The aim of todays article is to highlight the issues that will faced by anyone looking to achieve optimal health following an exclusively plant based/vegan diet.
We will be looking at how specific micronutrients are both firstly absorbed, and then genetically converted.
I’m not debating the fact that a diet consisting mostly from fresh fruits and vegetables is the path to follow, and has many positive health benefits
But can you achieve optimal health and fitness from an exclusively plant base diet…I’m not so sure?
To get the ball rolling I thought we’d look at the 3 particular nutrients that will be fairly challenging to get optimal amounts when following a plant based diet.
B12 fun facts
Vitamin B12 as the name suggests, is part of the B complex of vitamins, which are involved in energy metabolism, formation of red blood cells and the development and normal functioning of the brain and nervous system.
B12 is fairly unique and includes the following:
1. Unlike other B vitamins no plant or animal can make vitamin B12, except for microorganisms like fungi and bacteria, this is why only animal sources contain B12 since plants cannot manufacture or store it
2. Mushrooms can often contain B12, but in extremely small amounts
3. B vitamins are not stored well in the body normally, but vitamin B12 can be stored from anywhere between 3 to 5 years
4. Most B vitamins are more easily absorbed than vitamin B12, which has more complicated requirements for absorption
5. Vitamin B12 is also the only vitamin that contains a metal element (cobalt), hence why the chemical name cobalamin
Now, the first hurdle faced following an exclusively plant-based diet is getting sufficient levels of B12, and unfortunately unless you are eating your bodyweight in mushrooms each day (which isn’t really feasible) then your B12 levels will be non-existent, and hence why the vast majority of vegans will supplement with B12…well hopefully they will be?
And which makes me ask the question?
“If a plant based/vegan diet is the panacea to health, and plants are all we need…why can’t you get B12 from your diet?
Vitamin B12 alongside a whole array of other nutrients such as Folate, Choline as well as the other B-vitamins is crucial in keeping our DNA and genes healthy through a process called methylation
Now lets give this a genetic twist
As humans we all have the same DNA, and share roughly 20,000 genes.
So what makes us all different?
Well each gene has a multitude of variations
Some of these are extremely easy to see with our obvious physical traits such eye and hair colour to how tall we are
But what about the variations that we cannot see
Such as our ability to process the foods that we eat each day
And crucially the vitamins and minerals within the food
So taking supplements off the table, and approaching this from a whole food diet
Are you getting enough B12 from a plant-based diet… that would be a resounding No!
Ok, for the sake of argument, lets say you’ve been eating mountains of mushrooms each day and getting plenty of B12, the next question would be…
Are you absorbing, transporting and then genetically converting it correctly?
There are a whole variety of genes such as TCN1, TCN2, FUT2 and MTHFR that will affect your ability to absorb and then metabolise B12 effectively.
For instance TNC1 encodes for a glycoprotein that protects B12 whilst it gets transported through the stomach.
If the first part of this process is hampered then this will obviously affect your B12 levels, so even if you are consuming healthy amounts of steak each day, your B12 levels will still be affected by the specific genetic variation that we all individually have.
So knowing which variations of each gene you have is the first piece of the puzzle to understanding how well you absorb and convert Vitamin B12.
If you’re a vegan with poor gene variants, then you’ll need to be militant with your supplementation, and even then if you’re taking a poor quality B12 such as Cyanocobalamin then deficiency will only be around the corner
Now lets take a quick look a Beta-carotene conversion to the usable form of Vitamin A
Vitamin A is more than just a single nutrient, but a broad group of related nutrients each providing us with differing health benefits.
Retinoids are made up into retinol, retinal, retinoic acid and retinyl esters and can be found in animal sources.
Carotenoids are made up from a larger family, which include two sub categories, Carotenes and Xanthophyll’s that then branch off further still into a variety of other elements such Beta-carotenes and Astaxanthin, and which are found in plants.
The two forms aren’t just chemically different, they also provide us with different types of health benefits.
Now depending on your genetic variation of gene BCO1, will affect your ability to convert Beta-carotene from plants into retinol effectively.
Retinoids and animal sources contain the active form of Vitamin A already, and thus conversion is not needed.
So if you are following a vegan diet whilst having a poor gene variant of BCO1, then you’ll be more than likely to develop skin and eye issues, as well as a whole host of other health concerns.
Many supplements will have the active form of Vitamin A, but as with B12 the use of supplements for the sake of this discussion is strictly out of bounds
Now lets have a quick look at Iron, as anemia can be a real issue for many vegans and vegetarians.
Iron is an extremely important nutrient as it makes up a central part of hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in the blood.
Iron is found in two forms, heme, which is found in meat, and is well absorbed. Non-heme iron in plants (fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts) is less well absorbed.
So again, an exclusively plant based diet has 2 major hurdles to overcome, firstly obtaining enough usable iron, and then hoping that you have beneficial genes to absorb, convert and metabolise iron thereafter?
One argument that I hear quite a lot is that animals obtain their micronutrients from the plants that they eat, and why can’t we do the same?
Well that argument doesn’t really make much sense, as an animal such as a cow has a completely different physiology to a human, and can absorb and convert micronutrients in some instances more effectively than us.
If we look at the digestive system of a cow, they have a four-chambered stomach to our one, with the rumen being the 3rd compartment.
The rumen is used to ferment the grass that it has eaten throughout the day, and is also home to bacteria, enzymes and tiny single celled microscopic animals called Protozoa.
The protozoa eat the amino acids that have been formed from the fermented grass to create proteins that they require, and then are pushed through to the fourth and final section of the stomach where the cow digests them.
Which funnily enough makes the cow a meat eater in my book!!
So in conclusion, can you be in peak physical health while following an exclusively plant based diet…I really don’t think so, not unless you’ve been delt the perfect set of genetic cards, and even then you’ll need to supplement religiously.