Though nobody has ever mistaken 4-Hour Body author Tim Ferriss for a vegan, we can put his skepticism to good use — namely, by making sure we eat plenty of the foods that contain the nutrients he claims are hard to get from plants.
To be fair, we can’t call Tim anti-plant-based diet. Indeed (from The 4-Hour Body):
I suggest a two-week PPBD (primarily plant-based diet) test after 3-4 months on the Slow-Carb Diet. No matter where you end up afterward, the awareness will lead to better decisions that benefit appearance, performance, and the planet as a whole.
And I especially love what he writes in regards to the all-or-nothing approach many people have towards diet:
It’s better for the environment if you locally source a 70% PPBD indefinitely, rather than eat 100% vegan for two months and quit because you find it unsustainable. Some vegans, lost in ideological warfare, also lose sight of the cumulative effects: getting 20% of the population to take a few steps in the right direction will have an infinitely greater positive impact on the world than having 2% of the population following a 100% plant-based diet. To both uninformed meat-eaters and vegetarians — stop ad hominem attacks and focus on the big picture.
(If you’ve read my post about vegans and paleos, it shouldn’t surprise you that I wholeheartedly agree with this last line.)
Tim goes on, in the same chapter, to give several case studies on the diets of fit vegans, including Scott Jurek and Mike Mahler. They’re incredibly valuable, if for nothing more than the recipes provided for protein bars, smoothies, hummus, several dinners, and more.
Tim gives his reasons for not choosing a plant-based diet, but they’re beside the point of this particular post (might make for a good followup, though!). Here, my assumption is that you, as a No Meat Athlete reader, have your reasons for wanting to eat plant-based, and you’re going to do it, one way or another.
Which brings me to the question I want to answer with this post (and the help of Tim and vegan R.D. Matt Ruscigno):
Given that we’re going to eat a 100% plant-based diet — whether for ethical, health, or environmental reasons — how can we maximize our health through our food choices?
In the first of the two “Meatless Machine” chapters in 4-Hour Body, Tim provides the following list of foods and supplements for vegans to ensure are in your diet (with suggested daily intake amounts), “for essential insurance against serious health issues”:
- Lysine (12 mg/kg body weight)
- Biotin (30 mcg) [no USRDA]
- Vitamin K (kimchee, sauerkraut, etc.) (90 mcg women, 120 mcg men)
- Creatine (5 grams per day) [no USRDA]
- Coconut milk (for saturated fats) (1/2 cup minimum) [no USRDA]
- Avocado (fat and potassium) (1-2 avocados) [no USRDA]
- Iodine (150mcg)
Tim’s additional recommendations, in a subsequent list:
- Vitamin B12 (2.5 mcg)
- Essential fatty acids (Udo’s oil) (500mg-4g)
- Protein (55 g women, 65 g men)
- Calcium (1,000 mg)
- Iron (18 mg women, 8 mg men)
- Vitamin D (5 mcg minimum)
- Zinc (8 mg women, 11 mg men)
- Folic acid (400 mcg)
- Selenium (55 mcg)
- Riboflavin (1.1 mg women, 1.3 mg men)
- Vitamin E (15mg)
I’m sure that considerations for space — and the fact that 95% of readers wouldn’t care much about this list — kept Tim from giving details about where these recommendations come from, and why vegans specifically need to pay attention to them.
But most No Meat Athlete readers fit in that other 5%, so I wanted to go deeper.
To help us out, I asked my friend and vegan Registered Dietitian and No Meat Athlete co-author Matt Ruscigno, who writes the blog True Love Health, to lend some of his knowledge and time.
Here’s what Matt Ruscigno had to say about each item on Tim’s list: first, whether or not we need to focus on it and if the suggested amount is reasonable, and second, where we can get it — ideally from whole food sources.
How to Get Common Nutrients in Your Plant-Based Diet
Lysine (12 mg/kg body weight):
The current recommendation is actually 37 mg/kg body weight; 12 mg/kg body weight is the old recommendation. As you can probably guess by the requirement tripling, there are different theories on how much is actually needed per day.
If there was one amino acid vegans should give some extra thought to, it is lysine. Fortunately one can get it from many sources: lentils, tofu, seitan, mock meats and quinoa are all very good lysine sources. Other good sources are pumpkin seeds and pistachios. It’s very important to include a few servings of high lysine foods every day.
See No Meat Athlete’s post on protein and lysine for more.
Biotin (30 mcg) [no USRDA]:
Biotin is a B-vitamin (it was originally called Vitamin H, a reference to the German word for hair) that plays a crucial part in the metabolism of carbohydrate and fat — and also is required for healthy hair.
Deficiency is extremely rare and reported cases have been due to excess consumption of raw egg whites. Vegans can get biotin easily in swiss chard, carrots, almonds, berries and fruits and vegetables generally.
Vitamin K (kimchee, sauerkraut, etc.) (90 mcg women, 120 mcg men):
Vitamin K1 is found in leafy green vegetables in very high amounts. One cup of kale contains over 6x the daily requirement! Broccoli and brussels sprouts are also very good sources.
Vitamin K2, however, is much harder to come by, found only in foods like natto that aren’t common in the Western world. It’s one of the important nutrients vegans should consider supplementing with.
Creatine (5 grams per day) [no USRDA]:
Creatine is unique as the only sports supplement that has significant research showing its benefits for training. Creatine helps to increase the number of efforts during training which therefore indirectly increases muscle mass. It is more beneficial for weight training and sprinting than endurance exercises.
While it is true that diets that include animal products are higher in dietary creatine, the benefits come from supplemental doses which are much higher than anyone eats.
Here’s a terrific overview of creatine, including a specific note about vegetarians that touches on an interesting point Tim Ferriss references in The 4-Hour Body: that creatine is known to enhance cognition in vegetarians.
Coconut milk (for saturated fats) (1/2 cup minimum) [no USRDA]:
Saturated fat is not a requirement for any human function. And many plant foods that contain healthy monounsaturated fats also contain some saturated fat. For example the percentage of fat that is saturated in both olive oil and avocados is around 14 percent. There’s no reason to eat a specific food for saturated fats.
Avocado (fat and potassium) (1-2 avocados) [no USRDA]:
Avocados are great, I agree! Other sources of potassium are potatoes, leafy greens, beans (especially white beans), dates, squash, cantaloupe and bananas, of course.
Iodine is a nutrient needed for thyroid function and indirectly metabolism. Iodine deficiency can lead to hypothyroidism and can have the following symptoms: low energy level, tingling/numbness in the extremities, weight gain, depression and even increased cholesterol levels.
Iodine is especially important for pregnant women as a deficiency can severely impact the ability to have a healthy pregnancy and the health of the child.
Fortunately iodine deficiency is rare in the United States, thanks in part to the introduction of iodized salt. The iodine levels of plant foods can vary greatly; it depends on the quality and iodine content of the soil they are grown in. Very few foods contain iodine naturally. Dairy products contain iodine because, according to Registered Dietitian Jack Norris, iodine products are used to clean the equipment and cows’ teats and some iodine ends up in the milk and dairy products.
Two good sources for vegans are iodized salt and sea vegetables like kelp. Also legumes, especially navy beans or any canned beans that contain kombu, which is added for flavor and to help with digestion. Other sources include potatoes with the skin, strawberries and soymilk.
Lastly, a supplement can be taken, which is recommended for women who are considering pregnancy. Many multivitamins contain iodine, be sure to read the label. Just don’t overdo it though, as too much can be just as bad as not enough! I agree with Tim’s 150mcg/day recommendation.
Get more info about iodine here.
Vitamin B12 (2.5 mcg):
I agree with this amount and vegans need to be sure they are getting B12 from a reliable source. Despite the persistent myth, vitamin B12 is not available from sea vegetables, tempeh or fermented foods!
Nutritional yeast, non-dairy milks and mock meats can be fortified with B12, but they are not always fortified. Please be sure to read the label. If you don’t have a reliable fortified-food source then take a supplement. This is very important for vegans to take seriously.
Essential fatty acids (Udo’s oil) (500mg-4g):
Essential fatty acids means both Omega-6 and Omega-3. These are both required nutrients which make it essential to eat dietary fat. Additionally, Omega-3 fatty acids have health benefits related to lower cholesterol levels and heart disease prevention.
Lastly, what’s also important is the ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3. We want that ratio to be small — some evidence says 6-to-1 is good. This is significantly smaller than the 15-to-1 ratio of the average American diet. And limited research has shown that some vegans have an even larger ratio than that.
What can you do? Be sure to include a daily serving of foods high in Omega-3 like flax seeds, chia seeds or walnuts. Just one serving a day of these high foods can really help to improve your ratio. Another option is EFA oil: if you take Udo’s oil, hemp oil or a blend of oils, read the label. You want more Omega-3 than Omega-6 in order to balance the rest of the day’s (generally) higher intake of Omega-6.
Protein (55 g women, 65 g men):
Most recommendations for athletes, are between 1 and 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram body weight. This is very easy to do on a vegan diet that contains whole grains, legumes, nuts and leafy green vegetables. Additionally, if you are active you will automatically be eating more calories and therefore more protein. When you do the math you’ll see just how easy it is to meet these recommendations.
See the post I wrote for No Meat Athlete, called Protein — A Primer for Vegetarians, for more information about protein in a plant-based diet.
Calcium (1,000 mg):
Leafy green vegetables, especially kale, collards and turnip greens but not spinach (calcium is unabsorbable due to oxalate content) are very good sources of calcium. Something to keep in mind is a serving size is only ½ cup cooked; it’s relatively easy to eat 3 or 4 servings with a meal.
Other plant-based sources include blackstrap molasses, tempeh, soybeans, calcium-set tofu, corn tortillas and fortified non-dairy milks. Be sure to check the label on fortified foods to know how much you are getting.
Iron (18 mg women, 8 mg men):
It’s true that heme iron, only found in the flesh of animals, is better absorbed than non-heme, plant-based iron. But plant foods contain lots of iron and it’s easy to increase that absorption by eating vitamin C containing foods at the same meal. Dairy and eggs contain almost no iron so if you are replacing these foods with plant-based foods you will be getting more iron than you would if you ate them!
See my post, What Every Vegetarian Needs to Know about Iron, for more.
Vitamin D (5 mcg minimum):
The best source of vitamin D is 15 minutes of mid-day sun on at least your hands and face without sunscreen. For dietary sources most people in western countries get it through fortified foods as it is found in very few foods naturally, mainly fish. Vegans also can get it from fortified foods like non-dairy milks and some cereals and margarines. Be sure to check the label!
Vitamin D2 is vegan and until very recently there were no vegan forms of D3. If you do not have regular sun exposure and do not eat supplemented foods it is very important to take a supplement. Anecdotally some vegans have had fatigue and then started a D2 supplement and within days felt much better. Being vegan doesn’t make getting vitamin D much harder; in reality most people get it from either the sun or fortified foods.
Very recently researchers found they could add vitamin D to mushrooms by exposing them to the sun! Only some mushrooms have had this done but my guess is that this will soon become a regular practice. Check the label to be sure!
There is an ongoing debate about which is better absorbed, vitamin D3 or D2. It appears that D3 is significantly better when taking large doses (done when there is a diagnosed deficiency) and a little better when taking daily amounts. For a long time the only vegan option was D2, but now finally there is a non-animal-derived D3 if this is what you prefer. Most likely either D2 or D3 is adequate for everyone.
Zinc (8 mg women, 11 mg men):
Zinc is one of those nutrients that we just do not know a lot about. The recommendations are estimates, and there is not a very accurate way to determine zinc status of individuals. Fortunately, zinc is found in a variety of whole grains like oatmeal and also in tofu, sunflower seeds and cashews. Ginny Messina, MPH, RD, in her post about zinc suggests toasting nuts and seeds before eating them, choosing some fermented foods like tempeh and eating leavened bread. Most breads are leaved, the exception being pita bread, which increases the absorption of zinc.
Folic acid (400 mcg):
Vitamin B9 is both folate, which is naturally occurring in foods, and folic acid, the compound used in supplements and fortification.
Folate is abundant in plant foods; leafy greens, especially romaine lettuce; beans like lentil and black, fortified grains, sunflower seeds and orange juice are all very good sources. Folate is crucial for development and is most widely-known for its role in preventing neural tube defects. Deficiency in the western world is very rare and folate consumption for vegans is adequate and not of any special concern. Though any women of child-bearing age who may become pregnant should make sure they are getting adequate amounts.
Selenium (55 mcg):
Brazil nuts are one of the best sources of selenium, but their selenium content varies depending on their age and whether you get them shelled or not. Whole grains and beans are other good sources of selenium. Selenium content of plant foods is related to the soil content mostly, but selenium deficiency is rare in both omnivores and vegans. Vegans aren’t any more likely than omnivores to be deficient.
Riboflavin (1.1 mg women, 1.3 mg men):
Riboflavin, also known as vitamin B2 is very common in foods and deficiency is rare. Vegans are no more likely to be deficient than omnivores as this vitamin is found in a variety of plant foods like avocados, mushrooms, almonds, leafy greens, soy whole grains and enriched grains. It’s important to note that riboflavin is water-soluble therefore significant amounts can be lost if vegetables are cooked in water and the water is then thrown out. It’s also very sensitive to light which is why milk is sold in opaque containers.
And if you consume large amounts of riboflavin the body excretes it via urine, which will be bright yellow. You may notice this if you eat a lot of nutritional yeast!
Vitamin E (15mg):
Vitamin E is actually a group of fat-soluble compounds that are required for our immune function. It is also an anti-oxidant which means it has properties that are beneficial beyond the nutrient needs. Anti-oxidants protect cells from the damage of free radicals from environmental damage like pollution, second-hand smoke, etc.
Almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, safflower oil, sunflower oil and avocado are all good sources of vitamin E. Here’s a lot more technical info on vitamin E for those who are interested.
To sum up …
Nutrition experts, when discussing plant-based or vegan nutrition, often start with a phrase like, “These diets must be properly planned and one must emphasize certain foods to avoid nutrient deficiencies.” And I agree, but this is true for all diets!
Every person who eats food and is concerned about their health should learn about nutrition and put emphasis on eating healthy foods that supply the nutrients they need. It’s not any harder with plant foods, it’s just different than how most of us were raised and our diets stand out from everyone else, which makes them more likely to be criticized. But we have the science to know which nutrients are needed and what foods they are in, so take this info, eat these foods and be healthy and happy!
Which nutrients are worth supplementing
If you read Matt Ruscigno’s recommendations above, you know that he recommends supplementing with a handful of nutrients.
After a lot of thought and research into matter of plant-based supplementation, I eventually decided to create a vegan multivitamin, to provide only the nutrients that hard to get from plants, and (importantly) nothing else. It’s called Complement Plus, and my wife and I — and now thousands of others — take it every day to make sure we’re getting everything we need.
But why not just take a multivitamin that has a huge amount of every nutrient you could possibly need? Well, I don’t think it’s quite as simple as “just taking a multivitamin as a backup to be safe” — to me (and many others from whom I’ve learned), taking a pharmaceutical dose of something you might already get enough of doesn’t seem so smart. I understand the argument that we excrete many of the excess vitamins and nutrients we get, making for rather expensive urine but no other side effects, but I’m not confident enough in our understanding of nutrition to believe that’s all there is to it.
I’d rather get what I can by eating a wide variety of whole foods, including lots of fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds, and supplement with the few things that, for one reason or another, this diet and our modern lifestyle likely don’t provide in adequate amounts.
The 4-Hour Body’s Plant-Based Experiment
The list of nutrients above was part of Tim’s first of two “Meatless Machine” chapters in The 4-Hour Body (yes, two chapters are devoted completely to plant-based diets!). In the Meatless Machine II, Tim details a 28-day experiment undertaken by John Berardi, PhD, omnivore and founder of Precision Nutrition, to see if he could gain muscle on an almost 100% vegan diet. It’s an interesting note to end this long post on.
Berardi’s experiment, at least in terms of mass-gaining, was a success. He gained 7 pounds — 4.9 pounds of muscle, 2.1 pounds of fat. (See the complete details and the results of the experiment if you’re interested.)
So why “almost” 100% vegan? Berardi ate 3 eggs with a slice of cheese on top each morning as part of his breakfast. There’s not a ton of explanation given; from what I can tell it looks like Berardi just loves eggs and included them to make the experiment easier. He also ate a few tablespoons of honey each day. When asked in The 4-Hour Body what he thought would have happened if he hadn’t included the eggs in his diet, Berardi says, “Same exact results, I think.”
Berardi also took a lot of supplements, including Vitamins B-12 and D, for which, even with 5,600 daily calories from mostly whole foods, he felt short of the recommended daily allowances before supplementing. The cost of his extra supplementation was offset by what he saved in food cost, dispelling the myth that eating vegan has to be expensive.
None of this is to say it went so well that Berardi decided to never again look at a piece of meat — his conclusion is that it is definitely possible to be healthy as a vegan, even for athletes, without the use of protein supplements, but probably requires guidance “if muscle building or high-level sport performance is the goal.”
Berardi does have some good things to say about plant-based diets though:
Speaking as an omnivore, in our quest for filling one-third of our plate with animal flesh, sometimes we forget to think about what the other two-thirds should be filled with. And that can be a big, gut-expanding, health-degrading mistake … Proper vegans tend to eat more whole, natural, locally produced, and unprocessed foods than most omnivores. This means things like raw nuts and seeds, whole grains like quinoa and amaranth, and a locally grown bounty of fruits and veggies. That’s all they eat, so they make sure they do it right.
I’ll end on this note, since it’s the most important benefit of this diet that I’ve noticed in my own experience.
The key, though? That last line. Make sure you do it right.