17 Primal Tips for Vegans and Vegetarians

We all know vegetarians and vegans. And while we have our differences, they are our friends, our family, our partners, our spouses, even our children. We all have people in our lives who avoid meat and/or animal products in general for multiple reasons—health, ethics, the environment, squeamishness, animal welfare—but we care about them. We also subscribe, with varying degrees of rigidity, to an eating philosophy based on the nutritional importance of animal foods. How do we reconcile these competing loyalties? Should we give up on them? Are they a lost cause? Should we simply wait for them to come limping toward us with sallow skin and low muscle tone? I kid, of course. We should absolutely help where and when we can.

Yet telling them to “just eat meat” doesn’t work. If anything, it’s counterproductive. Instead, we can offer productive, legitimately helpful advice from a Primal perspective. Like:

1. Eat real food.

Don’t waste time with fake meat products and vegetarian junk food. Skip the Tofurky, the boca burgers, the canola-infused mock chicken nuggets, the facon, the mockeroni. Because if you’re willing to eat that dreck just because it vaguely resembles real meat, you should probably just listen to your body and eat the actual meat.

2. Don’t be a pastatarian; eat plants.

These are the vegetarians and vegans who subsist almost entirely on pastas, rice, boxed foods, pre-prepared foods, bread, crackers, and crispy grain-based foods.

They’re not eating the voluminous salads. They’re not whipping up homemade hummus and complex lentil stews with a million spices. They’re not eating anything close to a “traditional” vegetarian diet. Rather, they’re eating the easiest most refined junk food that technically qualifies as “plant-based.”

If you call yourself a vegan or a vegetarian, act like it. Eat actual plants. Plants are incredible, delicious, nutrient-dense, and varied. You claim to be about them. You should actually eat them.

3. Avoid refined seed oils.

Don’t eat soybean oil, corn oil, canola oil, sunflower/safflower oil. These are all heavily refined, high in omega-6 fats, easily oxidized, and stripped of their nutrients.

Instead, eat extra virgin olive oil, red palm oil, coconut oil, high-oleic sunflower/safflower oil, grass-fed butter/ghee (if you do dairy), macadamia oil, and avocado oil.

4. Go grain-free.

You don’t need the grains, and being vegan or vegetarian doesn’t absolve you of the potentially harmful effects of consuming them. On the contrary, the increased reliance on grains for your calories and nutrients may even increase the harmful load of antinutrients you consume.

Okay, Sisson, what the hell am I supposed to eat if not grains? You’re right, except for potatoes, legumes, sweet potatoes, bananas, apples, blueberries, strawberries, pears, taro, cassava, tigernuts, and a thousand other foods, there’s no way to obtain carbohydrates, minerals, protein, fiber, and vitamins without eating grains. Scratch that suggestion.

5. If you do eat grains, eat sprouted grains.

Most vegetarians and vegans are going to eat grains. I accept that and submit that sprouted grains are the superior choice. Why?

Sprouting increases the nutrient content, including soluble fiber, folate, vitamins C and E, and various antioxidant compounds.

Sprouting reduces the antinutrient content, including gluten, phytic acid, various enzyme inhibitors, and tannins.

6. Eat fermented soy.

Many vegans and vegetarians turn to soy to replace the protein they’re not getting from animal products. This makes sense and, contrary to popular belief, studies indicate that soy protein is decent (though not as good as animal proteins like whey or egg) at maintaining physical performance. So I’m not going to tell you to stop eating soy.

But make sure some of it’s fermented. I’m talking about natto (which contains a huge amount of vitamin K2, another vital vitamin usually found in animal foods like eggs and liver), tempeh (which has reduced levels of mineral-binding phytic acid), stinky tofu (which contains beneficial bacteria known to ameliorate intestinal inflammation), and soy sauce (which has elevated levels of antioxidants and little to no residual soy proteins or gluten). In general, fermenting soy unlocks the isoflavones, making them and their purported health benefits actually bioavailable to humans.

7. Eat eggs and dairy.

As long as you’re willing to eat eggs and dairy, you’re good on most nutrients you’ve been missing. Pastured eggs have choline, omega-3s, DHA, protein, cholesterol, vitamin B12, and many other vital nutrients vegans and vegetarians typically lack. Contrary to popular belief, eggs do not increase cardiovascular risk (not even in vegetarians). Pastured dairy has saturated fat, omega-3s, CLA, calcium, protein, and probiotics (if fermented), and the full-fat stuff is consistently linked to good health.

For nutritional completion, a good mix is eating both DHA-enhanced eggs (typically attained by adding algae to the hens’ feed) and pastured eggs. Most health food stores will have both.

And vegans, I know you’re opposed to eating eggs and dairy. I get it. But do consider raising your own chickens or goats or getting eggs and fresh dairy from someone you know and trust to be a faithful and ethical steward. They really aren’t going to miss all those unfertilized eggs or that extra milk.

8. Consider oysters.

Oysters have no central nervous system. Like plants, they respond to environmental conditions and stimuli, but there is no central brain conducting operations and perceiving sensations. As such, I see no logical reason for ethical vegans and vegetarians to avoid eating oysters. They’re not being harmed, because there’s no consciousness present to perceive harm and take umbrage. Even longtime animal rights activist Peter Singer suspects oysters feel no pain and once actively endorsed their consumption.

Also, oysters are the greatest source of zinc on the planet. Zinc is tough to get from plant foods. They’re also rich in vitamin B12, also absent in plant foods.

9. Consider insects.

Don’t lie. You smash mosquitoes, spiders, and other assorted creepy crawlers that invade your pristine home and threaten your supply of sprouted rice cakes. Why not take the next step and eat the things?

While I’m unaware of mosquito-based foods, there are some damn tasty cricket bars out there on the market which provide ample protein, pre-formed vitamin A, iron, and vitamin B12.

10. Consider protein powder.

Whey is my favorite (obviously) and the most effective. So if you do dairy, throw some whey isolate in there for the most bioavailable protein available. If not, you’ve got other options, like egg white protein, rice protein, or hemp protein (which also gives you fermentable fiber and some omega-3s).

11. Take vitamin B12.

I’m serious, guys. Don’t believe the hype. No, your incredible vegan gut bacteria aren’t synthesizing enough vitamin B12 to keep you replete. No, your spirulina smoothies don’t really contain enough B12 to get you by; you’re actually consuming a pseudovitamin B12 that increases the need for real B12. You are at risk for deficiency and you do need to supplement with B12 or eat foods that contain it because it is that important for cognitive, cardiovascular, mental, autoimmune, sexual, and cancer health.

Don’t assume you’re replete in B12 unless you’ve taken the latest assays, which are more sensitive than normal serum B12 tests. According to normal serum tests, 52% of vegans and 7% of vegetarians are deficient. According to the newer, more sensitive tests, 92% of vegans and 77% of vegetarians have low levels of the active form of vitamin B12. Here’s a good one.

12. Take creatine.

Creatine is mostly found in skeletal muscle so if you want creatine from the diet, you have to eat things that have muscle, like meat and fish. Human muscle contains creatine as well, where it’s used to fuel muscle and help recovery during training by recycling ATP (the basic energy currency of the body). Creatine is also found in the brain, where it maintains cognitive function. Studies show that vegetarians who supplement with creatine enjoy improved cognition and physical performance. Vegan brains and muscles, which have even less (small amounts of creatine are present in eggs), should benefit even more from supplementation.

Creatine monohydrate is cheap, widely available, effective, and doesn’t come from actual animal flesh. There’s no reason for vegans and vegetarians not to take it.

13. Take carnosine.

Carnosine is a fusion of two amino acids (beta-alanine and histidine) and is found abundantly in meat. You don’t hear much about carnosine (except in certain Asian countries, where chicken extract is a popular carnosine supplement used as a mood enhancer that actually works), but it’s important and vegetarians/vegans should supplement it. Why? After all, carnosine isn’t essential; we can synthesize it.

It turns out that vegans and vegetarians tend to have lower levels of carnosine. Since the compound is linked to muscle endurance and acts as an antioxidant in the brain, it’s probably a good idea to top yourself off. Try this one.

14. Take taurine.

Taurine is similar to carnosine: it’s not essential (we make it, just probably not enough), it appears only in animal foods, and it plays a major yet under-appreciated role in preventing death and disease.

This is a good supplement to take.

15. Take algal oil.

DHA is perhaps the most important long chain omega-3 fatty acid. You can make a bit from ALA, which is found in plant foods and grass-fed meat, but it’s unclear how reliable the ALA-DHA conversion rate is in humans. Since vegans and vegetarians tend to be deficient in DHA, I suspect the conversion is rather poor. Good news is that you don’t have to slaughter and consume fish flesh to get DHA. You can get it from the same source marine animals get it: algae.

This is still a fairly new product and the human research is preliminary and scant, but algal oil improves blood lipids and increases blood levels of EPA (another long chain omega-3 found in fish oil). I suspect it’s a good substitute for fish fat. Try this one.

16. Consider pescetarianism.

Among all the plant-based groups, pescetarians appear to be the healthiest, beating vegans, vegetarians, and lacto-ovo-vegetarians when it comes to mortality risk.

My wife was a pescetarian for decades before adding meat to her diet, and she’s always been the fittest, healthiest person I know.

17. Consider peganism.

No, not Norse god worship. Peganism—veganism with a smattering of paleo. It involves mostly eating plants and treating animal products like meat, eggs, shellfish, and organ meats as essential condiments, supplemental foods that provide the nutrients you simply cannot get—but as a human still require—from plants. This is a growing dietary movement popularized by Dr. Mark Hyman. In my opinion, our good friend Denise Minger is the best example of a successful pegan dieter. Consult with her for a more detailed plan of attack.

You don’t have to adopt all these suggestions (except for taking vitamin B12). But doing even a couple will markedly improve your health and long term outcomes. More importantly, it will allow you to continue eating the way you’ve chosen without compromising your beliefs or values.

Thanks for reading, everyone! What other recommendations do you have for vegans and vegetarians?

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About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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