Becoming vegetarian is not something that I would choose, but after working with vegetarians and realizing the issues that they face I decided to write this short essay on how I would implement a dietary plan based on almost no animal products with the exception of eggs and cheese. This is purely from a professional holistic nutrition consultant’s perspective and using a scientific approach and the knowledge and resources that I have available. As for the ethics of consuming animals, I am a nutritionist and a hunter-gatherer. I am against inhumane animal confined feeding operations and conventionally raised meats. I rarely include any of these animal products in my diet. I seek out the most nutritionally dense and sustainable protein sources for myself, my family and those that I work with. I promote an eating for health, omnivorous philosophy by using the resources that our planet provides.
I hunt, fish and garden. I also realize that in spite of my discriminating food choices, I have to supplement to overcome and compensate for the soil deficiencies and modern living toxicity issues. It was probably far easier to be a vegetarian 100 years ago. I truly respect vegetarians and agree with a lot of their reasoning, discipline and ethics. I use my platform to help them with nutritional guidance and offer some other options that may have not been apparent.
Speaking as a holistic nutritionist and having an understanding of the physiology of the multitude of chemical reactions that must take place in the human body, we humans are omnivores and have been omnivores for as long as we have been on the planet. I work with both vegans and vegetarians and I can say that this is an extremely hard way to live. By supplementing with less than ideal nutritional supplements and usually guessing on whether ones genetic blueprint can efficiently convert the plant materials to the bioavailable nutrients.
Essential nutrients : These are the major ones and there are probably more that we don’t yet know about. The below listed supplements are those that I would take on a regular basis in addition to having blood work done twice a year, if I were to be a vegetarian.
B12 seems to be one of the most common deficiencies in the veg world. This should not really be a problem because B12 in methylcobalamin (from bacteria) supplements are inexpensive and easy to take and can also be taken as a shot. Vegetarians need to be especially aware of this and constantly manage and monitor their supplement intake. Without sufficient B12, homocysteine levels can elevate and create a cascade of health problems.
K2 is another important fat soluble nutrient from animals but ironically, the greatest source is from a fermented soybean product called Natto. K2 is necessary to activate the protein that allows intake of calcium into the bones so as not to accumulate in the circulatory system.
Omega 3 (DHA, EPA) – I believe that one of the biggest downfalls of not eating animal products is lack of bioavailable omega 3 (DHA,EPA) essential fatty acids. Plant forms simply do not convert to enough usable omega 3 to be sustainable. Animals truly are our friends in that they process plant material with their highly specialized digestive systems into much more bioavailable nutrients for humans. The human digestive system lacks this amazing capability.
To get to the most powerful form of essential omega 3’s (essential meaning the body cannot produce it and must be obtained from outside the body)you have to go way down to the bottom of the food chain. Even smaller than the smallest fish. Krill are by far the most bioavailable and concentrated sources of DHA/EPA on the planet. However, recent discoveries in algal extraction has shown favorable results. Essential fatty acids are able to be sourced from algae but it seems the jury is still out on how algae derived omega 3 compares to animal based omega 3. See the Dr Axe article here: Algal oil benefits. Also called algae oil. I gather from these articles that DHA from algae seems to be a somewhat sustainable, alternative source that can improve the nutrition of vegetarians. That being said, algae oil supplements are the best (not perfect) alternative for now.
The best source of vitamin D is from the sun. Natural, unprotected sunlight allows the body to produce its own natural vitamin D. Other sources are mostly from animal products like eggs and full fat, pastured animals. Mushrooms are the only plant based source of vitamin D but they have to be exposed to sunlight in order to activate it, and then it is in the less bioavailable D2 form. So, if you don’t eat animals you better get yourself some vitamin D3 supplements and sunlight and eat some sun exposed mushrooms.
This is perhaps the most overlooked missing nutrient in vegetarianism. Vitamin A deficiency lowers immune function and night vision. Vitamin A can be divided into two main categories: retinoids(fat soluble) and carotenoids(water soluble). Retinoids are the bioavailable forms found in animal foods only (eggs, organ meats, cheese). Carotenoids are pre-vitamin A and found mostly in plant based foods. The body’s ability to convert the pre-Vitamin A into its usable form is limited in most individuals. A large part of the population has a hard time converting carotenoids. Factors that further inhibit this conversion are environmental toxins, lifestyle stressors, genetics, digestive issues, etc. We need both retinoids and carotenoids because they work together to fuel different functions. Sufficiency of retinoids should not be a problem if one is consuming pastured eggs and high quality cheeses.
The non-essential amino acid taurine provides many functions in the body such as support of the cardiovascular system and nervous system and development and function of skeletal muscle. Taurine also helps to retain magnesium and potassium inside of cells.
Vegetarians and vegans are more likely to be deficient in this because of intake of little to none of the raw materials needed by the body to produce its own taurine.
Since heme iron is the most bioavailable, those that eat no meat may not fully absorb non-heme iron which leaves them at a deficit. Heme iron actually helps absorb non-heme iron from plants. Both vegans and vegetarians are at an elevated risk for anemia even though they are getting plenty of plant based iron. If you are an adult male or a postmenopausal woman than this may not be a problem. If you are going to take iron supplements try to stay away from ferrous sulfate as this form is reported to be somewhat toxic. A better alternative would be Ferrous Bisglycinate Chelate or carbonyl iron.
Going without meat means possibly not getting some of the sulfur amino acids that is available in most meats and fish. One is especially susceptible to sulfur amino acid deficiency if eating processed grains since the sulfur is processed out. Just like other micronutrients mentioned in this article, sulfur plays a vital role in the processing of proteins and enzymes, detoxification and insulin function within the body. Deficiencies of sulfur can lead to a cascade of illnesses and elevated homocysteine levels. The plants I would include in my vegetarian diet would be: garlic, olive oil, coconut oil, onions, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, and kale. Consuming only these plant based sulfur containing foods could still leave one deficient in sulfur and require supplementation. A good sulfur supplement would be MSM (methylsulfonylmethane). MSM is an organic sulfur and a potent antioxidant. MSM is naturally found in some plants. The supplement form that I recommend is produced from plants.
This quick rundown of some possibly missing nutrients in the vegetarian diet is by no means exhaustive. It simply outlines the most common nutrients that could be deficient and how I would manage my diet if I were in a position of eating no animal products other than eggs and dairy. Supplementation and regular blood testing is a way of using science to our advantage while maintaining optimal health. Supplementation mentioned in this article is available at the NRX dispensary. Here I have put together the list of some of the best supplements that are currently available. At the very least, those on a no meat diet should take a high quality, whole foods based vegetarian multi vitamin. If ordering from this site, simply select the vegetarian category after establishing a login. There is a 15% discount that will automatically go into any order placed here from now until the end of 2017.
Attention Vegetarians! Why not try insects as an alternative form of protein. Insects are a well kept secret and should not be overlooked in any diet. See more details in my article: Eating low on the food chain.
Bottom line: Humans need both animal and plant foods for optimum health.
Gundry, Steven R, MD. (2017). The Plant Paradox. New York, Little, Harper Collins.
Kresser, C. (2013). The Paleo Cure. New York, Little, Brown and Company.
Foos, TM; Wu, JY (2002). “The role of taurine in the central nervous system and the modulation of intracellular calcium homeostasis”. Neurochemical Research. 27 (1–2): 21–6.PMID 11926272. doi:10.1023/A:1014890219513