Veganism is great for your health, with the overall reduced risk of most cancers, heart disease and diabetes. This information is becoming more and more widespread, and I find myself wondering why everyone isn’t already vegan!
With all of the benefits that come with a healthful vegan diet, it is very possible to live a vegan lifestyle that neglects your health. For example, you could go home and eat the amazing So Delicious Cashew Ice cream for every meal, and you would probably not end up with the most balanced of diets ☺ And the animals need you in fighting shape!
While there is a lot of confusion out there about nutrition in general, and for vegans in particular, with this handy guide I hope you’ll find great ways to manage your whole-health, mostly with whole plant foods– and maybe sometimes with a very well researched vitamin supplement, and the healthy food shopping list found at the bottom of each article in this series. (you can also Jump to Part 2: Protein)
The one supplement all vegans should take…
The hardest nutrient for a vegan to get through diet alone is B12. However, it is not actually any different for omnivores! You see, since animals (including us) don’t make digestible B12, we need to get it from other sources. These days, most people– vegan or otherwise– get their B12 from fortified foods, including animal products, where livestock are intentionally fed B12 supplements– which is just like us taking a vitamin pill or eating nutritional yeast.
See this video for more info: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t3j80WpjM0M
What is B12?
B12 is the pesky B-vitamin not found in the B-Complex. B12 is food for your blood cells and nerves, and without it, or enough of it, your blood cells can’t mature. This means they can’t feed the rest of your body properly or carry oxygen around. B12 also plays a crucial role in producing DNA, which is kind of important.
Where do non-vegans get B12?
Omnivore diets include dairy and meat, which does give them some B12. However, most omnivores don’t eat organ meats these days, like the liver, which is where the largest amounts of B12 accumulate. So, while these animal products do have some accumulation of B12 in the fatty tissues, the absorption rate when ingested by humans is low.
What that means is that the animals that bioaccumulate B12 were themselves fed supplements, or only slowly accumulated whatever B12 they were exposed to in their life– just like us. Interestingly, B12 levels in those animals are so low, that animal by-products can’t even be used for commercial production of B12 supplements! Instead B12 supplements for human and non-human animals, are cultivated by fermenting common sugars, like cane sugar and molasses. Meaning, B12 supplements are typically vegan, and if our friend the cow can get a cow-sized amount of B12 from fermented sugars, so can we!
The concentrations of B12 that exist in animals (like humans!) get stored in fat, which means that we accumulate it and hold onto it until we need it, or it becomes available when we burn fat. Animals don’t produce B12, they bioaccumulate it—which should raise interesting issues about what ELSE they bioaccumulate, because it is a lot! For example, this study shows dangerous levels of pesticide accumulation in grass-fed cattle: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7525218
What did we do before supplements, you ask? Good question. An estimated 2-4% of the US population is B12 deficient, regardless of their veganism, and this low number probably reflects fortified food intake. Without those foods, the numbers would be much higher.
Back in the day, however, before fortified foods and other things, water and soil had plenty of the bacteria (healthy, fermenting, bacteria) that produced B12 naturally. A variety of ways that we live require different approaches to our water and soil– some are good, and some are bad. For example, pesticides reduce these bacteria in the soil and ground water, which causes us to need to treat our water, effectively removing the remaining bacteria.
However, if it weren’t for pesticides, it would still be a great idea to treat our water since many major fatal diseases continue to be spread throughout the world from untreated water. Sanitation methods, like treating our water, and washing the soil off of our produce, is a trade-off: unsanitized and you can maybe get an unpredictable amount of B12, or you can stick to drinking treated water and avoid things like dysentery…I’m sticking with NO dysentery, thanks!
Additionally, some food trends reduce the exposure we have to B12-rich foods, especially in western diets. Fermented foods– not the vinegary pickles you may find on a sandwich, but rather things like sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, and tempeh– may all have decent amounts of B12.
In addition to B12, these fermented foods also help healthy bacteria find its way into your gut (what they call the gut microbiome). This bacteria not only helps digestive comfort (that means being regular) but also increases the absorption rate of most vitamins from your food, and even from supplements.
If you just can’t stomach fermented foods, or you want to shake it up from time to time and still get your B12, there are some plant foods like seaweed and aloe that also contain B12, or assist in absorpton of B12 (nutritional yeast, dried shitake mushrooms, and lion’s mane mushrooms are all sources of B12 too.)
B12 deficiency: Something you DON’T want
Vitamin B12 deficiency causes fatigue, a feeling of pervasive weakness, constipation, loss of appetite, weight loss, and a really intense form of anemia called megaloblastic anemia. Nerve problems, such as numbness and tingling in the hands and feet, can also be associated with B12 deficiency.
Other symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency include problems with balance, depression, confusion, and dementia. Vitamin B12 deficiency can damage the nervous system, which nobody wants, and that means it is especially important to monitor in children and infants who are still developing. I think we can all agree that those are things we all want to avoid.
Below is a list of every health-happy food mentioned in this article. Basically, if you just take this list shopping with you at the grocery store, and eat some of them in one meal and some in other meals, you’ll be happy and well-fed.
Condiments and Oils
Himalayan Pink Salt
Nuts and Seeds
Vegetables (and things treated as a vegetable)
Dried shitake mushrooms
Lion’s mane mushrooms
Dried seaweed (nori sheets, lavar)
Bell peppers, like green peppers
Citrus fruit, like oranges and lemons
Grains (and things treated as grains)
Steel cut oats
Soy milk protein powder
Peanut flour (protein powder)
Plant milk (like rice milk, soy milk, cashew milk, flax milk, and almond milk)