5 Lessons Learned From The Vegan RD

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Sunrise Red Lentils

It’s good to be reminded that there’s stuff you don’t know.  As a nutrition professional who’s also a vegetarian, I like to think I’m up to date on the nutrient facts and figures important for a no-meat diet.  But, each week new research comes out and the prevailing wisdom shifts over time; sometimes that means you should change your shopping list or eating habits accordingly.  Well, I just had my wisdom shifted by a rock star in the field of vegetarian nutrition:  Ginny Messina, MPH, RD (The Vegan RD).I was lucky enough to sit in on her presentation “7 Habits of Healthy Vegans” at Portland VegFest and I must have had 5 or 6 Oprah-style “a ha moments” in the course of 45 minutes.  I figured since October 1st is World Vegetarian Day, it made sense to share my plant-based epiphanies.


1.  Dark chocolate is a decent source of iron.  This melt-in-your-mouth treat most often gets praised for its antioxidant activity, but one ounce can also have anywhere from 2 to 4 milligrams of iron.  On the high end, that’s 22% of the Daily Value or about 1/5 of your daily requirement.  That’s not bad, considering it’s a favorite food for people following all types of diets.

2.  B12 supplements are not just valuable for vegans.  Most vegans know there are no reliable plant sources of vitamin B12.  But, adequate absorption is actually a concern for other segments of our population like older adults and those with low levels of stomach acid or intestinal disorders.  Vegetarians who include milk, cheese or eggs might also want to assess their need for a supplement or fortified products because their relatively low intake of animal foods may not provide enough of the vitamin.  (Another interesting B12 tidbit?  The amount of B12 your body can absorb depends on the dose.  It does best with 1 microgram or less at a time.)

3.  Protein is not the bad guy in the fight for strong bones.  For years the research seemed to suggest that too much protein negatively affected bone health by causing calcium to leach into the urine and be eliminated from the body.  However, the tide is turning as we’re learning more and scientists now think protein might actually improve calcium absorption.  Who knew?  This is a good reminder to keep an open mind in our efforts to grasp the tenets of healthy eating.  Nutrition is still an emerging science and sometimes our current practice can get turned on its head.

Sunrise Red Lentils
Protein-packed Sunrise Red lentils


4.  Pistachios and quinoa deserve an honorable mention with the legumes.  Because of their spectacular amino acid profiles, this grain and nut are nearly as noble as black and garbanzo beans (and their friends the lentils) in the context of a vegan eating plan.  If you haven’t tried pronouncing quinoa yet, let alone cooking it, take a peek at my dinner menu for Quick Quesadillas and San Antonio Rice.  (And it sounds like this:  “keen-wah”.)

5.  Iodine warrants a second look.  Iodine is sort of like the wallflower of nutrients; no one pays much attention to it.  But, we all need a reliable source, vegan or not.  Ginny recommends an iodine supplement of 90-150 micrograms, 3 to 4 times a week if you’re not sure you’re getting at least 1/4 teaspoon of iodized salt each day.  (Take a minute, go to the pantry and look at your container.  Is it iodized?)  Sea vegetables can offer some iodine as well, but content varies and you can actually get too much of a good thing if you include them in your meals every day.


These 5 items are just a snippet of all the wisdom Ginny has to offer on the subject.  If you’re so inclined, I would encourage you to read more here:  Ten Tips for Staying Happy and Healthy on a Vegan Diet.

With all this focus on the ideal nutrient intake and favorable food choices, it can feel like each bite deserves a few hours of research before we start chewing.  So, I took great comfort in this quote at the end of Miss Ginny’s presentation:  “Every morsel of food we put in our mouth doesn’t have to be unprocessed perfection.”  So, I guess once in a while it’s OK to leave behind all the mineral, vitamin, protein, and legume stuff you know…and just eat.


Have you ever had a dietary about-face, when something you learned immediately changed your behavior?


10 thoughts on “5 Lessons Learned From The Vegan RD”

  1. Thanks for this informative post! I have been tracking my nutrient intake since my daughter was born and I’m nursing…I noticed I’m low in B12 every day and I eat animal products! I do take a quality prenatal with B12 but I need to read more about absorption!

    1. Hi, and thanks for taking the time to read this post. It does seem like there’s a lot to keep track of with choosing the right sources and maximizing absorption. Best of luck with your new baby adventures!

    1. Fortified foods (like ready-to-eat breakfast cereals, non-dairy milks, and meat substitutes) and vegan B12 supplements are the answer. My understanding is that one possible source of the B12 used in these products is bacterial fermentation. Red Star brand nutritional yeast is also a good source, and is generally acceptable to vegans.

  2. I’m so glad I have yet another reason to include chocolate in my diet!
    Thanks for the info on protein. Can you tackle calcium next?

    1. At the presentation, Ginny reminded us that not all leafy greens have available calcium because of the presence of oxalates. Good sources include mustard and turnip greens, Chinese cabbage and kale. But, unfortunately, we don’t absorb much from spinach, beet greens, or Swiss chard. I think the rest of the calcium story probably deserves its own post. I’ll put it on my list!

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  4. Wonderful piece and I posted a link from my blog. However, I would say there is one caveat with regard to iodine: Anyone with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis or other thyroid issue should consult with their physician about how much, how many hours after taking thyroid meds, and whether or not they should supplement at all.

    Thanks a fine post and very fine blog.

    1. Hi Jamie. You’re absolutely right. It’s a good rule of thumb to check with your physician before you add or subtract any supplements, as there could be interactions with medications or particular combinations that won’t work for your situation. Thanks for the reminder!

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