One thing that scares people away from a vegan diet is the worry that something is missing nutritionally. Protein gets most of the attention, but that’s been debunked time and time again—vegan sources of protein are awesome and plentiful. Yet I’ve noticed many friends and acquaintances, even after feeling assured about protein, are still skeptical. It’s so ingrained in us that meat and animal products are essential to our diet that it just seems unbelievable to think that’s not true. The only thing that should be in-grained in us is that many important nutrients can be found in grains. (Get it? In-grained? Sorry.)
Indeed, many critics of the vegan diet say their fear comes not from concerns over protein, but from concerns that vegan foods are not good sources of certain vitamins and minerals. That’s got to be why meat is essential, right?
But here’s the thing: meat eaters need to be concerned about these same nutrients. Meat in animal products, especially the most common ones, are not strong sources of certain vitamins and minerals. Meaning most of your meat-eating friends get their vitamins and minerals from the same place vegans do: vegan foods and supplements.
Vegans should admit and take seriously the fact that there are about six nutrients that they need to put in extra effort to get. I’m talking about Vitamin B12, and to a somewhat lesser degree, Vitamin D, calcium, iron, zinc, and omega 3s. Yet many meat eaters you know should admit the exact same thing!
As a matter of fact, the USDA has identified Vitamin D, calcium, iron and B12 as “nutrients of concern” because many Americans are consistently not getting enough of them—regardless of whether they are vegan or not.
If you look at the nutrition profiles of many of the most popularly eaten animal products, those foods are low in many of the same nutrients of concern. And that makes this fear about vegan nutrient deficiencies misguided. Vegans certainly do need to do a little extra homework to make sure they’re on top of their health. But it’s not difficult, and it’s also not too far off from the extra work our meat-eating friends need to do.
That Thing Got Heme Iron? A Look at What’s in Meat
I decided to look at six key nutrients (B12, D, zinc, iron, calcium and omega-3s) and see how much of each of these nutrients are in common animal products (eggs, milk, yogurt, chicken breast, turkey breast, pork, and beef). I partly based this list of foods off of the USDA’s “healthy eating” sample menus. When Americans eat meat and dairy, those are the foods we are talking about.
And there are certainly animal products out there that are good sources of these tough-to-obtain vitamins and minerals. I found that, generally speaking, internal organs and fluids (like liver and blood) and certain types of seafood are high in several of these nutrients.
But think about what your meat- and dairy-eating friends regularly consume each day. Internal organ meats like blood and liver? Probably not too often.
Of course you’re bound to run into a paleo, Atkins or keto-type who rave that they’ve downed a pig blood smoothie and unsalted cow liver jerky all before lunch time. They might be getting most of their tough-to-find nutrients from animal parts. Tough to debate that.
Even the foods that people do eat that offer good sources of key nutrients carry some pretty heavy baggage.
Seafood? A good source of omega-3s. But it’s usually not an everyday thing for most people. Half of Americans eat seafood only occasionally or never at all. One-third of Americans eat fish just once each week. The concerns about mercury and other pollutants have caused the FDA and EPA to jointly issue advisories warning certain people to limit their seafood meals to two or three meals each week, but that’s more than what the vast majority of Americans seem to consume.
Milk and dairy? A good source of calcium, and Greek yogurt is all the rage right now. But overall, milk consumption is plummeting. Dairy-free diets like the vegan diet and paleo diet (yup, paleos usually don’t consume milk or cheese) are on the up and up. And some people, in an effort to be more health conscious, are avoiding milk products in their otherwise standard diets. That’s probably why we see commercials for Silk Almondmilk nowadays. (Way to plug vanilla almondmilk, Silk–that stuff is like crack).
Beef and red meat? A good source of zinc and B-12. But beef and red meat consumption in the United States continues to drop, supposedly due to health concerns and cost. From 1999 to 2004, people ate the equivalent of four ounces of beef, three days a week (or 1.7 ounces per day). That number has likely dropped somewhat in the last decade, given the rising costs of beef as well as the studies and recommendations urging people to “limit,” “reduce,” and “avoid” red meat. (American Heart Association, Harvard Medical School, American Cancer Association.) There are a lot of Atkins, paleo and keto-types doing their best to repair red meat’s image, but they’ve got their work cut out for them.
What you’re about to see is that these animal products are weak sources of most, if not all, of the above-mentioned nutrients. (Don’t worry, I’m including dairy, red meat, and two popular types of seafood.) Chances are your concerned meat-eating friends are getting these nutrients from the same places vegans do (vegan sources and supplements), or they aren’t getting enough of them all together.
All the percentages you see here are the FDA’s recommended Daily Values—the same numbers you see on the Nutrition Facts box on your food packaging. And I’m using big portions of these foods—in some cases even bigger than the amounts listed on the USDA’s sample menus. I want to include the people who ask for double meat when they go to Chipotle, or anyone else with a big appetite. So I’m not shortcutting these foods—I’m using the vitamin and mineral amounts of portions that are often larger than the recommended serving amounts of these foods.
• “Eggs” = two large eggs. (twice as many as USDA sample menu)
• “Milk” = one cup of milk. (same as USDA sample menu)
• “Yogurt” = one cup of yogurt. (same as USDA sample menu)
• “Turkey” = 4 ounces (112g) of turkey breast (about twice as much as the USDA sample menu; this is the same amount as two-thirds of a package of sliced organic turkey breast.
• “Chicken” = 5 ounces (140g) of chicken breast. (which is almost twice as much as the USDA sample menu).
• “Pork” = 3 ounces (85g) or pork, a bit larger than the size of a whole pork chop, (the only pig product USDA uses in its sample menu is a single slice of bacon, which is 0.25 of an ounce).
• “Tuna” = 5.5 ounces of tuna (154g); this is a full can of tuna (USDA uses 2 ounces of tuna).
• “Salmon” = 5.5 ounces (154g) (USDA uses 4 ounces of salmon).
• “Beef” = 4 ounces—the USDA sample menu uses between 2 and 4 ounces in its meals, including ground beef and steak. Ground beef makes up 60% of all beef consumed in the U.S., so that’s the type I’m using. Maybe I’m being generous using ground beef, because steak appears to have lower nutritional values for many nutrients–ribeye has 37% less iron and 41% less zinc compared with ground beef.
The assumption here is that most people eat some combination of these things, usually three or four times, over the course of a day. Again, I’m basing this off of the USDA’s sample menu for a 2,000 calorie diet and I’ve usually erred on the side of more animal product.
Here we go.
• Eggs: Only 6% iron for two large eggs. Not to mention eggs contain a compound that inhibits iron absorption.
• Milk: 0%. Milk also inhibits iron absorption.
• Yogurt: 1%. But, it’s made of milk, which inhibits iron absorption.
• Turkey: 9%
• Chicken: 8%
• Pork: 4%
• Tuna: 13%
• Salmon: 9%
• Beef: 19%
Pretty underwhelming, right? Say you had two eggs for breakfast. Yogurt for a snack. A turkey sandwich for lunch. And salmon for dinner. Your daily non-vegan food items would give you a whopping 27% of your daily iron needs, not taking into account the fact your eggs and yogurt inhibit some of that iron absorption. So don’t rip on vegan foods and supplements, because they’re pretty clearly supplying you with most of your iron.
According to the NIH, the following are solid sources of iron: cereals, oysters, beans, dark chocolate, beef liver, lentils and tofu. There aren’t too many of you out there eating beef liver every day, so hopefully you are eating plenty of beans and grains!
Good vegan options (based on NIH and veganhealth.org): Beans, lentils, peas, peanuts, fortified cereal, dark chocolate, tofu. During meals eat plenty of Vitamin C, which increases absorption. And don’t drink coffee or tea with meals, because those decrease absorption.
• Eggs: 8%
• Milk: 7%
• Yogurt: 15%
• Turkey: 15%
• Chicken: 10%
• Pork: 19%
• Tuna: 8%
• Salmon: 8%
• Beef: 50% (but steak seems to be much lower–only 21% for four ounces of ribeye)
Let’s again imagine your animal product intake for the day was two eggs, a cup of yogurt, and a bunch of turkey and salmon. Your zinc intake from animals would be 46%. Where does most of your zinc come from then? Not from thin air, but rather vegan sources and supplements!
The NIH mentions cereal, oysters, beef and crab as good sources of zinc.
Good vegan options (based on NIH and veganhealth.org): Beans, nuts, seeds, oatmeal, bread, tempeh, miso, fortified cereal, vitamin supplement.
• Eggs: 20% (only found in yolk, so forget the egg whites)
• Milk: 0% (but 30% is supplemented)
• Yogurt: 0% (but 20% is supplemented)
• Turkey: unclear — “You can’t rely on beef, pork or poultry to supply impressive amounts of vitamin D.”
• Chicken: unclear — “You can’t rely on beef, pork or poultry to supply impressive amounts of vitamin D.”
• Pork: unclear — “You can’t rely on beef, pork or poultry to supply impressive amounts of vitamin D.”
• Tuna: at least 40%
• Salmon: sockeye variety has at least 112%
• Beef: unclear — “You can’t rely on beef, pork or poultry to supply impressive amounts of vitamin D.”
Vitamin D is a weird one. It’s tough to find a lot of information on whether meat has any significant amounts of Vitamin D in it at all. Vitamin D is found in things like animal organs, certain types of mushrooms and certain types of seafood. Also, our bodies make it when we are exposed to sunlight, but there are a ton of variables that can affect that, like pollution, clouds, windows, and sunscreen.
Despite popular belief, milk and dairy don’t have any significant amounts of Vitamin D! It’s supplemented. In the 1930s people were getting a disease called rickets because they weren’t getting vitamin D reliably, so milk producers began supplementing their milk products with it. Seriously, check the ingredients of your milk—even your organic milk and kefir. Indeed, according to the NIH, most people get their Vitamin D from supplements, including fortified foods like milk. This makes sense when you consider the NIH’s list of other good sources of Vitamin D: cereal, fatty fish, and liver. Ain’t nobody got time for liver.
So let’s say it’s one of the five days of the week where you don’t eat fish, and your meals involve two eggs, yogurt, chicken and turkey, then that gives you 40% of your vitamin D. Again, vegan sources and supplements (other than fortified milk and cheese products) to the rescue.
Good vegan options (based on NIH and veganhealth.org): sunlight exposure, non-dairy milks, fortified orange juice, fortified cereal, UV-exposed mushrooms (it’ll say on the label if they are), vitamin supplements.
• Eggs: 18% (but this is poorly absorbed)
• Milk: 18%
• Yogurt: 23%
• Turkey: 7%
• Chicken: 7%
• Pork: 12%
• Tuna: 77%
• Salmon: 78%
• Beef: 46%
Seafood and beef are starting to pull their weight here. But as mentioned above, many people don’t eat seafood on a daily basis, usually to avoid mercury or simply because they aren’t crazy about seafood.
The NIH lists clams, beef liver, cereal and fish as good sources of B12. Assuming you aren’t loading up on beef liver and seafood regularly, the meal plan of two eggs, cup of yogurt, turkey sandwich and chicken, gives you 55% of your daily B12 (and probably less because the B12 in eggs isn’t very absorbable). That’s it for animal products so the rest should come from vegan sources and supplements.
Good vegan options (based on NIH and veganhealth.org): fortified cereal, fortified nutritional yeast, vitamin supplement. But seriously, just take a B-12 vitamin every couple of days. They are cheap, usually taste good, and your body just pees out whatever you don’t use.
Another thought on B-12: Some non-vegans might criticize the vegan diet for being “unnatural” because B-12 isn’t found in reliable sources outside of vitamin supplements and fortified foods. Similarly, there are vegans out there who criticize B-12 supplements as “unnatural,” and urge vegans to either not worry about B-12, or to consume a “vegan source” of B-12. Other than fortified foods or B-12 supplements, there are no scientifically proven sources of vegan B-12, so don’t risk it. On the internet, there’s a ton of misinformation about how you can get B-12 from seaweed, fermented foods, kombucha, algae, local and organic produce and even dirt. None of these are proven to be reliable sources of B12, and some vegans, especially the raw food types who long for a “natural” source of B12, allow themselves to believe the myths. Hopefully one day one or some of these foods will be proven to be a reliable source of B-12, but that hasn’t happened. And as I’ve explained, don’t be ashamed that your B-12 comes from a supplement. Meat eaters aren’t ashamed that they have to take Vitamin D supplements in their milk and dairy products.
After all, one of the most detrimental things I can think of to the vegan cause is a vegan ignoring their health and contributing to the fear that a vegan diet is lacking in something. Meat eaters don’t have worry about sabotaging such a heavily diet-based cause when they suffer from nutrient deficiencies. Those stories don’t grab the headlines like stories about vegans do. Vitamin B-12 is added to many cereals, nutritional yeast and many non-dairy milks. A jar of hundreds of dissolvable tablets costs anywhere from $4 to $12 dollars. Take a lozenge. It’s that simple.
And by the way, “natural” (however you define that word) is a not a compelling term to use in an argument, whether you’re a meat eater or a vegan. It has almost no definition (people tend to define it to include whatever fits their argument). And it’s a fallacy to assume that things that are natural are good, simply because they are what you define as “natural.” Poison ivy, arsenic and tornadoes are natural yet they aren’t recommended. Likewise, it’s a fallacy to assume things that are “unnatural” are bad. There are countless human inventions, many of which we consume, that aren’t found in nature. Including cooked meat, which plenty of meat eaters would argue is natural. After all, who cares what is natural when meat eaters almost definitely get a bunch of their vitamins and minerals from supplements and fortified foods? Now back to your regularly scheduled blog post.
• Eggs: 4%
• Milk: 29%
• Yogurt: 45%
• Turkey: 2%
• Chicken: 2%
• Pork: 2%
• Tuna: 2%
• Salmon: 2%
• Beef: 1%
This is milk’s time to shine—milk and yogurt both have decent amounts. Although, as mentioned above, milk consumption is plummeting largely due to health concerns, and with people testing out vegan and paleo diets.
The NIH lists cereal, milk, sardines, tofu, kale and soymilk as good sources. If someone has a cup of yogurt with 45% calcium, and isn’t much of a sardine eater, where do they get the rest? Vegan sources and supplements! (By the way, a cup of Chobani-brand Greek yogurt has only 15% daily value of calcium. FAGE brand has 20% daily value. Not very impressive.)
Good vegan options (based on NIH and veganhealth.org): non-dairy milks (like almond milk, coconut milk, soymilk and rice milk–they are all usually fortified), calcium-set tofu, fortified cereal, kale, mustard greens, bok choy, turnip greens, collards, watercress and vitamin supplements.
According to the Institute of Medicine, women should get 1,100 mg of omega 3s and men should get 1,600 mg of omega 3s. For this post, I’m going to (unscientifically) take the average of that (1,350 mg) and use that to come up with rough daily value target percentages.
• Eggs: 2.8% (39 mg)
• Milk: 0.7% (9.8 mg)
• Yogurt: 2.3% (31.9 mg)
• Turkey: 11% (157 mg)
• Chicken: 11% (154 mg)
• Pork: 4% (59.5 mg)
• Tuna: 32% (433 mg)
• Salmon: 294% (3982 mg)
• Beef: 3.4% (46.4 mg)
The general thinking behind fat consumption is that people consume too many omega-6 fatty acids (corn, sesame, safflower, sunflower and soy oil) and not enough omega-3 fatty acids. So where do omega-3s come from? You can see that salmon is a good source. Possibly too good, though? Jack Norris of veganhealth.org warns that too much omega-3 can result in bleeding and bruising.
So, like many other nutrients I’ve looked at so far, omega-3s are found in large amounts in fish and animal organs. Imagine it’s a typical day without fish. Two eggs, yogurt, turkey and chicken would amount to about 27% of your recommended omega-3 levels. Heck, if you replace your turkey sandwich lunch with a tuna sandwich, you would still be below 50% of your recommended omega-3 levels. Where does the rest come from? Vegan sources and supplements, yet again.
Good vegan options (based on NIH and veganhealth.org): leafy greens, nuts (especially walnuts), flaxseed oil, and omega-3 supplements (some of which are made with algae oil). And avoid eating omega-6 oils like corn oil and soy oil.
What Does It All Mean?
Obviously these common animal-based foods aren’t completely devoid of nutrients. Far from it. They all have a ton of protein, of course. And, as I’ve shown, some of them do well in a couple of categories—dairy products have calcium, beef has zinc and B-12, fish has B-12 and omega 3s. Of course, as I mention above, these happen to be categories of food that are in the news because it’s recommended we limit their consumption due to health concerns. There are other forms of meat that are less common, but their nutritional stats are very similar to animals already included–duck (similar to poultry’s stats), lamb and goat (similar to beef’s stats, but with much lower zinc), bison (similar to beef’s stats), rabbit (high in B-12, otherwise similar to poultry’s stats), venison (similar to beef’s stats).
As for internal organs like liver and blood–apparently for reasons of taste, availability or health, I found no evidence that they are eaten in significant amounts or by a significant portion of the American public. I only care about the animal products that people are actually eating. This can be frustrating, because the mere existence of uncommonly eaten animal products with high amounts of hard-to-obtain nutrients (like animal blood and liver) gives a false comfort to meat eaters who will almost never eat these foods.
Here are couple of key takeaways from all of this:
First, people worry about vegan foods not being good sources of certain vitamins and minerals. But it’s clear that many of the common animal products people eat are also not very good sources of those vitamins and minerals. And in reality, vegan foods and supplements provide much, if not the vast majority, of many of these nutrients in the diets of meat eaters.
Second, people criticize vegans because it might be advisable to take a supplement, especially for Vitamin B12. But it’s rare for meat eaters not to rely on supplements for various vitamins and minerals. Again, you’ll always run into a committed liver and pig blood eater who makes sure to get all of their nutrients from animal products. Yet virtually everyone else is relying on supplements for one, if not two, three, four or five key nutrients.
The biggest “gotchya!” to critics of supplementing in the vegan diet is Vitamin D. Almost all Vitamin D, for most people, comes from supplements.
When foods like milk or cereal or grains have vitamins added or “supplemented” to their ingredients, it’s it’s more technically correct to say the products are “fortified.” I haven’t been strict with the terminology, but “fortified” is just food industry speak for a vitamin or mineral that’s supplemented with that nutrient. It’s still a supplement.
It’s amazing how many foods we commonly eat are supplemented (or “fortified”) with these nutrients. Breads, cereals, pastas, flours and grains are frequently supplemented with iron. About half of the iron intake in the U.S. comes from such grain products. Cereals, fruit juices and other drinks are often supplemented with calcium. Cereals also frequently supplement zinc and B12.
Half the country eats cereal every day.
Most of the popular brands are fortified. (Occasionally some of the health food stores sell brands that don’t, for some reason). Frosted Flakes have 25% B12, 10% Vitamin D, and 25% iron. Cheerios have even more—45% iron and 25% zinc and 10% calcium. Honey Bunches of Oats has 60% iron. And that’s all in a single serving. Who has just has a measly cup of cereal?
Not to mention all of the protein powders, energy bars and energy drinks that have invaded supermarkets, convenience stores and pantries everywhere. They are routinely supplemented with a cocktail of vitamins and minerals.
So, don’t feel ashamed to take a B12 lozenge. And the next time a vegan detractor questions where you get your Vitamin B-12, ask them where they get their Vitamin D. It might make for a pretty lame conversation, but hopefully they’ll see, they’ve probably been supplementing their entire lives.