BHSc, ND, GDCouns, Naturopath, Counsellor and EFT Therapist

Nine tips of the week:  Know your best vegan zinc sources, Get blood tests annually to check your nutritional status, Chew your food thoroughly, Know the facts about fish Parts 1 and 2, Eat only when hungry, How to tell ‘toxic hunger’ from true hunger, Know the difference between ‘satisfied’ and ‘full’, Plug yourself in to reliable vegan nutrition resources.

Know your best vegan zinc sources
Zinc is a mineral that’s needed in only trace amounts, but since it’s involved in over 300 different enzyme reactions with in the body, getting enough of it is crucial. Studies of zinc stores in vegans show that they tend to have lower body levels of zinc, without actually being deficient.
Having even marginal levels of zinc may weaken the protection against cancer that vegans enjoy compared to omnivores, so it’s definitely worth making the effort to get enough zinc in your daily diet!
The recommended daily intake (RDI) for zinc is 8 mg for women and 14 mg for men. Zinc is less well-absorbed from plant foods than from animal foods, so vegans should aim for more than the RDI.

Here’s a selection of vegan foods that are high in zinc:

Food Mg zinc per serve
Baked beans, 1 cup 5.8
Unhulled sesame seeds, ½ cup 5.5
Pumpkin seeds/pepitas, ½ cup 5
Pine nuts, ½ cup 4.4
Aduki beans, 1 cup cooked 4.1
Chestnuts, 1 cup 4
Sunflower seeds, ½ cup 3.6
Peanuts, ½ cup 3.2
Rolled oats, ½ cup 3.1
White beans, 1 cup cooked 3
Pecan nuts, ½ cup 2.5
Lentils, 1 cup cooked 2.5
Almonds, ½ cup 2.3
Walnuts, ½ cup 2.1

Get blood tests annually to check your nutritional status.
Getting an annual blood test to check your levels of important nutrients is a good ‘’insurance policy”.
I recommend the following tests:
* 25-hydroxyvitamin D (aim for > 75 nmol/L)
* Full blood count, paying particular attention to haemoglobin, haematocrit and MCV (mean corpuscular volume – a good indicator of your iron, folate and vitamin B12 status)
* Iron studies including ferritin (aim for ferritin of 20-80 ng/mL)
* Serum vitamin B12 (aim for > 400 pg/mL)
* Serum and red cell folate (aim for the top of the reference ranges, or even higher)
* Plasma zinc (aim for > 12 mmol/L)
* Urinary spot iodine excretion (aim for > 100 mcg/L)

It’s also a good idea to test your plasma lipids (cholesterol and triglycerides) and fasting glucose level at least every few years. Your cholesterol level should drop substantially on a vegan diet; but poorly-planned vegan diets that rely too heavily on refined carbohydrates may bump up your triglycerides and/or glucose level.
My clients find that seeing their blood test results is highly motivating – their dedication to healthy eating pays off in improved results, while a not-so-good result gives them a wake-up call that they can’t overindulge in vegan junk food without compromising their health!

Chew your food thoroughly
OK, so at this point you may be rolling your eyes. Who am I, your mother? But it turns out your mother was right all along – chewing your food thoroughly is critical for good digestion and absorption of nutrients from a vegan diet.
Vegan doctor Michael Klaper, lead researcher of the Vegan Health Study which tracked the health of over 900 vegans, found that those who weren’t thriving on vegan diets tended to be under-consuming and under-absorbing essential minerals such as zinc, copper and magnesium.
In addition to choosing good food sources of minerals (see previous Health Tips in this series), Dr Klaper stresses the importance of chewing food thoroughly – at least 30 chews per mouthful, or as he puts it, “until your food is reduced to a cream”.
Dr Klaper points out that minerals in plant foods are tightly bound to plant fibre, and a couple of quick chews is simply not sufficient to wrest those minerals away from that fibre so they can be absorbed.  Our primate relatives, the chimpanzees and gorillas, spend 6 hours per day chewing leafy foliage and forest fruits, while the average human chews for less than an hour per day.
There are other advantages of thorough chewing: the more we chew our food, the more flavour molecules we extract from it, increasing the pleasure of eating; and the more quickly we feel satisfied, which helps to curb overeating.
So don’t just take your mother’s advice, take Dr Klaper’s and chew your food thoroughly!

Know the facts about fish
Sooner or later, when you announce that you’re following a vegan diet, you’re going to encounter ‘the fish question’. After carefully explaining that you don’t eat any animal products, you’ll be asked “But you eat fish, don’t you?” When you point out the bleeding obvious, that fish are animals and therefore aren’t included in a vegan diet, your horrified questioner will exclaim “But fish is a health food! You need it for omega 3s! You need fish for a healthy heart! Fish is brain food!” and other such advertising slogans that most people take as truths.
While it’s true that some species of fish are rich sources of the long chain omega 3 fats DHA and EPA, which are crucial for the development and health of our brain, immune system and cardiovascular system, the flesh and oil of fish is also, sadly, a rich source of multiple toxins (which I’ll be discussing in more detail in tomorrow’s Tip); and inflammation-promoting arachidonic acid.
To add insult to injury, a large metanalysis involving nearly 70 000 participants found that neither eating more oily fish nor taking fish oil supplements reduced the risk of overall death, death from heart disease, sudden cardiac death, heart attack, or stroke.
More bad news on fish from the famous Framingham Heart Study: consumption of dark fish such as salmon, swordfish, bluefish, mackerel, and sardines increases the risk of atrial fibrillation – a type of abnormal heart rhythm which dramatically increases your risk of stroke, dementia, heart failure and premature death – by 6-fold.
Eating fish is just not worth the risk – stick to plants!

Know the facts about fish – part 2
As mentioned in yesterday’s Tip, fish is a bad deal for your health, largely because of the toxins it contains. Here’s a brief list of the nasties in fish, and what they do:

  • Alkyphenols – endocrine-disrupting industrial pollutants that are linked to breast cancer, severe asthma, rhinoconjunctivitis (severe seasonal pollen allergy), and severe eczema. Breastfeeding women who ate fish at least twice a week were found to have the highest levels of alkyphenols in their breast milk, which may compromise the neurological development, growth and hormonal health of their babies. Anchovies, mackerel, salmon and cod are the species most heavily contaminated with alkylphenols.
  • Mercury – a toxic metal that accumulates in the brain and which passes through a woman’s placenta and breast milk to her baby. According to a study conducted by the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, the negative effect of the mercury that babies are exposed to when their mothers eat fish – up to a 10 point drop in IQ when mothers eat long-lived predator fish such as salmon, tuna and perch – outweighs the beneficial effect of DHA on their child’s neurological development for most of the 33 species of fish that they studied.
  • Pharmaceutical drug residues: traces of drugs including antihistamines, blood pressure pills, anticonvulsants, cholesterol-lowering drugs, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories, antidepressants, steroids, antibiotics and barbiturates have been detected in fish caught for human consumption. While none of the drugs exceeded levels considered ‘safe’, the effects of frequent exposure on vulnerable individuals such as children and the elderly (who have reduced capacity to metabolise drugs) are simply unknown.
  • Persistent organic pollutants: these include PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), dioxins and dieldrin , which are endocrine (hormone) disrupters linked with impaired immune function; abnormal sexual development of babies within the womb; liver, biliary tract and breast cancer; liver damage; sperm count and motility; thyroid gland dysfunction; diabetes and Parkinson’s disease.

Eating fish is just not worth the risk to your health – or your children’s!

Eat only when hungry.
According to an ancient Egyptian proverb, “One quarter of what you eat keeps you alive; the other three quarters keeps your doctor alive.” Given the skyrocketing ‘health care’ costs of both industrialised and developing countries all over the world, it looks like we’re all keeping lots of doctors alive!
We live in an era in which recreational eating is so entrenched in our culture, we don’t even stop to think about it. We’re bombarded by food advertising whenever we drive down a highway, turn on the TV or radio or even watch a Youtube video, ensuring that the thought of food is never far from our minds. And the proliferation of cafés, restaurants, take-aways and drive-throughs, not to mention snack food options in supermarkets, petrol stations and convenience stores, makes certain that the foods the ads encouraged us to crave are never far from our grasp.
Even nutritious foods are harmful when eaten to excess; let alone highly-processed junk foods, vegan or not! Unfortunately, many people mistakenly believe that saying ‘no’ to food outside of  ‘proper’ meal-times will deprive them of the pleasure of eating. Nothing could be further from the truth: Waiting until you’re actually hungry before you eat enhances the pleasure of eating, because it sharpens your senses, allowing you to fully appreciate the sight, aroma, texture and taste of the food.
Also, when you wait until you’re hungry before you eat, you have a much better sense of how much you need to eat before you’re satisfied. People who eat ‘by the clock’ or constantly graze, are almost always so out of touch with their biological need for food that they have no idea when they’ve had enough.
Be careful, though, that you don’t mistake ‘toxic hunger’ for the true hunger that signals that your body is ready for food. More on this in tomorrow’s Tip!

How to tell ‘toxic hunger’ from true hunger
As discussed yesterday, many people have trouble distinguishing ‘toxic hunger’ – the discomfort generated by physiological withdrawal from addictive substances in food such as caffeine, sugar,  salt and flavour enhancers; and by detoxification of the by-products of digestion, including nitrogen wastes from protein digestion; and free radicals – from true hunger – the set of sensations that alerts you that your body needs refuelling.
Many people experience toxic hunger when first transitioning to a vegan diet, and unfortunately some interpret the unpleasant symptoms as indicating that the diet doesn’t suit them.
Here are the classic indicators of toxic hunger:

  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Lightheadedness
  • Headaches
  • Bloating and gas
  • Irritability
  • Rumbling stomach
  • Loss of concentration
  • Mood swings

True hunger, on the other hand, has these characteristics:

  • Mouth and throat sensation – tingling, buzzing, gnawing
  • Increased salivation
  • Food tastes better!
  • Strong but not unpleasant, can still function while experiencing it

It’s important to realise that it may take weeks or even months of healthy, high-nutrient vegan eating before your toxic hunger symptoms go away and you begin to experience the pleasure of true hunger. Hang in there and don’t fall into the trap of thinking that a vegan diet isn’t right for you!
I recommend the use of a good vegan probiotic if you’re still experiencing excessive gut discomfort after a few weeks of healthy vegan eating. The right probiotic helps increase the population of fibre-digesting bacteria in your gut, reducing bloating, gas and rumbling.

Know the difference between ‘satisfied’ and ‘full’.
Most people notice a big difference in the way they feel after eating a vegan meal compared to a meal containing animal products. Many people enjoy the new sensation, describing it as ‘feeling lighter’ after they eat, and rate it as a huge benefit of going vegan. But others find coping with the lack of ‘fullness’ challenging, and some even misinterpret it as meaning that the diet isn’t working for them because they’re ‘hungry all the time’.
Frequently they’re told (usually by someone with a product to sell) that they’re not eating enough protein, and need to supplement with protein powder. Increasing your protein intake above what you can naturally consume in a healthy plant-based diet simply adds to toxic hunger and slows down your adaptation to a plant-based diet.
As mentioned in the previous tip on ‘toxic hunger’, true hunger is a mouth and throat sensation, not a stomach sensation such as rumbling or cramping. Uncomfortable stomach sensations can occur when you first start eating a vegan diet, primarily because your fibre intake will inevitably go up, and it can take a little while before your gut bacteria adapt to the new food supply. This settles down quickly in most people.
You can help yourself through the transition from feeling the need to be ‘full’ to being content to feel ‘satisfied’ by eating ½ cup of legumes (dried peas, beans and lentils) with each meal. The fibre and resistant starch in legumes not only fill you up now, but are fermented by gut bacteria into short chain fatty acids which reduce your appetite over the next few hours after you eat them.

Plug yourself in to reliable vegan nutrition resources
The Internet is both a blessing and a curse. It has revolutionised the way we connect to each, allowing people from all over the planet to offer each other support and information – as we’re doing together in this 30 Day Vegan Challenge! It has also made it much easier for practitioners like me to keep up with new research, since everything is now available on the Internet, rather than being locked up in academic libraries.
But unfortunately, the Internet has made it possible for anyone who has an opinion on something to start their own website, blog, Youtube channel or Facebook group to push their point of view, and this has resulted in much confusion among members of the public who don’t have the background in human nutrition and physiology to be able to discern fact from fiction; marketing hype from carefully-tested hypothesis.
This is the process I follow when I’m reading nutrition information on the web:

  1. Check who the author is. What are their qualifications; have they actually treated patients/clients or do they simply have an interest in nutrition and are writing about their personal experience? As researchers like to say, “The plural of ‘anecdote’ is NOT ‘data’.”  Just because something works for one person doesn’t mean it will work for everyone, or even a large minority of people.
  2. Check whether any scientific references are given for the claims being made. My policy is to immediately close any website that does not cite sources for the information it is giving. I always follow up the sources cited to check that they actually support the claim being made.
  3. Check the claims being made in PubMed ( PubMed is a central database of abstracts (summaries) of papers published on scientific journals from all over the world. If anyone has ever proven that apple cider vinegar cures cancer (in humans, that is, not killing cancer cells in a petrie dish), they will have published the finding and it will be indexed in PubMed (go ahead and search it now!).
  4. Google the claim and check the websites that support it. If they’re all blogs and websites selling products, the claim is probably not solidly grounded. If they’re reputable sites that have some kind of system for assessing claims, such as WebMD, you can have more trust in it.
  5. For user-friendly explanations of complex scientific research and nutritional information, you simply can’t go past Dr Michael Greger’s website It’s highly searchable, and each topic is covered in a brief (2-10 minute) video that draws on multiple scientific studies (all of them given in the Sources Cited section, so you can follow up on the research yourself).
  6. Finally, a shameless plug: please subscribe to my free weekly e-newsletterEMPOWERED! which brings you nutrition information in a form that obeys all the above rules 🙂 Just go to to subscribe.