Hi my peach,
This is the second of a two part series all about the nutrients that plant based eaters need to be mindful of. We can get most of the nutrients that the bod needs directly from the plants we eat, we just have to make sure we’re eating a wide range of whole plant foods on the daily. We also have to take a B12 supplement like I talked about last week.
Wake up – check
Take B12 – check
Eat lots of different plants – check
Move your bod – check
Be nice to people – check
Deal with hard life shit – check
Enjoy happy life shit – check
Kick ass – check
Go to bed – check
No need to over-complicate it. Now let’s jump back on the food bus (kind of like the school bus but WAY better).
When you avoid meat, dairy and processed food, it’s easy to eat a wide variety of whole plant foods because every single meal and snack is made up of various plant foods. As a bonus, when you stop eating animal based foods and processed foods, you avoid the saturated fat, cholesterol, hormones, trans fats, antibiotics, sugar, artificial ingredients and other gunk that work against your health instead of for it.
As another bonus, when you fill up on plants, not only do you get an awesome dose of fiber each day, you also get an abundance of phytochemicals that protect your cells and can even repair damaged cells.
Eating for your health is all about eating lots of whole plant foods. Now, there are a few important nutrients that even a super healthy plant based diet isn’t naturally high in. If you eat nothin’ but plants, like me and so many others, you should be aware of these nutrients and where to get them. There’s nothing sexier than a clued up plant eater.
Last week I schooled you on vitamin B12, vitamin D and calcium. This week I’m covering iron, DHA/EPA and iodine.
Okay – let’s talk nutrients.
USA Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA):
10mg a day for adult men, 18mg a day for menstruating women and 8mg a day for women over 50. No one should exceed 45mg a day.
Why it’s important:
Iron is an essential mineral that helps transport oxygen throughout the body.
The best plant based sources:
- Sesame seeds: 1 oz = 4.2 mg (a bit less than 1/4 cup)
- Blackstrap molasses: 2 tablespoons = 3.8mg
- Lentils: 1/2 cup cooked = 3.3mg
- Spinach: 1/2 cup cooked = 3.2mg
- Asparagus: 1 cup = 2.8mg
- Mushrooms, white button: 1 cup cooked = 2.7mg
- Black beans: 1/2 cup cooked = 2.6mg
- Garbanzo beans: 1/2 cup cooked = 2.4mg
- Pinto beans: 1/2 cup cooked = 2.2mg
- Pumpkin seeds: 1 cup = 2.1mg
(These aren’t the only foods that have iron, these are just the ones with the most iron. Most all plant foods have some iron, legumes of all varieties have the most)
- Plant based eaters are not more prone to iron deficiency anemia than meat eaters. It’s just as common for people who eat meat to be iron deficient as it is for plant based eaters.
- Non-heme iron is the iron found in plants. Heme iron is the iron found in animals. Non-heme iron is the best choice for iron because it’s self regulating. Meaning, if we need more iron, the body will absorb more and if we’re cool in the iron department, the body will absorb less. This is important because excess iron may increase risk of metabolic syndrome, stroke, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, arthritis, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancers. When heme iron is consumed, the body does not self regulate and excess iron can easily build up.
- Vitamin C helps increase non-heme iron absorption by A LOT, so if your iron levels are low and you already eat lots of iron-rich plant foods, include foods that are high in vitamin C alongside your non-heme-iron-rich meals. Oranges, kiwis, grapefruit, papaya, strawberries, broccoli, green leafy veggies and red peppers are all super high in vitamin C.
- The essential amino acid, lysine also helps increase non-heme iron absorption. Lysine is found in legumes (peanuts, beans, lentils and peas) and quinoa. Most healthy plant based eaters eat plenty of legumes and quinoa, but if you’re not eating different legumes every single day and eating quinoa regularly, you should up your intake of these foods.
- Calcium supplements, dairy, coffee, black tea and green tea inhibit iron absorption, so avoid these during your meals.
- There are three stages of iron deficiency. The first is iron depletion. This is when your iron is low but you don’t feel any differently. The second stage is iron deficiency. If you’re iron deficient, you might feel tired and you might be sensitive to cold. The third stage is iron deficiency anemia. If you have iron deficiency anemia, you will likely experience exhaustion, headaches, feel lethargic and feel irritable. If you have iron deficiency anemia and you eat plant based, your doctor may tell you that you should start to eat meat. This isn’t necessary. There are other ways to get your iron levels up. Jack Norris, plant based advocate and registered dietitian recommends taking 100mg of vitamin C tablets with two plant based meals a day rich in iron for 60 days and getting your iron levels checked after that. You would need to avoid coffee and tea with those meals because as discussed, those items limit iron absorption.
How I get my Iron:
I eat a wide variety of whole plant foods every single day at every single meal and snack. I’m sure to include lots of the iron-rich plant foods listed above. I never drink coffee and I don’t drink tea with meals. Last time I was tested, my iron was low so I started adding a few slices of orange and grapefruit with my meals. I’ve always had a ton of energy, even when my iron levels tested low, so I’m not too concerned.
I will go back to the doctor later this year and have my levels checked again.
OMEGA-3 FATTY ACIDS DHA / EPA
USA Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA):
There is no RDA for omega-3 fatty acids, however, Dr. Greger recommends taking 250mg a day of algae derived long-chain omega-3’s EPA and DHA for brain function and preservation.
Why these fats are important:
Long chain omega-3 fats, DHA and EPA used to be touted for being important for heart health, but more recent studies show that this doesn’t hold up and that they do not protect from heart disease. They DO however play an important role in overall brain health. Those with adequate levels of DHA and EPA have less shrinkage in the brain as they age.
The best plant based source:
Algae derived supplements
Omega-3 Fatty Acid Notes:
- There are two types of essential fatty acids that the body needs but cannot manufacture on its own; omega-3 and omega-6. The most common omega-3 fatty acid is alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and the most common omega-6 fatty acid is linoleic acid (LA). If you eat a tablespoon or two of chia seeds, hemp seeds and/ or ground flax seeds on a daily basis, you should be set in the ALA and the LA department.
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is a short chain fatty acid found in plant foods, like flax seeds, chia seeds and walnuts. The body has the ability to turn ALA into DHA and EPA, the long chain fatty acids that you get from fish. The problem is, it’s not clear whether or not the body can make enough DHA / EPA from ALA. That’s why Dr. Greger and other doctors and registered dietitians recommend taking a daily DHA / EPA supplement.
- Fish don’t actually make EPA and DHA; they’re made by micro-algae in the ocean. Fish eventually wind up with this fat in their system because they eat smaller fish who grub on micro-algae. So it’s true that fish contains beneficial DHA and EPA, but fish also contains dangerous pollutants and heavy metals from the polluted oceans. These pollutants bring on a whole new layer of health concerns, so it’s best to skip the fish and the fish oil and make sure you get plenty of healthy ALA fats in your diet that can be turned into DHA / EPA and / or take a DHA / EPA supplement to be on the safe side. If you do take a supplement, you should still eat flax seeds, chia seeds and hemp seeds regularly.
- Two thirds of plant based eaters fall short of the recommended omega 3 index of 4.4% (a measure of EPA and DHA levels). Having less than 4% is associated with accelerated brain aging. Omnivores will also benefit from taking a DHA / EPA supplement because their levels are often low as well.
- Diets that are high in omega-6 fatty acids can suppress the body’s ability to convert omega-3 fatty acid into DHA / EPA. Safflower oil, corn oil and soybean oil all have high levels of omega-6. These are the most common oils used in junk food and processed food. Staying away from these oils will help your body synthesize its own DHA / EPA. We do need omega 6 fatty acids, but not nearly as much as most people get. A good ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is between 1:1 and 4:1 (most people eating the Standard American Diet have ratios of 25:1!). If you follow a healthy plant based diet, avoid oil and eat a variety of nuts and seeds, your ratios of omega-6 to omega-3 should be fine.
How I get my DHA / EPA:
I add 1 tablespoon of ALA-rich ground flax seeds or chia seeds to my green smoothie each morning and I avoid all processed oils (rich in omega-6). I’ve been considering taking an algae derived DHA / EPA supplement for a while.
Some professionals within the whole food plant based community highly recommend it and some don’t think it’s necessary, so I’ve been on the fence about it. I trust Dr. Greger’s recommendations because he bases them on the most up to date science, so I will likely start taking an algae based DHA / EPA supplement soon. Actually, I think I’ll pick one up this weekend.
USA Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA):
150mcg (note, that’s microgram not milligram). No more than 1,000mcg a day.
Why it’s important:
Iodine is an important mineral for healthy thyroid function.
The best plant based sources:
- A small serving of dulse, wakame or nori seaweed a few times a week.
- 75mcg iodine supplement several times a week.
- 1/4 teaspoon of iodized sea salt on your food throughout the day (this isn’t the best option, especially if you have high blood pressure or have an increased risk for heart disease).
(choose one of these methods, not all)
- Cruciferous veggies when eaten raw, like broccoli, cabbage, kale and collard greens have something called goitrogenic compounds which can interfere with thyroid function in people with low iodine intake. That doesn’t mean we should avoid these super healthy foods, it just means that we need to make sure to get enough iodine. You can also cook cruciferous veggies to avoid the goitrogenic compounds because the enzyme that releases these compounds is deactivated during cooking.
- Iodine isn’t found a lot in plant foods because iodine levels in soil are low. Seaweed is the only reliable plant food that has naturally occurring iodine. This is probably why most plant based eaters in the U.S. are deficient in iodine – not a lot of people here in the U.S. make it a practice to eat seaweed.
- It’s important to get the daily requirement of iodine, but too much can be as harmful as too little. There are lots of different types of seaweeds and they all have different levels of iodine. Kelp and kombu are both so high in iodine that it’s actually better to avoid them. Wakame, nori and dulse have safe levels, so stick with these if you want to get your iodine from food instead of a supplement or iodized salt.
- It’s unclear whether or not dried kombu in a pot of beans or grains when cooking poses a risk for iodine toxicity. I still do this from time to time. One thing you can do is boil the kombu for about 10 minutes before you add it to your beans or grains. Boiling the kombu will release some of the iodine. Eden brand adds kombu to their canned beans, but iodine levels are within a safe range in all of their products.
- The seaweed hijiki has been shown to have high levels of arsenic, so it’s best to avoid it.
- Iodine is found in dairy products because iodine solutions are used to clean dairy equipment and cow boobs and the iodine-rich solution actually ends up in the milk. #prettyyucky
How I get my Iodine:
I sprinkle dulse on my food or I eat nori or wakame a couple times a week. My thyroid function has always been normal.
Let’s land this baby with a simple recap. To thrive on a healthy plant based diet and get all of the protective health benefits from eating this way, make sure you do the following:
- Eat a wide range of whole plant foods on the daily. This means lots of veggies, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds.
- Take a B12 supplement.
- Make sure you get out in the sun every single day for 15 minutes with arms and legs exposed or take a vitamin D supplement.
- Make sure you’re eating lots of calcium-rich plant foods.
- Make sure you eat lots of iron-rich plant foods, alongside foods that are rich in vitamin C.
- Eat 1 tablespoon of flax seeds or chia seeds a day and consider supplementing with 250mg of algae based DHA / EPA.
- Incorporate dulse, nori or wakame into your diet a few times a week to get enough iodine, but not too much.
- Sign up for my weekly Plant Fueled Meal Plans to ensure a constant yummy mix and variety of whole plant foods, rich in nutrients and fiber.
- Be prepared to THRIVE, baby THRIVE!
Eating a healthy plant based diet is one of the best things you can do for your short term and your long term health. If you’re making an effort to eat lots of plants, I tip my hat to you, and I bow.
Iron and Calcium Rich Smoothie
8 oz. unsweetened soy milk (preferably fortified with calcium. Edensoy has a yummy one that I buy)
1 tablespoon raw pumpkin seeds
1/2 cup frozen strawberries (75g)
1 cup spinach (30g)
1 cup chard (40g)
1 ripe banana
Place all of the ingredients into your blender and blend until creamy and smooth.
Wishing you a happy week. May it be filled with kicking ass.
Safety of heme vs non-heme iron
All about non-heme iron
Fish oil no longer being recommended for heart health
DHA / EPA for the heart
DHA / EPA for brain health
Iodine content in common seaweeds
Too much iodine can be as harmful as too little
Eden canned beans and iodine levels Iodine and healthy thyroid function
p.s. posing with the papayas in my yard.