I’m not a vegetarian (although my wife and son have dabbled with it). I’m certainly not a vegan. I don’t recommend that anyone eat a totally plant-based diet for health reasons. Animal foods are too good, too central to our evolutionary history, and too important for our physiology to ever give up entirely. On the contrary, I think meat, eggs, seafood, and dairy are some of the healthiest foods on the planet, and most people should be eating more of them than they currently eat.
However, plant-based diets are exploding in popularity and I know people are going to eat them—and I care about people’s health. If they’re going to do it anyway, I’d like to help them do the diet in the healthiest way possible.
Eat Whole Foods
Don’t live off plant-based “meats” or lab-grown garbage. Ditch the Tofurkey and Facon. Don’t eat canola-soaked fake chicken nuggets and mockeroni.
If you insist on eating things engineered to resemble meat, maybe you should just listen to your body and eat meat. But you don’t want to do that—right?
Don’t Base Your Diet on Grains
There are dozens of reasons why grains are unhealthy, particularly as a staple food. They’re high in anti-nutrients—chemical compounds that damage your stomach lining and impair your absorption of the nutrients the grains are supposedly so rich in. They’re not even that high in micronutrients like vitamins and minerals, especially when you consider the phytic acid in the grains often reduces your absorption of minerals. They’re high in carbs, which most people need to be reducing in their diets, not increasing.
But the main reason is that there are hundreds of better plant foods to base your diet on other than grains.
Beets, carrots, rutabagas, turnips, and other root vegetables
Eat Healthy Fats
Avoid all industrial seed oils. Following a plant-based diet will necessarily increase your linoleic acid content. Therefore, you don’t need any more and seed oils are the densest source around.
Instead, use extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, red palm oil, coconut oil, and macadamia nut oil. These will provide stable saturated and monounsaturated fats that won’t go rancid or oxidize very easily, and they’ll keep your linoleic acid content low.
Eat Mushrooms Regularly
Mushrooms are a different category of living thing entirely. They aren’t animals and they aren’t plants. As such, they seem to offer special benefits and unique nutrients to plant-based dieters.
For one, they can be a rich repository of vitamin D, which is a common stumbling block for plant-based dieters.1 Two, they offer that meaty umami punch that so many vegan and vegetarians are looking for in fake meat products. The beauty of the mushroom is it provides that without being a processed junk food product.
Warning: they may have a degree of sentience, depending on who you ask (and which mushrooms you eat). Listen for any sub perceptible screams or cries of anguish when you bite into one to be sure.
Sprout Your Grains, Legumes, Nuts, and Seeds
Sprouting anything lowers the antinturient content and increases the micronutrient content. More specifically, sprouting reduces or mitigates:
Phytic acid, a compound that can bind to minerals and prevent their absorption in the gut.
Gluten, which can be a gut irritant and trigger leaky gut in susceptible people. Sprouting doesn’t destroy gluten entirely, but it does reduce it and make it less problematic in some people.2
Vitamin C content
Vitamin E content
Prebiotic soluble fiber
Consume Fermented Soy
While soy is a reliable source of protein and calories for plant-based dieters, it has its issues. The isolated soy protein can depress testosterone production in males.3 Plus, the many soy products out there tend to be high in phytic acid, which binds to minerals and prevents their absorption. Because soy is such a blank slate for any flavor, much of what passes for “soy” is actually just junk food.
You can get around this issue by eating more traditional forms of soy, like tempeh, natto, miso, and even fermented tofu. These are time-tested ways of consuming soy that use fermentation to reduce antinutrient content, render the proteins more digestible, and create new bioactive vitamins like vitamin K2 (in natto).4
Plant-based diets are inevitably deficient in vital micronutrients and fatty acids. There’s no getting around that. Whatever you might think about animal foods today, the fact remains that the human body evolved in the context of regular meat and seafood consumption. If you aren’t going to eat any animals, you have to supplement.
What supplements do I recommend on a plant-based diet?
Vitamin B12: Despite what many claim, a vegan diet can’t supply vitamin B12. No, not through spirulina shakes. No, you can’t rely on your gut bacteria to produce it. You have to eat animal foods—or supplement.
DHA: Humans just aren’t good at elongating the plant-based ALA into the longer chained marine-based DHA, the most important omega-3 fat. Used for brain health, cardiovascular function, and overall systemic integrity, there’s no substitute for DHA. Humans have to eat it directly, either through cold water fish and shellfish (or enriched eggs) or through vegan-friendly algae oil, which has been shown to improve omega-3 status.5
Creatine: One of the most well-researched supplements in the world, creatine is only found in meat and fish. It’s important for both muscle performance and cognitive function in everyone regardless of diet, but especially in vegans and vegetarians (who get none without supplementing). Studies have found that vegetarians who supplement with creatine enjoy better memory and stronger executive functioning in addition to performance gains in the gym.
Carnosine: Carnosine is another meat-only nutrient. While we can make carnosine in our bodies, supplemental carnosine—either through meat or pills—has been shown to help with mood regulation and psychological health.
Taurine: Taurine falls into the same category as carnosine. Everyone makes it, but extra from diet or supplementation offers many important health benefits. Unfortunately, taurine only appears in animal foods, so plant-based dieters will have to take supplements to get any extra.
Iodine: Plant-based dieters who aren’t eating seaweed should definitely add some kelp tablets to their diet or take a dedicated iodine supplement. Iodine deficiency is quite common among vegan dieters, and rather catastrophic for thyroid and cognitive health.6
Zinc: Conditional based on diet. Best source is red meat, oysters, and other shellfish. If you’re not eating those, you might want to take a little zinc picolinate.
Protein powder: Protein is a tough one on a vegan diet. You can make it work if you really try hard, but it’s easier to just take protein powder supplements to “top you off.” The problem is that good plant-based protein is hard to come by, especially compared to something like whey which is the gold standard for hypertrophy and recovery from training. This fermented pea protein (standard non-fermented pea protein can have some digestive or worse side effects) or hemp protein (another complete plant protein) are good options.
Nutritional yeast: Nutritional yeast is an incredible source of B-vitamins for vegetarians and vegans. It also provides a pleasant “cheesy” flavor you can add to almost anything.
Include Eggs and Dairy
Vegans won’t do this, and I get that. But I implore anyone eating a “plant-based diet” to consider eating some high quality, pasture-raised eggs and grass-fed and/or raw dairy. Doing so will give you the micronutrients (like B12, zinc, and iron), long chain omega-3 fatty acids, and high quality protein a plant-based diet so often lacks. It’s such an easy solution to the issues of plant-based diets.
Hell, even vegans can raise backyard chickens and eat their eggs—or find a friend or farmer who raises chickens in a way that sits well with you. No harm done there, right? You can control (or confirm) their living situation yourself and give them a good, cruelty free life.
Big ask, I know. But it’s really, really worth it. Just one or two eggs a day can give you tons of B12, zinc, iodine, and DHA.
Eat a Few Oysters a Week
Oysters do not have functioning or conscious central nervous systems, meaning they most likely cannot feel pain or distress. A few oysters a week gives you incredible amounts of vitamin B12, iron, zinc, and even DHA. I actually believe an otherwise vegan diet with ample oysters could be a workable diet.
I doubt you’ll take me up on it, but please consider it.
That’s it. That’s how you do a plant-based diet the healthiest way possible. Let me know if you have any questions.
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.