So far, I have discussed the role of iron and calcium and vitamin D in our bodies and the rare but potential complications on the plant based diet. In this article, we’ll be covering vitamin B12 and fatty acids, EPA, and DHA.
As previously stated, negative unwanted side effects on a plant based diet are rare, but they can happen. Every person is unique and each of our bodies may respond differently than others.
That being said, a plant based diet is almost always safe, and most people experience no complications. However, you should always consult with your physician and a registered dietician before making any dietary changes.
What is vitamin B12?
Vitamin B12 (also known as cobalamin) is a water-soluble vitamin, essential for blood formation and brain and nerve function. The body is unable to produce vitamin B12, so we must get it through food or supplements.
Vitamin B12 is only found in animal food in sufficient amounts. Therefore, vegans are at increased risk for deficiency.
Produced by bacteria, B12 is the only nutrient not directly available in plants. It is also not usually available from animal sources either though. In the wild, most animals consume vitamin B12 through the soil, fecal matter, and by eating other animals. Factory farm animals receive vitamin B12 supplements.
Potential complications from vitamin B12 deficiency include megaloblastic anemia (enlarged red blood cells), irreversible nerve damage, and impaired brain function.
What are fatty acids?
The two major classes of fatty acids are omega-3 and omega-6. Our bodies do not produce them, so we must get them from our diet. These essential fatty acids play important roles in blood clotting and inflammation.
Due to the increasingly unhealthy Western diet, Americans are consuming large amounts of processed food and oils, which are loaded with omega-6 fatty acids. High amounts of omega-6 are associated with increased risk for heart disease. On the other hand, omega-3 is associated with decreased incidence of stroke and heart disease and other heart health benefits.
The recommended ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids is 4:1 or less. The average western diet ratio is between 10:1 and 50:1. Thus, why doctors are telling us we need to take omega-3 supplements. A better alternative though is to improve and balance our diets.
EPA, DHA, and ALA
There are 11 types of omega-3 fatty acids, but the 3 most important are: EPA, DHA, and ALA.
- ALA (alpha-linolenic acid)
- EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid)
- DHA (docosahexaenoic acid)
ALA is the precursor for all omega-3 fatty acid synthesis. ALA has to be converted into EPA or DHA by the body before it can be utilized.
EPA plays a role in numerous physiological functions and reduces inflammation. Chronic inflammation in the body can lead to numerous health problems, including arthritis and cancer.
DHA is fundamental in the formation and function of the nervous system, particularly the brain and retinas. Extremely important during pregnancy and infancy, DHA plays a critical role in the development of the nervous system and brain in early life.
Omega-3 deficiency is associated with heart disease, arthritis, cancer, lower intelligence, and depression.
Plant Based diet sources
Not generally present in plant foods, vegans get vitamin B12 through supplements and fortified foods (such as nutritional yeast and some cereals). 1 tablespoon of nutritional yeast contains 182% of the daily value.
Good plant sources of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are nuts and seeds. Intake of processed foods and oils (like olive oil, sunflower oil, and vegetable oil) should be kept to a minimum.
ALA is mostly found in plants, while EPA and DHA are mostly in animal foods (like fatty fish).
Walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseeds, hemp seeds, kale, spinach, and soybeans are good sources of ALA.
Seaweeds and algae are the only plant sources of EPA and DHA. Different varieties of algae to include in the vegan diet include nori, spirulina, and chlorella. Seaweed can be eaten as a crispy snack. Nori is the seaweed most commonly used to wrap sushi. Chlorella and spirulina can be a healthy addition to smoothies and oatmeal.
If omega fatty acid supplements are needed, vegan supplements on the market contain algae oil instead of the traditional fish oil. To ensure it is truly vegan though, also make sure the supplement does not contain gelatin.
Recognizing that each person is unique, it’s important to consult a registered dietician for your individual dietary needs.
Were you surprised to learn about vitamin B12 and where it comes from? And that there are plant sources of fatty acids? I know I was when I first started researching a plant based diet! Post your questions and comments below! 👇