Posted on Aug 18, 2021, 6 a.m.
Article courtesy of Dr. Joel Kahn, MD, who is a Clinical Professor of Medicine at Wayne State University School of Medicine, one of the world's top cardiologists, best-selling author, lecturer, and a leading expert in plant-based nutrition and holistic care.
After 40 plus years of choosing a plant-based diet and over 31 years of advising patients to do the same, I still get concerned when I see vegans eating a poor diet, as there are a variety of foods that carry the vegan label but are unlikely to promote health. For example, Taco Bell, Subway, Burger King, and White Castle are promoting (ultra-processed) plant-based options. And while these meals may work in a pinch, the mainstay of a health-promoting eating pattern needs to be whole foods with single ingredients, focusing on nonprocessed staples like fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.
Beyond highly processed junk food, another trap some vegans fall into is ignoring the need to supplement intelligently. This is not a limitation of the vegan diet but represents the state of the world with depleted soil and indoor lifestyles resulting in uniformly low vitamin intake. Most of the adults I see in the clinic, whether their diet is vegan or otherwise, lack important nutrients that show up on the advanced testing I perform. The following list is what I add to my plant-based diet to maximize results (hint: The first three are the most important).
1. Vitamin B12:
Vitamin B12 is important in the brain, nerve, and hematologic health and is a factor in a key process called methylation. Methylation regulates homocysteine levels and plays an important role in the control of DNA regulation. Neither plants nor animals make B12; it's produced by bacteria that reside in the gastrointestinal tract of animals other than humans. When animal products are eaten, B12 is ingested as a bystander. When we wash our produce, we wash off the B12-rich bacteria.
By some estimates, 50 percent of vegans and 10 percent of vegetarians are deficient in vitamin B12. I recommend taking about 2,500 ug once a week, ideally as a liquid, sublingual, or chewable form for better absorption or 250 ug daily if that schedule works better for you. There is no known risk to taking larger amounts of B12.
2. Vitamin D3:
Vitamin D is known to promote bone health and is proving to be essential in blood pressure and blood glucose control, in heart function, and in brain health. Measurements of blood levels are the best way to assess adequate amounts of vitamin D. In a study of over 65,000 residents of England, researchers found that vegans had higher levels of fiber, magnesium, and vitamins E and C compared to their carnivorous counterparts but had lower levels of vitamin D.
Direct sunshine on exposed skin for 20 to 30 minutes a day can provide adequate vitamin D, but, for many of us, oral supplementation is necessary. Vitamin D3 is the form most commonly recommended but is usually derived from animal sources such as lanolin. There are vegan versions of D3 now available and the standard recommendation is to supplement with 800 IU a day, but I start routinely with 2,000 IU a day and titrate up to reach blood levels of 50 to 70 ng/mL.
I can check blood levels for low omega-3 in my clinic and deficiencies are common regardless of diet. However, as fish isn't an option for vegans, I often recommend supplementing with omega-3 in the form of a combined DHA and EPA (the fatty acids that are great for heart and brain health) supplement sourced from algae. I suggest that most patients on a vegan diet take 250 mg each day and at the same time limit foods rich in omega-6, which may contribute to inflammation. These are mainly in the form of oils such as corn, soy, safflower, sunflower, and vegetable oil blends. Overall, go easy or skip oils for cooking. Finally, adding whole foods rich in ALA, the precursor to EPA and DHA, is encouraged. This is easy using 1 to 2 tablespoons a day of ground flaxseeds, a small handful of English walnuts, chia seeds, and leafy greens.
4. Vitamin K2:
Vitamin K2 directs calcium to bones rather than arteries and has been shown to work well when combined with vitamin D to promote strong bones and a healthy heart. It is difficult to find in plant foods. Our bodies can convert the vitamin K1 found in dark leafy greens to K2, but it is uncertain how much is being converted, and measuring blood levels is not routine. As our bodies age, there is a reduction in vitamin K2 production, so it is recommended that adult vegans supplement. This vitamin can be found in foods such as sauerkraut, plant-based kefir, unpasteurized kombucha, vegan kimchi, and natto. There are a number of vegan supplements available providing 50 to 100 ug of vitamin K2 a day, usually from natto.
5. The Rest Based on Science
I also suggest small doses of supplemental iodine, selenium, magnesium, and zinc for thyroid, cardiac, immune, and blood sugar optimization.
Vegan diets are an amazing choice for health, promoting a clean planet, and being mindful of the life of animals farmed for human consumption. Moving to a vegan diet is not only supported by thousands of medical research studies, but it is also endorsed by the United Nations, Oxford University, the USDA Food Guidelines, and the Association of Nutrition and Dietitians. Although it may seem a bit of a hassle to add these six supplements to your plant-based routine, it's important to be a "smart vegan" and make sure you're giving your body everything it needs to function optimally.
I use a multivitamin that has all 8 of these supplements in 3 capsules taken daily (Complement Plus) and no longer have to be concerned that I may be missing an important nutrient class.
About the author: At his core, Dr. Joel Kahn believes that plant-based nutrition is the most powerful source of preventative medicine on the planet. Having practiced traditional cardiology since 1983, it was only after his own commitment to a plant-based vegan diet that he truly began to delve into the realm of non-traditional diagnostic tools, prevention tactics, and nutrition-based recovery protocols.
As with anything you read on the internet, this article should not be construed as medical advice; please talk to your doctor or primary care provider before making any changes to your wellness routine
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