Nutritional Deficiencies and Essential Considerations for Every Vegan (An Evidence-Based Nutritional Perspective)
Most vegans and non-vegans alike can generally agree that the vegan diet has a few inherent nutritional deficiencies. These conversations commonly revolve around the lack of protein and B12. The defending rebuttal is that vegan foods also supply protein (true), and B12 can be obtained through supplements, tempeh, nori, and fortified foods including brewer’s yeast. As long as one diligently prepares meals with this in mind, key deficiencies can be avoided. However, this is far from addressing the complexity of the deficiencies.
With smart supplementation, planning, and recommended annual testing, B12 levels can be managed.Tweet This!
To begin with, vegan sources of B12 such as seaweed, spirulina and brewer’s yeast contain cobamides which effectively block the intake of true B12. At least there are proactive and well-known actions one can take here, and most vegans know the importance of supplementing with B12 to limit the extent of true B12 deficiency. (Even so, despite B12 being known among vegans as one of the more important nutrients to supplement, the majority of vegans are still deficient. Even those who have levels around 250pg/mL and who would be considered ‘normal' by U.S. standards should know that such guidelines are much outdated, with Japan and Europe marking anything below 500-550pg/mL as low and potentially damaging to long term cognitive functioning).
Still, with smart supplementation, planning, and recommended annual testing, B12 levels can be managed. Much more insidious however are the numerous imbalances that are far less commonly known, as we are about to examine here.
Nutritional Imbalances Associated with the Vegan Diet
We’ll start the conversation with zinc.
The antagonism between zinc and copper is fairly well recognized among those who’ve studied nutrition, yet there are still many who have not grasped the full importance of this relationship.
There is a fundamental premise the reader must first understand before any further meaningful discussion can be had – the interrelationship of minerals. All minerals (and vitamins too for that matter) are dynamically interconnected. As one goes up, others go down, and vice versa. The vegan diet is a high copper low zinc diet.
The best zinc sources are found in meat, and adequate zinc is essential to maintaining copper regulation in the body. Without adequate zinc, copper accumulates, building up in the tissues of the body. Ingesting more copper rich vegan foods then adds to this accumulation of copper. Even long before tissue mineral testing was sufficiently developed to provide the hard evidence of mineral imbalances that we have available to us today, the brilliant doctor Carl Pfeiffer, both an MD and PhD, discusses in his book Mental and Elemental Nutrients: A Physicians Guide to Nutrition and Health Care:
Zinc insufficiency is one of the greatest and least-known dangers of vegetarianism. The individual who does not eat meat must be careful to fulfill the need for zinc adequately, probably through a tablet supplement.
When a vegan’s tissue levels of copper are examined, we invariably will see, through correct interpretation, the aforementioned excess level of stored, bio-unavailable copper, either overtly or latent.
Blood tests, as widely relied on as they are, usually miss seeing this excess because the transport system of the body (blood) has very little correlation to the amount of minerals and toxins stored in the body’s tissues. Blood quickly disposes of excess, even though that excess hasn’t all left the body. This hidden accumulation of bio-unavailable copper then goes on to contribute to a number of health issues, including:
- increasing internal stress on the body,
- weakening the adrenals,
- slowing the thyroid,
- slowing the metabolism,
- congesting the liver, and
- contributing to brain fog, depression, anxiety, candida and other digestive issues,
- and a host of other health concerns as well.
The predisposition to excess copper is one of the most important and far-reaching, yet overlooked, concerns that all vegans should at least have on their radar.
The great majority of vegetarians suffer from long-term copper toxicity. This is true even if all tests indicate a low copper level. The vegetarian’s metabolic rate is too low to cause a proper elimination of copper. ~Dr. Paul Eck
One irony is that, in the short term, people usually feel better converting to a plant only diet. This is in part due to copper’s stimulating effect on the adrenals (which increases energy) and the detoxing effect that plant foods have on the body.
Indeed, the vegetable/vegan based diet is excellent for detoxing the body in the short term. However, this all reverses in the long run.
Excessively stimulated adrenals eventually burn out, and without adequate adrenal (and in turn liver) function, various toxins, metals, and minerals (including copper) accumulate further. It is this issue of copper toxicity that almost no long-term vegan is immune to. Many vegans complain of adrenal fatigue and digestive issues, and copper toxicity due to lack of sufficient dietary meat-based zinc is at the heart of this.
Phytates then add to the problem.
Phytates are found in grains, legumes, nuts and seeds (vegan staples), and they interfere with mineral absorption, specifically zinc, iron, manganese and calcium. (Now, sprouting neutralizes the phytates so an emphasis on sprouted grains, beans and seeds is good, otherwise the phytates will compound the nutritional imbalance).
Though whole grains do provide zinc, necessary to balance copper, the benefits are nulled by these phytates. In fact, phytic acid causes zinc and magnesium to be eliminated. Though this is usually bad, on the surface it provides the vegan with a temporary boost of energy as both zinc and magnesium (in excess) slow metabolism.
However, with the loss of zinc, potassium is lost as well, and together with magnesium loss, contributes to subsequent reduced energy and increased hypoglycemia. This reduced utilization/absorption (and increased elimination) of zinc further allows copper to accumulate. Zinc, the very thing that vegans need to balance their copper, is not only lower in their diet without meat to begin with, but the zinc they do get is poorly absorbed. With inadequate zinc, and the resulting impairment of potassium retention, digestive concerns are compounded.
Dr. Paul Eck, a physician and biochemist who dedicated his life to analyzing mineral levels in the body and balancing body chemistry in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, explains in the book Energy: How it affects your emotions, your level of achievement, and your entire well-being:
Tests reveal that all vegetarians have low potassium levels. A potassium of 10mg% is considered normal. The majority of vegetarians have potassium levels of 2 and 3 – that is 1/3rd to 1/5th of normal. This is despite the fact that vegetables are the richest source of potassium…without the glucocorticoid hormones of the adrenal glands, it is impossible to retain normal potassium levels. Zinc is required to stimulate the production of these hormones. Unfortunately, vegetarians are on a low zinc, high copper diet. They lack the zinc they need to retain potassium in their tissues.
Without adequate potassium, not only does adrenal function weaken and the thyroid slow, but hydrochloric acid secretion in the stomach declines. The lower the HCL, the greater the indigestibility and distaste for animal protein (it becomes more and more intolerable to the person), further solidifying the vegan’s belief that they simply ‘feel better’ eating plant foods. The reduced secretion of HCL and pancreatic enzymes leads to putrefaction of proteins, and meat literally becomes ‘disgusting’ because their body won’t tolerate it.
Low zinc also hinders the manufacture of digestive enzymes.
At the same time, a tendency for apathy and depression increases as a result of the low potassium and low zinc. It no longer matters how much potassium the individual consumes through vegetables and fruit, that potassium is not being retained.
In turn, this leads the person to crave more stimulating foods (sugar and/or copper rich foods (chocolate being a prime example)); to crave high potassium foods (vegetables) to supply the constant requirement for potassium which is not being retained; and to crave stimulating activities (i.e.: running), all of which whip up the adrenal glands temporarily making the person feel more alive. Under the surface though they are exhausting themselves, and copper continues to silently rise while zinc and potassium drop.
(While every vegan should be aware that they need to be adding zinc, it won’t always save the day. Even when taking zinc supplements, if the individual is dealing either with high stress or adrenal weakness, the zinc level can actually drop further, even when supplementing).
In addition to low HCL, other digestive concerns arise, including candida / yeast, poor nutrient absorption, gluten sensitivity, and even leaky gut. Copper, as a natural anti-fungal, assists in the control of candida. Without adequate zinc and a key copper-binding protein called ceruloplasmin, copper accumulates in a bio-unavailable form unable to perform its duties, including that of helping to control candida. This is one example of how one can be copper toxic yet deficient at the same time. The low HCL meanwhile reduces the body’s ability to absorb other key nutrients including calcium and iron, while simultaneously reduced digestive enzyme production allows for an environment more suitable for pathogenic bacteria to flourish.
Plants DO NOT provide true Vitamin-A (retinol)
One of the most important factors that makes copper bioavailable is the aforementioned protein ceruloplasmin (Cp). Cp attaches to copper to make it bioavailable. Vitamin A in retinol form is essential for the production of Cp. Retinol however is animal source Vitamin A; it is not found in plants. Plants do not provide true vitamin A (retinol) – they only provide the vitamin A precursors (i.e.: beta-carotene). The vegan therefore has an inherent retinol deficiency which impairs Cp production which then directly allows bio-unavailable copper to increase even more. Unfortunately FDA labeling regulations allow beta carotene to be labeled as Vitamin A, even though it is not, and leading many to believe they are consuming adequate amounts of true Vitamin A when in fact they are horribly deficient.
Of course, beta-carotene can be converted to retinol, but it will still be at a level deficient compared to that provided by meat.
Beta-carotene is converted to vitamin A in the intestine and liver by an enzyme called BCMO1. Vegans who have normal BCMO1 function will do better at converting beta-carotene to retinol and may fair better on the vegan diet.
However, approximately half the population have BCMO1 polymorphisms that impair (by up 90%!) their beta-carotene conversion! While the meat-eater with one of these polymorphisms will be largely unaffected as they don't need to rely on conversion, the vegan with one of these polymorphisms will be at even far greater risk of low retinol which then in turn impairs Cp production and allows bio-unavailable copper to rise.
Even without the polymorphism issue, the digestive system needs to be highly efficient (which is not the case for most people, and even more so for the vegan with low potassium, zinc, and HCL) in order for proper conversion to take place. The vegan will be at extremely high risk of vitamin A deficiency, regardless of how much beta-carotene they consume. Additionally, low thyroid activity and zinc deficiency (both of which as has been mentioned are common in vegans), and a low fat diet (which limits the amount of bile reaching the intestinal tract and which we'll discuss next) further impair the conversion of plant foods into retinol. (Even for vegetarians who eat dairy and eggs, if they too are poor converters, they will also be prone to low retinol and in turn low Cp).
Sulfur Deficiencies in Vegans
Another key deficiency in the vegan is sulfur, and the sulfur-containing amino acid taurine.
Chances are no one has mentioned the importance of taurine to you, though they should have. Taurine is an amino acid found only in meat (and to a small extent in seaweed). It is essential for the production of bile. We’ve just looked at how the vegan is prone to excess bio-unavailable copper build-up in the body. Bile is the primary method by which this excess copper is removed from the body. Sulfur in general is essential for liver detoxification and the removal of heavy metals from the body. Though sulfur can certainly be found in some vegetables, it’s in its most usable form in meat. The vegan therefore is also predisposed to not only a sulphur deficiency, but also a taurine deficiency, impairing their ability to detox copper and other toxins. All the while their liver is becoming overburdened and their adrenals weakened.
No matter how healthy and pure one tries to live, it is wishful thinking that in this day and age we are not constantly being exposed to toxins – through air, food, and water.
What traditional culture – if any – thrives on a purely vegan diet?
Though you’d be hard-pressed to find a traditional culture that thrived on a purely vegan diet, even if you could, one needs to consider the difference in their lifestyles, environments and stress compared to ours. Not only were soils (and in turn plant foods) far more nutritionally complete in the past, we are also exposed today to hundreds of times more toxins than we were even a hundred years ago. What a person from an ancient culture could easily have detoxed through their body in the past is a very different story from what we in modern society need to be able to detox, amplifying the importance of having sufficient sulfur, taurine, bile production and strong detox pathways.
Contrary to popular belief, even most monks are allowed to, and do, eat meat.
The case for Vegan Monks
But what about those that don’t, wouldn’t they know something the rest of us don’t? Again, as just mentioned above, the lifestyle, environment, and stress of the monk needs to be considered when comparing the health benefit of veganism in their world as compared to ours. Vegan monks typically live a very low stress lifestyle, and receive their food from a very non-toxic environment, often the monastery’s own gardens. There is far less importance on a strong detox system as their toxic load is generally far below what the rest of us have. Stress is the other major factor that MUST be considered when comparing the health effects from diets of different peoples. The vegan monk will be prone to elevated copper and reduced zinc, but the negative mineral effect will be only a fraction of what others might experience.
Stress is the reason.
Stress directly affects mineral levels. Stress increases copper retention and it lowers zinc! The more stress you have in your life therefore, as a vegan, the more prone you will likely be to the negative effects of these mineral imbalances. The vegan monk, living in a pristine, stress-free environment, usually exposed to less pathogens than the rest of us, and practicing meditation daily (a form of stress reduction) is much more able to keep his mineral levels in check.
Stress directly affects mineral levels. Stress increases copper retention and it lowers zinc!Tweet This!
Another consideration that comes up when discussing what might have worked for cultures in the past is our metabolic evolution.
And what does Metabolic Evolution have to do with it?
Most people even 100 years ago were fast metabolizers (one of two ‘oxidation types’ – a term coined by Dr. George Watson, Ph.D. in the 1970s) with lower copper and calcium relative to higher sodium and potassium. With that kind of a mineral profile, their bodies would more easily allow for a higher copper diet.
Today however, roughly 80% of the population is the reverse – slow metabolizers/oxidizers, with people having higher tissue copper and calcium relative to lower sodium and potassium. For this large subgroup, the vegan diet is only worsening their mineral profile by raising copper and lowering potassium further. (The irony here is that, while the mineral content of the vegan diet exacerbates slow metabolism, the high fat content of meat restricts the vegan from wanting to eat meat since the fat further slows metabolism and it will only make them feel worse). Now, for the other roughly 20% of people, who naturally have a faster metabolic profile, by far the minority, they are more easily able to handle the vegan diet.
Next, there’s the issue of iron.
The Risk of Iron Deficiency in the Vegan Diet
Heme-iron (the most absorbable form) is found only in meat, fish and poultry, while non-heme iron is found in plants, grains, legumes, and vegetables. The latter is poorly absorbed (roughly 5% absorption as compared to roughly 20% absorption from meat sources), and that can lead to potential iron deficiency and iron deficiency anemia. As copper increases without adequate zinc and without adequate ceruloplasmin (which typically declines as the adrenals become exhausted), copper builds up in a bio-unavailable form as we’ve already explained, unable to perform its functions. One of these functions is to make hemeprotein (important for oxygen transport and electron transport).
The vegan inherently has excess bio-unavailable copper combined with heme iron deficiency. You can have all the copper in the world, but if the copper is bio-unavailable, then iron cannot attach to the heme molecule. Premenopausal women who lose iron each month through blood are at even higher risk of this. By regulating the copper level we can in turn begin to improve the absorption and utilization of iron.
The Nutritional Imbalance Due to the Effects of Estrogen
While these are all considerations that should be on the radar of both the male and female vegan, women are further predisposed to nutritional imbalance due to the effects of estrogen. Anything that raises estrogen increases the retention of copper which, in the vegan as we know, is already high. Women are therefore at the highest risk of these potential copper-related health issues. However men too are impacted by the effect of estrogen, especially phytoestrogens. The vegan, male or female, relies on a lot of soy-based product.
Soy, in any form, contains phytoestrogens. Phytoestrogens mimic estrogen in the body, further increasing copper, in turn lowering zinc, affecting digestive and adrenal health, the liver, the elimination of toxins; and simply exacerbating a vicious cycle.
There are other deficiencies too, among them creatine, carnosine, and DHA.
DHA is necessary for normal brain function and heart health, and is usually found in fish and krill. It can also be converted from the ALA in some seeds and nuts, though the conversion is poor (typically less than 5%).
In fact, when two of the founders of veganism (who later suffered from Parkinson’s Disease) died, their DHA was tested and it was zero. Coincidence?
Perhaps. But why risk your health, at least get your levels tested. The vegan diet is also low in choline (essential for brain health, neurotransmitter synthesis and methylation). For some, the plant diet will give them enough choline, but for many, especially postmenopausal women, expectant mothers, men, and those with PEMT gene polymorphism (common), the low choline (vegan) diet will put them at greater risk of developing organ dysfunction, fatty liver disease, heart disease, or cognitive problems.
Believing the Dogma or Doing Your Own Due Diligence when it comes to Veganism
It’s so important when choosing and designing your diet that you understand these concepts.
Of course there are some people who do well on the vegan diet and in some cases argue it is a diet for all to embrace, however one must be very careful in promoting one’s own experience as an ideology for all to adopt. We are all bio-individually unique, with our own unique mineral profiles. While a vegan with a faster metabolic rate, no polymorphisms, low stress, intelligent dietary planning, and a healthy gut microbiome can do well on the vegan diet, many others will eventually suffer on the same diet.
What does apply to everyone however is the interrelationship of minerals, and the inherent nutritional deficiencies of the vegan diet if one is not very careful.
Furthermore, the mineral patterns of excess copper, slow thyroid, and adrenal fatigue / insufficiency in the long term vegan becomes very clear when evidenced through HTMA (Hair Tissue Mineral Analysis) data.
As long as doctors (and studies) rely on blood results to assess mineral status or adrenal strength (adrenal fatigue being a concept not even acknowledged in allopathic medicine), most of these imbalances will remain off the radar, and myths about what constitutes a “healthy diet” will persist. Millions of HTMA test results and countless case studies over 40 years of testing show distinct metabolic patterns, and, though there will always be exceptions, the typical long term vegan will in the majority of cases show lowered sodium and potassium (weakened adrenals and digestion), higher ratios of calcium to potassium (sluggish thyroid), and elevated excess tissue copper (though sometimes hidden due to the weakened adrenal activity). Looking at the stored mineral levels in the body’s cells and tissues reflects a new paradigm that allows us to truly come to understand the effects our dietary and lifestyle choices have on us.
There is a predisposition in this country to kinds of virtuous extremes, and I lived this life myself. I was a vegan, I was a vegetarian, I was non-fat, I was low-fat, I was anorexic, in short I thought that if animal foods would kill you and fats would kill you, the less the better and zero must be ideal. This is obviously nonsensical thinking. It's black its white. It's rigid. It's extreme. And it's not virtuous… Little by little I started to eat these foods (traditional – meat, poultry, raw milk, etc) again and in time came back to being a moderate omnivore, a conscientious carnivore, a traditional foods person, and restored my health along the way… in short I was a sickly person with a big personality and I had no idea that my virtuous diets were making me sick until little by little I added traditional foods back. ~Nina Planck (Food Writer)
It's not just Vegans… omnivores are unhealthy too
As much as we want to believe the vegan way is being kind to our body and the planet, there is sufficient evidence to suggest otherwise, especially when we’re able to view health status through a person’s mineral profile. This is not to say that eating meat is free from harm, it is not, and there are certainly many unhealthy omnivores.
While some studies show that vegans and vegetarians are ‘healthier’ and have lower risks of heart disease (and other conditions), is it really the abstinence from meat that causes this, or something else?
Vegans/vegetarians appear healthier certainly in part because they tend to care the most about their bodies and what they consume. They are by far the most diligent (usually) in choosing the foods they eat, thereby also avoiding a lot of the crap and excesses that other people eat, and this is certainly to their benefit. However to say that good health results from not eating meat is misconstrued.
Until doctors and those publishing medical studies begin to analyze the body’s mineral system as reflected through HTMA data, there will remain a disconnect between medicine/health conditions and the role mineral imbalance plays. When we’re able to view the biochemical makeup of the individual at the cellular and tissue level, examining and seeing the true mineral and nutrient balances in the body, it becomes easier to understand that the vegan diet is not based on human physiology. Rather, veganism is an ideology founded as recently as the 1940s, with very little historical basis. Even in terms of environmental sustainability, veganism falls short, creating a planet less sustainable than a 20% to 40% omnivorous diet, according to this study .
As stated at the outset, the tone of this article is not to attack the dietary choice of the vegan or vegetarian.
Rather, respecting their choice, this information is given to provide empowerment through knowledge, much of which is not widely taught or talked about.
For those that choose this diet, at least with the information provided above, the reader can now begin to take measures that can limit some of these nutritional imbalances, though some concessions may be needed. The reader will also be better able to navigate through much of the misguided information that pervades the Internet today insisting that vegan nutritional deficiencies are a myth. Resisting evidence to the contrary that deficiencies don’t exist only clouds the greater understanding and blocks answers that many of those who are suffering are seeking and desperately need.
Rather, let’s open the dialogue to promoting greater nutritional education, not pitting the beliefs of vegans against carnists or vice versa, but one that ultimately serves all those with the common goal of living one’s healthiest life.
It is about finding a healthy balance.
While for some the vegan diet works, success is really dependent on one’s individual biochemical makeup. For the large numbers of vegans worldwide who are experiencing lowered energy / adrenal fatigue, depression, sluggish thyroid, digestive issues, or worse, it would be worthwhile to examine your mineral levels through an HTMA test to gain a clearer understanding of your nutrient deficiencies and excesses. Even proactively, doing so can be an essential first step in understanding what is written here and restoring a healthier biochemical balance that will pay dividends in health later in life.
Let’s open the dialogue to promoting greater nutritional education, not pitting the beliefs of vegans against carnists or vice versaTweet This!
What is a HTMA Test?
HTMA is an acronym for Hair Tissue Mineral Analysis.
HTMA is a safe and non-invasive pathology test. It measures the levels and comparative ratios of nutrient and toxic minerals found in hair. HTMA is regarded by many doctors, naturopaths and nutritional therapists as one of the most valuable screening tools available in everyday and preventative health care.
Interested in getting your own HTMA test done? Google HTMA tests to find a local practitioner in your area.
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[toggle title=”References” state=”open”]
Chatsworth C, (1985) Energy: How it Affects Your Emotions, Your Level of Achievement, and Your Entire Personal Well-being: Healthview
Pfeiffer, C, (1975) Mental and Elemental Nutrients: A Physician's Guide to Nutrition and Health Care: Keats Publishing Inc
 Goodman, Mark, et al. Are U.S. lower normal B-12 limits too low? Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, Vol. 44, No. 10, October 1996, pp. 1274-75