I recently had a chance to chat with Jack Norris, the President and co-founder of Vegan Outreach, a registered dietician, and an author of Vegan for Life. This book, jointly written by Jack and Virginia Messina, is one of my favorites and has been my go-to reference for over a year. It’s really well written and packed with incredibly useful information about what it takes to thrive on a plan based diet. I talked to Jack about the book and his research - we discussed protein, calcium, vitamin B12, omega 3, soy and so much more!
Below you will find the 25 minute podcast and some key points from our talk, but you’ll have to listen to the podcast for the full conversation.
Maria: What led you to study nutrition?
Jack: I worked with Vegan Outreach. We thought one of the best things we could do to help animals was to present the case for veganism to people individually, because we thought it was such a powerful thing, and so that was what we set out to do, and unfortunately nutrition is a big part of that issue. I say unfortunately just because it’s kind of a side thing, I never meant to become a nutritionist. I didn’t set out to do that as someone interested in animal protection, but because nutrition was such a vital part of veganism I decided to – there were a lot of issues, some people were saying they couldn’t be healthy as a vegetarian or vegan, and so I decided that I needed to go back to school and learn the science of nutrition with an open mind.
Maria: Protein is one of the first topics that you discuss in your book. So, what’s the deal with protein? Why is it important? And how can vegans get enough of it?
Jack: People are taught, I think in school – I don’t know if they’re taught explicitly this, or they just come to believe that meat equals protein and nothing but protein.
So there becomes this idea in our society that the only source of protein is meat. That’s not true. All plants foods have protein.
And some plant foods have quite a bit of protein. Legumes are fairly high. Now meat is about the highest in protein until you start getting to more processed soy foods, like tofu. But most people get much more protein than they need and a lot of protein in plants is adequate. One thing to be aware of is that the protein isn’t what’s important, it’s actually the amino acids which make up proteins. The body takes protein and breaks it down into amino acids, and then your body absorbs amino acids and you reassemble them into proteins that you need. So you need a good mix.
Some people have the idea that some of the essential amino acids aren’t in some plant foods, but that’s not actually the case, they’re all in all plant foods.
It’s just that some plant foods have a lower ratio of some of the amino acids. In particular, lysine seems to be the limiting amino acid in vegan diets, so if you are not getting enough lysine, then you could actually fall short on your protein needs. Lysine is found prevalently in legumes, which includes soy foods, peanuts, beans, lentils, peas. All those foods have plenty of lysine, as does quinoa. So if you’re someone who eats any combination of those foods, two to three servings a day, you should be fine in terms of your protein intake.
Maria: So it’s not just protein, it’s the type protein. What is your favorite way to get your protein?
Jack: My favorite protein meal in the afternoon after I do a workout is re-fried beans with fire roasted tomatoes on them and some tofurkey sausage cut up, and then I have corn chips with that. The beans and tofurkey sausage are both very high in protein and it’s a pretty tasty little snack and satisfying.
Maria: There is another belief out there that milk or dairy are the only ways to get calcium. What are some of the best sources of calcium for vegans?
Jack: The best sources of calcium for vegans are kale, broccoli, collard greens, mustard greens, turnip greens, bok choy and fortified soy milk. Sorry to be so specific; I used to just say leafy green vegetables, but unfortunately people think that lettuce was included in that, but lettuce is not a good source of calcium. And also some of the greens, like spinach and beet greens are too high in oxalates for the calcium to be absorbed.
One thing that is a concern is that about half of vegans only get half the RDA for calcium.
And that’s just not enough. Calcium is my latest thing that I think vegans are neglecting to pay attention to it. For many years it was Vitamin B12, but now I’ve found that most vegans know about B12 and are taking steps to making sure they get it, but calcium is still neglected.
Maria: So we have to eat those leafy greens then.
Jack: You eat them, or fortified soy milk, or take a calcium supplement. Many vegans I know aren’t eating enough of the leafy greens. So if you’re not getting enough leafy greens, and I know I don’t eat enough greens to meet my calcium requirement, so I take a calcium supplement.
Maria: Another thing about calcium you go over in your book is acidic and alkaline foods and their effect on calcium stores. Can you explain that a little bit – what are acidic and alkaline foods? And how do they affect calcium stores?
Jack: I think there is some truth that acidic foods reduce calcium absorption, and alkaline foods can increase it, but I think in terms of a vegan diets it really doesn’t make much difference. There’s kind of an idea out in the vegan nutrition world that because vegans don’t eat animal products, which tend to be acidic, that we don’t need to pay attention to calcium because we’re not having animal protein leach the calcium from our bones. But the research actually has not shown that to be true, but since you asked, hard cheeses tend to be the most acidic, so if you eat a hard cheese, you’re going to lose a lot of calcium. Hard cheese is also very high in protein and protein increased calcium absorption in the intestines as well as increasing loss in the urine. So there’s somewhat of a wash there. The take home message is that while there is this idea of acid and alkaline foods, for vegans the main thing to know is you need to eat enough calcium. Now potassium seems to be a good thing to prevent loss of calcium, and sodium is the opposite, it increases calcium losses. So, eating foods that are high in potassium is a good thing to do, and the leafy greens tend to be very high in potassium.
on vitamin B12
Maria: Vitamin B12 to another big topic in the vegan world. Why is it important? And how can vegans can get enough B12?
Jack: Vitamin B12 is a vitamin needed for healthy nerves and blood. It’s made by bacteria which lives in the digestive tracks of animals and that is where vegan Vitamin B12 supplements come from. They isolate the bacteria and produce B12 bacteria cultures in test tubes. If you don’t get enough B12, there are two types of deficiencies. One is overt deficiency where you get an actual anemia or you get nerve damage, which typically starts with tingling in your fingers and toes. Generally, if people take B12 quickly enough after that happens, they prevent any sort of permanent damage. A milder form of B12 deficiency is associated with elevated homocysteine, and homocysteine is thought to be a toxin, once again to nerves and blood and it is associated with an increased risk for stroke and early death and dementia. And so if you have an elevated homocysteine, which you’re not going to know by how you feel for many years you could be contributing to those diseases for yourself, so what you want to do is make sure you take enough B12 to keep your homocysteine levels at a healthy level. It doesn’t take that much. I have recommendations at veganhealth.org as to how much B12 you should take. Basically, If you take a multivitamin, most multivitamins have plenty of B12. If not, you should take a B12 supplement. One way to do that is to get 1000 microgram supplement and take it twice a week. Make sure you chew it up before swallowing it. There are also fortified foods. If you eat fortified foods only, you should them twice a day or two different fortified foods each day.
on iodine, vitamin D, and omega 3
Maria: And speaking of supplements, what kinds of supplements should we consider taking?
Jack: It really depends on what your habits are and what you do. Another nutrient to be concerned about, I don’t mean in a frightening way, but just to be aware of, is iodine. Meat eaters get iodine in three ways. One is dairy equipment is often contaminated with iodine because they use it to clean the equipment and the cow’s teats, so you end up with iodine in milk. If you eat seaweed multiple times a week or iodized salt, you should be fine for iodine. But if you don’t, then you should make sure you get an iodine supplement. Many foods contain iodine, it’s just not consistently in foods. It depends where they were grown and how much iodine was in the soil.
Vitamin D is another one where if you get plenty of sunshine and your skin is efficient at turning sunshine into Vitamin D, then you don’t need to worry about any sort of supplement or fortified foods. Studies show that an average vegan gets enough Vitamin D, but once in a while I come across vegans who are fatigued and they found out from the doctor that their Vitamin D levels were extremely low. So it’s something to be aware of, and if you’re someone who never goes in the sun, then you probably should take a supplement of Vitamin D.
Another thing to be aware of is Omega 3 fatty acids. This is one that is more theoretical than anything. There are two types, one is short chain Omega 3s, which are found in a number of plant foods, in very small amounts. Then it’s found in much higher amounts in flax seed oil, peanut oil, walnuts, soy oil and chia seeds and hemp oil. So all those foods contain a large amount of a short chain fatty acids called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Then your body needs to convert ALA into either EPA or DHA. Now EPA and DHA are found in fish, and that’s where fish eaters get their EPA and DHA, otherwise your body needs to convert the ALA into those, and some people’s bodies are not efficient at doing that, especially if they had relied on fish most of their life and as adults become vegan. EPA is important for heart disease, and DHA is more important for nerves, (for dementia and depression). So I’m more concerned with DHA because EPA is more readily reconverted from short chain fatty acids, and also because vegans tend to have a reduced risk for heart disease already. I’m also more concerned about DHA, because it’s harder for the body to convert to DHA and so the easiest way is just to take a DHA supplement if you’re vegan. I don’t know for sure that it’s necessary, but it’s something to be prudent about until we know more. Another way to get DHA is to just eat a lot more of the short chain omega 3 fatty acids, like flax seeds.
You can find more details on veganhelath.org, I have an article on Omega 3 fatty acids that discusses all of it.
Maria: Some people are concerned that supplements are then not as good at the real food.
Jack: There’s no hard and fast rule about supplements being better than food or not. It depends on the supplement and the food. A lot of the supplements that were touted during the 1990s were antioxidant supplements. And studies showed that antioxidant supplements are not effective. But in terms of Vitamin B12, Vitamin B12 is actually more effective as a supplement than as part of a food, because getting it from food relies on your digestive system functioning at an optimal rate. The Institute of Medicine actually recommends that people over 50 get a large portion of their B12 from fortified foods and supplements. So it really just depends on your diet.
Maria: The topic of soy is one of those big topics we can spend probably an hour discussing, but I just couldn’t miss the opportunity to ask. The million dollar question is, what is your opinion is about soy from the research that you’ve done?
Jack: My opinion is that two to three servings of soy are safe and can even possibly prevent breast cancer, breast cancer recurrence and prevent prostate cancer. The only issue with soy is people with thyroid problems, and that would be too technical to get into, the main thing is to make sure that you’re getting enough iodine. I eat plenty of soy and as someone who has read the research and does care about my health to a great degree, I eat soy without much concern.
Maria: Is there a difference between fermented and unfermented soy?
Jack: There’s not a difference between fermented and unfermented. For example, tofu has done very well in studies, and it’s not fermented. Soy that hasn’t been studied for the most part are soy meat analogs. One research study did look at soy meat analogs and they found them to be healthy, but they haven’t been studied carefully over a long period of time yet. But there’s certainly plenty of research on tempeh, tofu, soy milk and miso, the traditional soy foods, to indicate that they are safe.
tips and advice
Maria: What tips would you give to someone considering switching to a vegan diet or tying a vegan diet for the first time?
Jack: I recommend that you include some fats, carbohydrates and protein in every meal. I think generally people are the most satisfied when they include all three. Fat improves satiety at meals, your body needs carbohydrates because it generally doesn’t make carbohydrates on its own, and then you always need protein, which improves satiety. I would recommend that when you’re switching to a vegan diet, think about adding plant foods in rather than cutting out animal foods. Don’t dwell on what you can’t have, but think about what you could add to a meal. I don’t mean it’s just a psychological thing, but it improves your outlook on it.
Maria: What is next on your agenda? Do you have plans for another book? What are you working on currently?
Jack: I don’t have another book in the plans, but any research that comes out that’s relevant to vegan diets, I summarize and post on JackNorrisRD, so anyone who is interested in keeping up on the latest research as it comes out can subscribe to my blog, and they will find out what’s going on in that area. I work full time for Vegan Outreach, and we’re always trying to spread the word about how animals are treated, and hopefully people will decide they don’t want to support animal agriculture. It certainly seems to be working well lately. I know part of its due to the economy, but also the meat industry is now starting to come around and admit that animal protection is having an effect on meat sales, which have really dropped in the last few years. So it seems that our efforts are working, but we’re just trying to do more of it.
I hope this dispelled some common myths and inspired you to include more nutrients in your life. Having access to the information and realizing that it’s actually quite simple to reap all the benefits of a plant-based diet, was an extraordinary experience for me, and I hope it will be for you too.