Getting Your Protein
When it comes to the vegan diet, the most important thing that needs to be address is protein consumption. Vegetables have protein which are combinations of many amino acids put together in certain sequences. Unfortunately the absorption of these proteins aren’t as high as animal proteins. Animal protein has high amounts of all essential amino acids whereas vegetables can have varying amounts of essential amino acids. This diminished level may not sustain human protein needs. It is important to eat vegetables in combination to achieve a complete amino acid profile for daily needs. One example, legumes, are low in the amino acid methionine but higher in lysine. The is the opposite relationship that many other vegetables have.
A good rule of thumb is to have legumes, seitan, quinoa, amaranth, pistachios, or pumpkin seeds with vegetables. This will give enough lysine in a vegan diet. When people are low in lysine, they tend to have some hair loss, fatigue, mood changes, anemia, and poor/stunted growth as a child. People with lysine deficiencies also tend to have predispositions to kidney stones, asthma, and infections. Methionine deficiencies are also related to predispositions to kidney stones and is important with other bodily functions. Methionine is particularly important because it is the only essential amino acid that contains sulfur. Sulfur is important nowadays because it is needed in sulfonation in phase 2 detoxification (converting fat soluble toxin into water soluble). There are other pathways in phase 2 detoxification, but phase 2 detoxification is the rate limiting step in the liver when clearing out toxins.
The Importance of Iron
Just like protein, plant-based (non-heme) iron isn’t absorbed as readily as animal-based (heme) iron (1% vs 10% respectively). Iron absorption is dependent on stomach acid (to break down heme-like structures around iron) as well as vitamin C. From my clinic experience Vitamin C is suboptimally low in the vast majority of my patient population. The most important roles of Iron are red blood cell development and as a cofactor in enzymatic reactions. In red blood cells, oxygen binds to iron in the lungs. It is then transported and distributed to cells throughout your body. As far as being a cofactor in enzymatic reactions, there are many reactions in the body that iron is a part of.
One major reaction is the conversion of your thyroid hormones from thyroxine (T4) to triiodothyronine (T3). This is carried out by the enzyme 5’-deiodinase and is selenium, iron, serotonin, and dopamine dependent. The point of these facts are that if you are not consuming or absorbing enough iron in your diet then you may experience a loss of energy. The inadequate iron usage in the body from the previous examples can set up a spectrum of symptoms including low energy ranging from normal to iron deficiency anemia and hypothyroidism. Blood work in necessary to confirm these conditions.
Battle for B12
Another concern with vegan diets is the inability to get vitamin B12 which is only found in animal byproducts. The biggest role for vitamin B12 is the maturation of the red blood cell. Red blood cells come from a large cell made in the bone marrow, called hemocytoblast. Vitamin B12 during that maturation process shrink the red blood cell to the ideal surface area to weight ratio. This maximizes the amount of oxygen that a red blood cell can carry to tissue. Although B12 is an animal byproduct, vegans can get by without eating animal products. This involes taking a B12 supplement (which are derived from animals). When deciding what vitamin B12 supplement to take, look for a reputable company that provides a high-quality supplement that is pure and potent.
The Deal with Omega Fatty Acids
Fat is essential in everyone’s diet, and getting enough fat (oil) in a vegan diet can be an issue as well, but it isn’t as common of an issue. There are two kinds of fat that humans need to consume through diet, because we are unable to make it ourselves, which is omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids. Fat is in seeds, avocados, olives, and many other sources. Ideally, humans should consume a ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids of 1.25:1.
It is common in the US to overconsume omega 6 fatty acids due to overconsumption of animal products, which the majority of animals for food are raised on factory farms. Reason why the omega 6 fatty acid profile is increased in factory farm animals is because they are given a carbohydrate diet consisting of starch (corn), so the animals’ bodies process the carbohydrates and creates a high amount of arachidonic acid. Arachidonic acid is an omega 6 fatty acid, so therefore it is essential, because it is responsible for the inflammation cascade. Humans need inflammation in order to heal injuries, however, too much inflammation is really detrimental and could be the cause of a lot of chronic diseases here in the US. That is why omega 6 fatty acid is considered the bad fat.
The Good Kind of Fat
Omega 3 fatty acids are considered the good fat, and there are some found in vegetables (alpha linoleic acid- ALA). There are two omega 3 fatty acids in particular that aren’t found in vegetables that have tremendous health benefits: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). EPA is generally regarded as anti-inflammatory, while DHA is regarded as important for brain health (the brain is 80% fat, with most of it being DHA). Humans are capable of making EPA and DHA from a ALA, however, the conversion rate from ALA to DHA is <1% (EPA has a slightly higher percentage). EPA and DHA are found in high quantities in fish, so in order to get high amounts of EPA and DHA while being vegan would require supplementation. Like the vitamin B12, find a reputable company that provides a high-quality supplement that is pure and potent.
The Ketogenic Diet
Personally, what I do is essentially a ketogenic diet. The foundation of my diet is plant-based, but I eat high quality animal products with pretty much every meal. What I mean by high quality animal products are eggs from pasture-raised chickens, grass-fed beef/bison/venison, and wild caught fish (salmon, tilapia, and tuna). The point of those high-quality animal products is to make sure I am getting vitamin B12, iron, EPA, and DHA through diet, reducing antibiotic consumption from animal products, and having animal products that have a more anti-inflammatory fatty acid profile. I also take some supplements, and that is to accommodate my personal physiological needs.
Each person is different and has a diet that is ideal for them. It requires experimenting with food, and listening to your body to see what foods you feel better from eating (and avoid foods that make you feel not so great).
About the Author
Dr. Eric Johnson, Doctor of Chiropractic and Diplomate of the American Clinical Board of Nutrition as well as owner of Functional Wellness and Chiropractic Center in Madison, WI, is a functional medicine doctor that identifies root causes of pain and/or dysfunction. His systems-based, not symptoms-based, approach is a comprehensive, holistic approach that helps identify mental, chemical, and physical stressors that are underlying numerous health conditions. If you are in the Madison, Middleton, Verona, Waunakee area and looking to not only feel better, but live better, contact Dr. Eric at (608) 203-9272.
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