Nutritional Considerations for a Plant-Based, Supplemental Diet
As the popularity of alternative methods for fueling the body increases globally, both the plant-based meat substitute and nutritional supplement industries are projected to grow significantly as well. And while both a plant-based diet and nutritional supplements are perceived as – and in theory, are –beneficial to health, there are a number of considerations one needs to account for when practicing a plant-based or vegan diet, or regularly taking nutritional supplements.
There are definitely arguments to be made for both the plant-based diet and, in some instances, nutritional supplements. However, you will serve your body best — and vice versa — by deriving the majority of your vitamins and minerals from natural, raw and ideally, live (probiotic) sources.
While the vegetarian and vegan diets have been highly publicized in the media for some time, the term “plant-based” has spread like wildfire with the public and among the media recently. Maybe because of its meteoric rise, there is still no clear definition as to what exactly constitutes a “plant-based” diet. This leaves the term largely open to individual interpretation. For example, a large percentage of the public doesn’t necessarily believe plant-based means vegetarian, many health professionals included.
The above-linked article from Men’s Health contains polling data from the International Food Information Council Foundation, which found 30 percent of respondents “defined a “plant-based diet” as a diet that emphasizes minimally processed foods derived from plants and limits the consumption of animal products.”
Though this survey was among the general public, rather than exclusively those that consider themselves practitioners of a “plant-based” diet, and a higher percentage of respondents do believe the plant-based diet to be equal to a strict vegan diet (32%), it illustrates the murkiness surrounding the term, and the likely, soon-to-be reality of plant-based meats.
Most likely because of the ambiguousness of the dietary guidelines, consumers’ rationale for adopting the diet is just as varied. Much like the rationale for vegan or vegetarianism, it seems the driving force for the diet is animal welfare (i.e., humane treatment, reduction of factory farming, etc.) followed by environmental benefits. A lot of the consumers surveyed see plant-based products as a way to cut down their meat intake, and the far-reaching secondary effects of their consumption.
Obviously, health is also a factor, but doesn’t seem to be as large a consideration as I used to think. And while the conservation of the natural world is something near and dear to my heart, my fear is that by placing so much importance on reducing their environmental footprint, individuals may not be deploying eating habitats that maximize their own personal health.
If you participate in a plant-based diet, I only hope you’ve done some research to determine which nutrients that come primarily only from meat or dairy could be lacking in your diet. Additionally, you could be overlooking the effects alternative sources of protein and other fortified foods have on your body in general, and your digestion in particular.
You’ve no doubt heard of the Impossible Burger or Beyond Meat’s faux-chicken and meatball products by now. But for those who have been living under a rock for the past while, these meat substitutes are plant-based products that use vegetable protein like soy, or pea proteins to replicate animal protein. While plant-based meat substitute products have been available in supermarkets for some time, recently they’ve been making headlines for finding their way onto fast food restaurant menus, like the Impossible Whopper at Burger King, or McDonald’s PLT (plant, lettuce and tomato).
Even though consumers’ primary motivation for trying these products has seemingly more to do with environmental considerations than health, whether these products are actually more healthy than meat has been a hotly-debated issue as consumer interest in them has picked up.
Many proponents of these plant-based meat substitutes suggest that they are at least as healthy as their animal equivalent, and often are quick to point out that health is not the primary consideration for most consumers in the first place. Opponents have argued that plant-based protein isolates and concentrates they contain, which are derived from soy or peas, are actually more processed than a natural beef patty, and will have ramifications on health.
Red meat consumption has repeatedly been linked to increased risk of colon cancer, high blood pressure and heart disease. However, when consumed sparingly, a grass-fed, organic beef patty on a gluten-free bun will provide you nutrients that you can only get from red meat, or at least are of higher quality than the fortified versions found in plant-based substitutes or nutritional supplements.
For example, the iron found in meat (especially red meat) is more readily absorbed than the kind found in plant foods, known as non-heme iron (interestingly, heme is an ingredient in the Impossible Burger, and what the company claims “gives it a crave-able taste”). The absorption of non-heme iron can be enhanced by vitamin C and other acids found in fruits and vegetables common to a vegan diet, but may be inhibited by the phytic acid in whole grains, beans, lentils, seeds, and nuts (all common foods for vegans).
Another example of the inefficiency of the body to digest plant-based nutrients can been seen in the uptake of omega-3 fatty acids. The Mayo clinic suggests the conversion of which “to the types used by humans is inefficient.”
Tofu, almond or soy milk, and soy and pea protein isolate are among the most popular sources of animal-protein replacements for vegans and vegetarians. All of which go through some process of extracting, purifying and manipulating proteins, carbohydrates and fats. When this processing occurs, the plant cells are broken down, and the original, biological structures of those cells are transformed and no longer respond the same way in our bodies.
In these refined food products, the structures that exist to slow down digestion, such as fiber, have been removed. As a result, our bodies consume the energy of the food much quicker and easier, spiking our insulin, which leads to inflammation, and can cause the onset of diabetes. For context, consider brown rice. When the outer layer (the bran) is polished to make white rice, the carbohydrates are digested much quicker, and they transform from a complex carbohydrate to a simple one.
Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods both list the ingredients in each of its products on their respective websites. Besides just the protein substitutes themselves being synthetically produced, both burgers contain some form of modified food starch. Sugar and flour are starches, and just like plant-based protein isolates, the refined versions have a high glycemic index with no nutrients or fiber. This causes insulin production to spike, and leads to chronic inflammation (triglyceride buildup) in joints.
Both burgers also contain an absurd amount of sodium, which comes from the ingredient iodized salt. Typically, salt is added to packaged foods as a preservative to prolong shelf life. Too much sodium causes cells in the body to retain fluid and results in swelling, effecting the nerves roots and ultimately leading to pain, discomfort, bloating, high blood pressure and unnecessary stress on the heart.
On paper, the Beyond burger appears to have a slight edge as the healthier choice between the two. Beyond Meat touts the use of non-GMO crops in its proteins, and seems to get a lot of its flavors and vitamins from fruit juice extracts. By comparison, the bottom half of the Impossible burger’s ingredient list look like the back of a multi-vitamin bottle — Mixed Tocopherols (Vitamin E), Zinc Gluconate, Thiamine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B1), Sodium Ascorbate (Vitamin C), Niacin, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B6), Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Vitamin B12).
I want to point out here that packaged food and supplements that list nutrients individually, such as vitamin C, or use chemical names like ascorbic acid, are fortified vitamins and minerals, and almost always synthetic. These low quality vitamins and minerals have an even lower mechanisms for uptake and digestion by the body than organically occurring nutrients.
As shown above, this finding can be exemplified in the Impossible Burger, which contains fortified Vitamin C, E, and an assortment of B vitamins. And while it may be necessary for vegans to get their B12 from fortified sources since it really only occurs naturally in meat, research has shown that the body absorbs natural vitamin E twice as efficiently as synthetic vitamin E.
However, the Beyond burger also has its share of refined “non-GMO” ingredients, including refined coconut oil, rice protein and potato starch. Again, let it be noted that refined carbohydrates and starches like potatoes, white rice, and white-flour products cause a rapid rise in blood sugar, which increases the risk of heart attack and diabetes (a risk factor for heart disease).
When researching for this article, I came across this quote from Michael Rogers, food scientist at the University of Guelph, voicing his opinion on plant-based meat substitute products:
“We’ve created a whole new form of malnutrition that, from an evolutionary perspective, didn’t exist until a hundred years ago. There is no anthropological evidence to suggest Type 2 diabetes. There’s no anthropological evidence that suggests that diseases like metabolic syndrome even existed a hundred years ago. And that is a direct consequence of the ultra-processing of our foods.”
He did go on to mention that having processed food in your diet, as long as it’s in moderation, isn’t entirely bad. Which also seemed to be the consensus among many of the experts interviewed in various articles. The healthiest thing you can do as either a meat-eater or a vegan/vegetarian, is to consume any of these products in moderation.
However, what’s concerning is that its been found more than 50 percent of Americans’ calories come from ultra-processed foods. “Ultra processed” foods, as defined by the University of São Paulo and Tufts University, are:
“Formulations of several ingredients which, besides salt, sugar, oils, and fats, include food substances not used in culinary preparations, in particular, flavors, colors, sweeteners, emulsifiers and other additives used to imitate sensorial qualities of unprocessed or minimally processed foods and their culinary preparations or to disguise undesirable qualities of the final product.”
And while I know in general, vegans and vegetarians have more sense than to eat an Impossible Whopper on a daily basis, much of the same refining is used in other packaged and processed veg-friendly foods as well.
Soy byproducts are found in the vast majority of packaged food lauded as being “vegetarian”. And non-GMO or not, these ingredients have been refined, altering the mechanism your body uses to break them down.
Additionally, regardless of how it is derived and processed, there is mounting research to suggest the negative effects too much soy can have on the endocrine system. Because soy contains isoflavones — a type of phytoestrogren that mimics the effect of estrogen on the body, overconsumption has the potential to disrupt estrogen-sensitive systems in your body, including the reproductive system (which includes the brain, the pituitary gland and the reproductive organs).
In a nutshell, as Jeffery Blumberg, Ph.D., Research Professor at Tufts University, put it:
“It is worth keeping in mind that many plant-based ‘meat’ and ‘dairy’ products as well as refined grains are highly processed foods that may contribute to agricultural sustainability but not necessarily to personal health.”
Clearly, a diet consisting of whole, raw and live foods is the best approach to take for dietary health. Beyond that, you will serve your body best to heed the age-old adage, “everything in moderation.”
Below are some recommendations for getting the vitamins, minerals, oils and fats your body needs, with suggestions broken down with respect to several different dietary restrictions. The list is laid out as a hierarchy, starting with the strictest diet (vegan) at the top. As the list progresses, additional food recommendations are added as they begin to be accepted by less confined dietary guidelines.
Recommendations for getting suggested DV of nutrients for a strict plant-based or vegan diet
Vegan nutrient deficiency cure-all: Avocado
- My favorite fruit, and possibly favorite individual food, just based on taste alone, never-mind the multitude of health benefits. Avocados are considered a superfood, loaded with vitamin K, vitamin C and various B vitamins, and minerals like magnesium and potassium (one serving contains more than a banana). Avocados differ from most other fruits as they contain no sugar, while still containing a large amount of fiber to slow insulin secretion. They are also high in good, monounsaturated fatty acids.
- Critical for energy production and explosive grow of muscle cells, especially after physical energy expenditure, and essential for testosterone production in males
- Activates the mitochondria in muscles and the brain, which are the powerhouses of the body’s cell. Replicates the feelings of strength gained after consuming animal protein.
- Take intermittently (six weeks on, two weeks off) combined with exercise to ensure activation and expenditure. If only taking one dose per day, it should ideally be taken 30 minutes before workout or most physically strenuous activity of the day
- Legumes, including beans, peas and lentils
- Soy — tempeh, natto (both fermented soybean products) and tofu
also good sources of calcium, phosphorus and magnesium and generally contain 10–20g of protein per serving
- Veggies and leafy greens
- Spinach, kale, broccoli, cabbage, tomatoes and Brussels sprouts
- Since they contain non-heme iron only, try veggies and leafy greens with high vitamin c content to assist with uptake
Omega-3 and other good fatty acids
- Diets that include no fish or eggs are low in EPA and DHA. Our bodies can convert ALA in plant foods to EPA and DHA, but not very efficiently. Vegans can get DHA from algae supplements, which increase blood levels of DHA as well as EPA (by a process called retroversion)
- Try chia seeds, flaxseed, walnuts or hemp seeds. All of which are heart-protective, have a low glycemic index and also contain many antioxidants, vegetable protein, fiber and minerals
- You may also want to consider taking a vitamin D supplement
- Although green leafy vegetables contain some vitamin K, vegans may also need to rely on fortified foods, including some types of rice or soy milk, organic orange juice or organic breakfast cereals.
- Unfortunately B12 only comes from animal products, including dairy and eggs, so vegans will need to supplement it somehow to avoid deficiency, which can cause neurological problems and pernicious anemia. Try an occasional non-GMO soy or rice beverage, organic breakfast cereals (fortified) or a vitamin B12 supplement
Zinc (Important for male reproductive health)
- Legumes, seeds and nuts
- Leafy greens like kale and spinach (40% recommended daily intake [RDI] per serving)
- Legumes, particularly black beans (30% RDI)
- Nuts (specifically Brazil nuts, cashews and almonds) and seeds including pumpkin (37% RDI)
- Dark chocolate (16% RDI)
- Raw Apple Cider Vinegar (ACV), purple onion, tomato
Heart health support
- Avocados. I thought it was worth reiterating here. Regular consumption can improve heart disease risk factors by lowering “bad” LDL, total cholesterol and blood triglyceride levels, and increasing “good” HDL cholesterol.
- For heart protection, choose high-fiber whole grains and legumes, which are digested slowly and have a low glycemic index — that is, they help keep blood sugar levels steady. Soluble fiber also helps reduce cholesterol levels.
Recommendations for Lacto-ovo vegetarians
Protein and vitamin D
- Whole eggs — The protein in an egg is found in the white; the fat, vitamins and minerals are found mostly in the yolk. Pasture-raised chickens that roam outside in the sunlight produce eggs with levels 3–4 times higher than those raised indoors
- Cow’s milk
- Unpasteurized goat milk or goat cheese, or yogurt homemade from cow’s milk (unpasteurized)
- Milk and dairy products like swiss cheese and full-fat, plain yogurt — Studies have shown that the body absorbs the vitamin B12 in milk and dairy products better than the vitamin B12 in beef, fish or eggs
Omega-3 and other fatty acids
- Eggs (Fertile, not fully cooked, if possible)
Additional recommendations for meat eaters
Fish (mackerel, salmon, oysters)
- Omega-3 and other fatty acids
- B vitamins
Beef (grass-fed, finished)
- B vitamins (B3 [niacin], B6, B12)