Nutrition FAQ

Frequently Asked Questions
By Julieanna Hever, R.D.

Julieanna is a registered dietitian, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Plant-Based Nutrition and a special consultant to Forks Over Knives.

Do I need to take a B12 supplement when following a whole-food, plant-based diet?

If you follow a whole-food, plant-based diet, you do indeed need to be aware of your vitamin B12 intake. This vitamin is created from microorganisms in the soil, which animals consume, thereby making it part of their bodies and providing it to people who consume their flesh. However, it is very easy to find vitamin B12 in non-animal-based sources. Nutritional yeast and fortified plant-based milks contain ample vitamin B12 or you can take a supplement or chew some B12-fortified gum. We require 5-10 micrograms per day. This simple consideration will allow you to prevent deficiency, which does not typically show up in blood tests until it is too late.

Is it safe for children to follow a whole-food, plant-based diet?

In choosing a variety of whole plant foods as the basis for your child’s meals, you are providing a significant health advantage when compared to the standard American diet. Since the subject is extensive, please refer to my book for more information. I have a chapter on raising children in there as well as one for pregnancy and breastfeeding. I think it will provide you with information and advice so you feel confident that you are providing a healthful diet for your child.

Why are dairy products not recommended?

Dairy products are not healthy, regardless of whether they are organic or conventional. Even organically produced dairy contain naturally occurring steroids and hormones, which can promote cancer growth. Also found in dairy products are toxins including fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, veterinary medicines, antibiotic residues, synthetic preservatives, and additives. The animal protein, fat, and cholesterol (even nonfat/skim milk contains cholesterol) all contribute to heart disease, certain cancers, diabetes, and other major chronic disease. Dairy has been found to be pro-inflammatory and, essentially, is not a healthy choice. Any of the beneficial nutrients found in milk, like calcium, are found in sufficient amounts in a healthful plant-based diet.

Why are fish and seafood products not recommended?

I do not recommend fish for several reasons.  It has a high quantity of pollutants including DDT, dioxin, PCB’s, mercury, and other similar toxins. Further, it has an excessive amount of animal protein, which may contribute to chronic disease. Fish also lacks fiber, phytochemicals, and antioxidants, that are commonly found in whole plant foods. Since all of the beneficial nutrients of fish are easily obtainable in plant foods, I recommend that fish be minimized, or better yet, excluded.

Will I get enough omega-3s?

We need omega-3 fatty acids as one of the two essential fats (the other one being omega-6). The healthy goal is to eat less omega-6 fats (found abundantly in vegetable oils and processed foods) given that these are consumed in excess, and excessive omega-6 intake negatively effects how omega-3 is metabolized. The evidence is not convincing as to whether supplementing omega-3 fats in the diet is beneficial. However, if one is concerned about omega-3, whole plant-based foods that have high amounts include flax seeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds, walnuts, soybeans, and leafy greens. By choosing plant-based foods, you avoid the vast toxins found in fish (and even in “purified” fish oils), including dioxin, DDT, PCB’s, mercury, other environmental pollutants, and other undesirables.

Isn’t grass fed meat healthy?

The difference in the nutrient composition of grass-fed vs. conventionally grown beef is very small, especially when compared to the difference between animal and plant food. The bigger problem seems to be in the kind of food. Indeed, Dr. Campbell’s population study in China involved what we would consider “well grown” meat, yet the difference in disease rates were stark.

Do I need to eat a certain diet based on my blood type?

There is no evidence to support a blood-type diet. Instead, it is based on speculation and theory. Further, the evidence to support a whole-food, plant-based diet is much more compelling in the scientific literature. For example, plants contain antioxidants, phytonutrients, vitamins, minerals, fibers, and water, all of which are health-promoting. Meat has minimal nutrients and also contains health-damaging saturated fat, cholesterol, steroids, hormones, high levels of pesticides, excess protein and other undesirables. It is evident that a plant-based diet is far more healthful than one that emphasizes animal products.

Are whole grains healthy?

Whole grains are an excellent part of a health-promoting diet.  Whole grains are excellent sources of fiber, B vitamins, and they help promote satiety with minimal calories.  Refined and processed grains (as opposed to whole grains) can lead to weight issues, nutrient deficiency, and chronic disease.   In addition healthy societies throughout the world have sustained themselves on a diet based in whole grains as well as legumes, vegetable and fruits.

Will I get enough protein?

Protein is found in all whole plant foods, and it has never been demonstrated that we require more than what is found naturally in a varied whole-food plant-based diet that is sufficient in calories.  Such a diet will contain at least 8-12% of calories from protein.  Note that athletes may require more protein, but this is generally achieved by consuming more food, so one will get more protein without changing the protein ratio.  If one would like to consume still more protein on a plant-based diet, even though it has not been shown to be necessary or beneficial, one may choose to consume more legumes, which generally contain a higher percentage of calories from protein compared to other plant foods.

Do I need to take multi-vitamins?

Not only are multivitamins unnecessary on a varied whole-food, plant-based diet, but some studies have actually shown them to be harmful. In fact, a recent study found multivitamins to increase mortality in older women. Further, there is research that nutrients such as folic acid, beta carotene, and vitamins E, C, and A, when taken in supplement from, can increase the risk of certain chronic diseases. As a result, I generally do not recommend mulitvitamins or other supplements except for Vitamin B12, although if someone has a specific nutrient deficiency or concern, they should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional.

Is salt healthy?

Salt-composed of sodium and chloride-is a mineral that is ubiquitous in the food supply. Unfortunately, this means that it is too easy to take in large quantities without even realizing it. We only need 1,500 mg per day, and yet, the average American consumes 3,466 mg daily. High amounts can lead to or exacerbate high blood pressure, can increase the risk of gastric cancer, and are taxing on the kidneys. Many people are also salt-sensitive. A mere teaspoon of salt contains 2,300 mg of sodium, which is already more than our daily requirement. To prevent over consumption, limit processed foods, cheese, many restaurant dishes, and cook with as little salt as possible. Further, add the salt you cook with towards the end of cooking so the flavor will be noticeable. Remember that your palate quickly adjusts to how much salt you consume…the more you have, the more you need. It is easy to slowly wean off salt, and eventually, you will notice you don’t prefer salty foods.

Why is oil not recommended?

Contrary to popular thought, oil is not a health food. Oil is 100 percent fat, contains 120 calories per tablespoon, and is nutrient-poor and calorie-rich. Although there are small amounts of a few nutrients present in some oils, there is no health benefit from consuming them. Minimizing or eliminating oils is an easy way to cut calories and excess fat from the diet. You can get ample fat from whole food sources and, at the same time, attain fiber, phytonutrients, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. A lower-fat diet is optimal and the best way to obtain essential fats is through legumes, small amounts of nuts, seeds, and even leafy green vegetables. Foods like avocados and olives also provide fat, and are superior to oils, which are processed and fat-centric.