The main source of vitamin D for everyone is sunlight (aim to get 5 to 15 minutes of sunlight on your face, legs or arms every day between 10am-3pm. Go for the full 15 minutes if you have darker skin). It’s also found in fatty fish and eggs, but even omnivores don’t eat fatty fish and eggs every day, so, as with most deficiencies, vitamin D deficiency isn’t just a potential vegan problem, but a potential ‘everyone’ problem.
Depending on where we are in the world, or whether you work outside or not; we all have different exposure to sunlight. If you’re in southern California or some tropical paradise; or you are always outside during daylight hours – you’re likely getting enough. Those in more northerly regions or who aren’t often outside at prime sunlight times may not be.
What to do if you feel you are deficient
If you feel you MAY be deficient in Vitamin D, the first thing you should do is have your blood tested by a doctor.
If the test shows you ARE indeed low, then unless you can escape to sunnier climes pronto – supplementation is probably the way to go.
It used to be that Vitamin D3 was purely animal-based (from the lanolin in sheep’s wool), and vitamin D2 was plant-based (from yeast and fungi); but I hear that now it’s possible to get vegan vitamin D3 supplements, so either D2 or vegan D3 is what you’ll want to look for.
Some would argue that Vitamin D3 is more effective than vitamin D2. However, I had low levels of vitamin D which manifested each year as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). I started taking 1000 IU of vitamin D2 (1 capsule daily), and I no longer suffer from this each winter, so I personally found it to be effective.
Several foodstuffs constitute sugar; that’s to say, they act the same as sugar would once inside your body; but to keep it simple, I’m just gonna talk about plain ol’ sugar here. Sugar that is sugar before it goes in your body; sugar once inside.
Now I know YOU KNOW this post is not gonna be good news about sugar; but before sugar, the absolute best first thing you can do for yourself in terms of all aspects of your health is to stop eating animal products. This is the most important dietary change you can make.
I want to talk about sugar however, because it too has some extremely egregious health effects you need to be aware of.
Harmful effects of sugar
OK, so I’m pretty sure you know about the link between sugar and tooth decay. (My mouth wishes I’d known sooner).
And you probably have a good grasp on the whole ‘sugar spikes your blood’ dealie. We know that sugar causes energy rushes that soon turn to crashes – not the best way of achieving consistent, long-lasting energy.
So far so blah.
But one of the worst effects in my experience (because I and many others I know have lived through this), is that sugar is candida food.
If you don’t know, candida is a yeast that lives in your gut naturally. Due to various influences disrupting the balance of gut flora (antibiotics* being one, but there are MANY others), it can multiply and proliferate and cause a whole host of awful symptoms.
Sugar, which is candida food, helps this beast grow out of control.
Why is candida so bad? What’s the big deal?
Candida is linked to soooo many diseases and conditions.
You may be surprised to know that candida is even linked to mental health – YES, that’s mental health – the extent to which we are only just learning.
There is also a connection between candida and cystic fibrosis, though this link needs to be investigated more.
It is linked to lots of cancers indirectly, as candida suppresses the immune system – an ideal situation for cancer to develop; but it is also thought to be linked to lots of cancers in a more direct way, though there isn’t enough scientific evidence as yet to prove the links conclusively.
There are many more diseases that candida is thought to be linked to, but there haven’t been enough studies carried out as yet to prove this without doubt.
There seems to be a lack of will to fund studies. Possibly this is because candida can be cured with cheap remedies and a change of diet. Therefore, it wouldn’t be accurate to think that just because there isn’t sufficient evidence, that there isn’t a link between a disease and candida.
Bottom line – Stop feeding the candida beast!
Don’t forget that sugar has addictive properties similar to those found in street drugs. It’s all the more surprising then (or is it?), that food manufacturers want to feed our addiction!
How do I avoid sugar?
We KNOW there’s gonna be sugar in cookies and candy etc. But where are all the hidden sneaky places sugar can be found?
You’re not going to like this – it’s blinking everywhere!
Plant-based yoghurts (even plain ones!)
Chilli sauces (except Tabasco and Cholula, woohoo!)
Indian restaurant food
Chinese restaurant food
Cans of baked beans, refried beans etc
Plant milks (One popular brand I just looked at had sugar as the second ingredient – before the almonds even!!!)
Soft beverages in bottles, cans or cartons (including most healthy-looking ones)
You can very easily see how over the course of a day your sugar intake can creep up – and that’s without you even knowingly USING sugar.
It’s worth noting none of these foods NEED sugar to taste good, or as a preservative. It’s almost as if it’s in someone’s interest to keep us full of candida-fuelling sugar!!
What can you do?
Though the ideal solution is to completely eliminate sugar from every source, it’s very difficult seeing as how we clearly live in a sugar-saturated world.
The best thing you can do is just KNOW when you are eating something containing sugar. That way you can monitor your intake and make sure it is minimal.
Make your own food as much as possible of course; but when you DO buy pre-made products, just take an extra second to scan the ingredients list on the label. If you’re vegan you’ll be checking to see if there are animal products anyway, so just take an extra second to check for sugar. If the product contains sugar – pick a brand that doesn’t contain it.
It may be a pain in the butt initially, but you’ll quickly get to remember which products contain sugar and which don’t.
*I am not against antibiotics when they are truly needed; just against the over-prescription of them.
It’s tempting to automatically take a multivitamin when we go vegan.
We’ve made big changes to our diet; changes that most people don’t understand – changes that most doctors don’t understand.
We get asked questions about what our new protein, calcium and iron sources are going to be; where our vitamin B12 is going to come from; and what about vitamins D and K?
It can be enough to scare the bejesus out of you!
Isn’t it ironic that the omnivores that ask us these questions often aren’t the pictures of health themselves? And how are they so sure that they have all the correct levels of vitamins and minerals?
One thing you need to know as a vegan is that vitamin and mineral deficiencies are not just a potential problem for vegans. Nope, not even a vitamin B12 deficiency is this.
But it’s still vegans that most people believe are more susceptible to malnutrition, and no-one would blame you for feeling fearful after hearing these beliefs vocalised ad nauseum.
I’ve personally been told that it’s impossible to live without eggs; and that not eating protein from meat will make me weak.
Well, here I am all strong and living and s**t.
But after so much fear-mongering it seems logical, doesn’t it, to invest in a multivitamin to cover all bases?
So what SHOULD you do?
I very much lean towards the advice of the doctors that have been teaching (and living) a plant-based diet for decades. They base their decisions on independent, non-reductionist, peer-reviewed scientific evidence.
Dr Greger in particular points out all the studies that have been done on multivitamins; some show that they’re beneficial; some show that they are harmful. Ultimately, the most comprehensive studies show that they don’t make any difference, and that they’re a huge waste of money.
All this said….
Dr Barnard says in one article that a multivitamin can play a role if you know you are not eating enough whole plant food. And both he and Dr Esselstyn say that you MAY need to supplement with vitamin D, for example if you live somewhere that doesn’t have much sunshine – as sunshine is the best source of vitamin D for vegans.
What do I do?
I do not take a multivitamin, but as I’ve said before, I DO supplement with vitamin D, and sometimes with zinc and iodine, because through one thing and another (long-ass story), I’ve learned that my body needs help with these nutrients, seemingly regardless of my healthy diet.
The best advice, if you feel you may be short on any nutrients, is to go to your doctor and have a comprehensive blood test for all vitamins and minerals. These tests can tell you if you are low or deficient in any particular nutrient.
It’s important to identify this exactly. If, for example, you are feeling fatigued – there could be any one of several reasons for this. So it would not be prudent to assume you have an iron deficiency and take iron supplements, as iron can be harmful in excess. Thus, I urge you to get your blood tested and not self-diagnose.
Once you’ve been tested; should you be found to be low in any nutrient, firstly try and improve your levels with diet. This will always be the best way to regain optimal nutrient levels.
Should this not work sufficiently – and I know that for me, I need help with vitamin D (not much sun here), and zinc in the winter (immune system compromised over the years), THEN it may be worth supplementing with small doses of whatever it is you need.
It seems from everything I’ve learned with my studies; from my experience; and from researching the advice of the plant-based doctors, that the best advice is this:
You do NOT automatically need a multivitamin just because you are vegan. This could lead to overload of certain nutrients that are harmful in excess; or just be a plain waste of money
If you feel you may have a deficiency, or if you know you are not eating a varied plant-based diet, have your blood levels checked at the doctors
If you ARE low in anything, try and eat foods that contain this nutrient, and the ones that help absorption of it. I can help with this!
If this still doesn’t work, supplement with low levels of just the SPECIFIC nutrient(s) you are lacking
A reader emailed me in the week asking how vegans get enough zinc.
It’s a great question. We tend to focus on nutrients that uninformed journalists have scared us into thinking we won’t get enough of on a plant-based diet; like protein, calcium and iron.
Zinc doesn’t often figure in this list.
So let’s do zinc; right here, right now!
Zinc is a highly important nutrient; vital for healthy growth during childhood, adolescence and pregnancy; for a healthy immune system; for nerve development and for wound healing.
Symptoms of zinc deficiency include frequent infections, skin sores, loss of hair and problems with sense of taste and smell.
White spots on fingernails are also thought by many to be a sign of mild zinc deficiency, but though I can find this information on several MD websites, I can’t find science to back this up and there are differing opinions on this.
In any case, you don’t want a zinc deficiency, no sir.
The good news is there is no science that suggests that vegans do not get enough zinc.
If a vegan IS deficient in zinc this is more likely to be because they are restricting their caloric intake (i.e. as with an eating disorder) rather than because a plant-based diet is naturally deficient in zinc.
The recommended daily amount is 8 – 11mg. The higher end of this scale is for sexually active males, as zinc is lost through semen expulsion.
It has been suggested by the Institute of Medicine that vegans who have high intakes of whole grains might need more zinc than recommended. It’s true that the phytic acid found in whole grains can bind to minerals like zinc and make them less bioavailable to the body, but there is no solid science to show that this is a problem that causes zinc deficiency in vegans.
In fact, Dr Michael Greger says that even though whole grains ARE high in phytates, phytates have other health benefits, so we don’t want to avoid them. He says there are two simple solutions to combat any negative effect they may have on zinc absorption. Either 1) Eat bigger portions of whole grains (brown rice for example), to ensure more zinc intake, or 2) make sure you eat alliums (onion or garlic – or both!) with the brown rice, as these aid mineral absorption. This is easily done if you’re making a curry or chili for example, as onion and garlic would both be default ingredients, and you can serve it over brown rice. We certainly do NOT want to avoid whole grains bcause of the phytates and to miss out on the other great nutrients in whole grains.
Even though plant foods are not high in zinc, there are lots that contain zinc. Whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, tofu and tempeh are all great sources.
If you want to pro-actively increase your intake of zinc then add toasted nuts and seeds to salads, or grab a small handful as a snack; and make sure to eat leavened (risen) bread over flatbreads.
Should you take a zinc supplement?
I do take a zinc supplement (30mg per day) in the winter, or at times when I feel like I might be coming down with a cold.
This is because my immune system was decimated as a young’n’! (I had lots of antibiotics as an infant, and took them for years as a teen to combat acne, which pretty much destroyed my health and immune responses).
Taking a supplement when I need to works for me. I live in London and am often on cramped public transport in the winter, standing underneath people that are sneezing on my head.
Check out this podcast I did with Dr Mitchel Schwindt, a longtime A&E physician in Minnesota. Though he’s conventionally trained, he practises and is passionate about functional medicine, which takes a holistic view of a patient and finds and treats the root cause of their problem by looking at things like diet and lifestyle, rather than just treating the outward symptoms.
He reached out through LinkedIn and I am thrilled to be included in his series of podcasts based on optimising health.
He was easy to chat to and made one of my first podcast experiences relaxed and delightful.
I emphasise – I haven’t done many of these (so don’t judge too harshly!) but I think I’ve just about found my ‘podcasting feet’ and hope to do lots more in the future.
So, if you’re in this hemisphere, you’ll know it’s winter. And if you have to travel by public transport every day like I do, you’ll have had the pleasure of dodging the sneezes and splutters of fellow travellers for a few months now. Maybe you’ve been the offender? Hell, it’s the best way to get a seat right?
On a train the other day, someone actually sneezed ON MY HEAD. I was sitting down, and as there were no seats left a girl was standing over me, holding on to my seat and reading her phone. I heard her sneeze build-up and didn’t sweat it too much as I assumed she would turn her head and the, um, sneeze rain (?) would land well away from me.
Instead she stayed where she was and put her hand over her nose. This would have been fine except the sneeze escaped from under her hand and landed on my head. Yes. The sneeze rain settled, droplet by droplet, On. My. Head.
Have you ever been laying on your back in yoga in the relaxation position, been caught off guard by a sneeze, and then felt the fine mist slowly land on your face? Me neither (Just kidding!) This felt similar, but on my scalp. I may wear a rain hat for the rest of the winter.
Needless to say, I didn’t know what to do with this. I sat with it for a while, and then decided to erase it from history. Then I got off the train at Streatham Hill.
What am I leading to? Well, I’m pretty sure you’ve had similar experiences at some point this season, and in order to avoid catching the lurgy it’s a good idea to give our immune systems a little help at this time of year.
Some swear by chicken soup, but as this is a meat-free zone, my plant-based tips for keeping away the snot-goblins are as follows:
This is a no-brainer, but I’m still gonna say it, dammit. Include more than ever lots of green leafy veg and plenty of citrus fruit in your diet. The clementines and navel oranges around at this time of year are vitamin C bombs and I’m positive they were invented for us public transport users. Eat them. Eat them on the train too. I love it when someone cracks open an orange on the train – it smells divine, and makes me want one too.
As we learned in this post, keep up the health of your gut, as this is the majority of your immune system. Make sure to eat some kimchi or sauerkraut several times a week, or at the very least, take a non-dairy probiotic every day throughout winter.
Garlic is your best friend in winter. It is good for your immune system by helping keep your gut in order, but on top of that it has anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties and is a potent anti-inflammatory. You can crush it and put it in dishes at the end of cooking, and it will do it’s darndest to prevent you getting sick.
These next two are based on empirical evidence solely. I know they work for me, and that they will not harm you should you decide to try them (as indicated) too.
There is a product called Citricidal (GSE in the US). It is grapefruit seed extract, and a very powerful anti-viral, anti-biotic, and anti-fungal. If I’ve been travelling with lots of sniffly commuters, when I get home I put 2 drops of Citricidal in about a whiskey shot amount of water, and stir. I then take a cotton bud, dip one end it in the water and then swirl it around one nostril, then do the same with the other end in the other nostril, all the while sniffing slightly, so a tiny bit goes up my nose. I also do this before embarking on a plane journey, and it truly seems to keep me free from the lurgy.
If I feel like I have the first signs of a cold – the bone-ache, the slightly swollen feeling in the back of the throat etc, then I take half an umeboshi plum. If you don’t know these already, they are salted Japanese plums (available in health stores) and are the sourest little mofo’s you ever did taste – and that’s the point. They are extremely acidic, but they have an alkalising effect once in the body. And as you may be aware, the more alkaline your body is, the less disease it can harbour. If I remember to take half a plum in time, the cold-feelings are gone by the next day. Just remember to take a couple of mouthfuls of water afterwards, to rinse excess acid from your teeth. If they are too sour for you to eat as they are, then you can mash half a plum and stir it into some cooked brown rice. This actually flavours the rice nicely, and kids like it too. They are around ten pounds for a jar (around fifteen bucks in the US?), but if you only take them when you need them, they last an absolute age.
You may have heard that 70-80% of the immune system is in the gut.
Thus, we need to keep topping up the good bacteria in our guts to help fight the bad. When there is too much bad bacteria (candida) and not enough good, there are a bazillion horrid symptoms that can ensue.
It is particularly nasty because symptoms can appear one by one and gradually, so it can take a long time to realise the core of the problem. While it’s not a death sentence (though if left too long it can lead to chronic diseases – multiple sclerosis, cancer, ME, IBS, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome and alcoholism have all been linked to candida overgrowth), it can take a while for the body to get rid of it.
How can we support a healthy gut in the best (and vegan) way?
2. Eat a serving of (non-pasteurised) sauerkraut or kimchi daily, or at least 4 times a week (next week, I’ll post how I make my own unbelievably simple kimchi!)
3. Garlic, garlic, garlic! You can take vegetarian garlic capsules, or try eating dishes where the garlic is still fairly raw, like in kimchi. Get your garlic any way you can, it really helps keep the gut in order. It’s a natural anti-fungal, anti-viral, and anti-biotic. Win-win-win.
4. Yoghurt – dairy-free of course! Soy yoghurts are widely available. Sojade is an amazing brand because their plain yoghurt is sugar free, and you can just pop in some maple syrup or some sugar free jam, stir, and you have a delish dessert. Coconut yoghurt is creamy and lush, and in the UK, Australia and New Zealand you can pick up the Coyo brand. In the US there are several brands of yummy coconut yoghurt, Whole Foods have a good selection – ideally buy one without sugar and add your own flavour.
5. Eliminate or cut WAAAAY back on sugar (and all things containing it!) and refined carbs – such as white bread, white pasta and white rice. Sugar and refined carbs FEED candida, so it’s best to reduce our intake of these as much as possible. Don’t worry, wholegrain pasta and brown rice are just as tasty (and you will soon find them even tastier than their inferior versions!).
Feel like you may have a candida overgrowth problem? While I’d normally ALWAYS say consult your healthcare practitioner, unfortunately many doctors either don’t acknowledge candida, or believe it only occurs in severely immunocompromised people, such as those with HIV, or simply just don’t know anything about it. So, if you are lucky enough to have an enlightened doctor, go see them. If not, it may be a good idea to see a reputable holistic doctor or naturopath.
Otherwise, use these 5 tips to help maintain gorgeous gut flora!