, 85% of all GMO soybeans end up in animal feed for farmed animals where it eventually ends up on your plate.
There are criticisms about the practice surrounding the bioengineering and the production of GMOs. In 60 countries there are restrictions or outright bans on the manufacture and sale of them. Here in the US, the government has approved their use. (4)
When buying soy, unless it has a GMO-free label, then there’s a chance the product is genetically modified. Look for organic soy or products labeled explicitly as using non-GMO ingredients.
Summary: Is Soy Safe to Eat?
Studies have shown that two to three servings of whole soy foods are not only safe but also have many health benefits, too.
4. Where Do Vegans Get Calcium?
Like other frequently asked vegan health questions, this one is common for new vegans. Despite what the industry claims, dairy products aren’t the only sources of calcium. Plenty of plants supply calcium while leaving out the cholesterol and saturated fat found in dairy.
First of all, it’s important to know the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for calcium. Again, I turned to Anya Todd, MS, RD, LD.
“The average adult under 50 should consume approximately 1000mg of calcium daily. For those over 50, the amount increases to 1200mg.”
Luckily, obtaining calcium by eating a vegan diet is easy. Fortified foods like soy milk, orange juice, cereals, or granola bars can provide an ample amount. For example, an 8-oz glass of fortified soy milk contains 300mg of calcium. Tofu offers 250mg per four-ounces. Blackstrap molasses, kale, and collard greens are also excellent whole food sources.
The best way to get it is by eating a variety of foods.
If you plan to supplement, Todd advises reducing the milligrams. “Research shows that large doses of supplemental calcium aren’t good for us and are hard for the body to absorb. It’s best absorbed in amounts of 500mg or less.” (5)
Summary: Where Do Vegans Get Calcium?
Fortified foods like soy milk, orange juice, or granola bars and whole foods like kale, chard, and molasses can provide an ample amount of calcium.
5. Will a Vegan Diet Help Me Lose Weight?
A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains can help you lose weight. Food is just one factor that affects weight loss, however. Physical activity, genetics, and hormones play a part too.
BMI stands for ‘Body Mass Index’ and is a standardized measure based on height and weight. Though flawed, BMI can be useful for assessing weight. Higher levels come with increased risks of chronic diseases. In general, vegans tend to have lower BMI levels than non-vegans, but not always. No diet creates only one kind of body.
To dive deeper, I talked to Anya Todd, MS, RD, LD about weight loss.
“The Standard American Diet is dense in calories, many of them “empty.” What this means is foods and beverages are low in nutrients compared to the total number of calories. Our reliance on these foods, combined with low physical activity, has promoted increased chronic disease rates.”
Isn’t a vegan diet automatically healthy? Not quite, says Todd. “Does a vegan diet have its share of junk food? Certainly!” Weight loss isn’t automatic either. “Any diet with excessive calories from junk rather than whole foods makes weight loss a challenge.” But a well-planned vegan diet can help you shed a few pounds.
Todd offers three tips for success:
- Eat real foods; vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains.
- Include fat from whole food sources like nuts, avocados, and seeds.
- Engage in physical activity regularly.
Summary: Will a Vegan Diet Help Me Lose Weight?
A vegan diet isn’t automatically healthy, but a well-planned one can be a weight-loss tool. Choose foods like fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, and seeds.
Truth in Advertising
I am committed to providing accurate information to the vegan community. Meticulously researched, the topic explored in this article contains knowledge available at the time of publishing. Reviews and updates happen when new material becomes available.
Please contact me if you find incorrect data.
- Messina, G. Vitamin B12: A Vegan Nutrition Primer. Retrieved from http://www.theveganrd.com/vegan-nutrition-101/vegan-nutrition-primers/vitamin-b12-a-vegan-nutrition-primer/
- Messina, M., & Messina, V. (2010). The Role of Soy in Vegetarian Diets. Nutrients,v2(8), 855–888. Retrieved from http://doi.org/10.3390/nu2080855
- Norris, J. (2100). Soy: What’s the Harm? VeganHealth.org. Retrieved from http://www.veganhealth.org/articles/soy_wth
- Learn About GMOs. Non GMO Project. https://www.nongmoproject.org/gmo-facts/
- Crocket, SD., Barry, EL., Mott, LA, et al. (2018) Calcium and vitamin D supplementation and increased risk of serrated polyps. Gut. Retrieved from http://gut.bmj.com/content/early/2018/01/29/gutjnl-2017-315242
Nutrition information provided by Anya Todd, MS, RD, LD.
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