Some people just don’t do milk.
There are many reasons why. Maybe you have a dairy intolerance. Maybe you don’t like the way cow’s milk tastes. Or maybe you think cow milk is unhealthy.
I won’t contest the reasons why. That’s another topic for another post, and I’ve already covered the most common anti-dairy arguments. If you want to read about my stance on the healthfulness (or lack thereof) of dairy, read what I’ve written about raw milk, cheese, yogurt, and dairy in general. If you want to learn how to identify dairy intolerance, read this.
But the fact is, lots of people either need or want a milk alternative. Water is great to drink, but it’s not the right smoothie substrate, and it can’t replace milk in recipes or coffee drinks. You need something vaguely white and thick enough to pass as milk.
Normally in a post like this, I’d cover all the different varieties and what sets each apart—their strengths and weaknesses, their nutrient profiles, their unhealthy ingredients. And I’ll certainly do that today, but first there’s good news and bad news.
The good news is that there are plenty of good choices available. If you want something to drink, use in smoothies, or add to coffee, there are many different plant-based milk that avoid overly offensive ingredients.
The bad news is that most non-dairy milks are usually very low in nutrients. The parent food to these plant-based milks—the almonds, the cashews, the hemp seeds, and so on—are extremely nutrient-dense in and of themselves. Just check out my posts on nuts and seeds to get the nutritional lay of the land. But almond milk isn’t almonds, cashew milk isn’t cashews, and hemp seed milk isn’t hemp seeds.
This isn’t surprising when you think about how nut milks are made: by blending the nuts with a bunch of water and straining out the solids to try to extract some of the nut-ness. It’s pretty inefficient. If you could press an almond to wring out the almond milk, then you’d have something interesting. But that’s not how it works. Most non-dairy milks are superficial mirages of the real thing.
To illustrate this, let’s look at the most popular non-dairy milks and compare the nutrients in the parent nut/seed/plant to the nutrients in the nut/seed/plant-milk (when applicable).
Nutrient Profiles Of Popular Non-Dairy Milks
This is the go-to option for most strict paleo eaters starting out. It sounds like a great idea. Almonds are a nutritious nut, high in magnesium, copper, vitamin E, and manganese. They have a decent amount of protein, some nice prebiotic fiber. In your head, almond milk is fantastic. Unfortunately—and this goes for most of the other nut milks out there—the average jug of store-bought almond milk contains no more than a handful of almonds.
In an ounce of almonds:
- 163 calories
- 6 g carbs: 3.5 g fiber
- 14 g fat: 8.8 g MUFA, 3.4 g linoleic acid (LA), 1.1 g SFA
- 6 g protein
- 50% vitamin E
- 22% vitamin B2
- 31% copper
- 18% magnesium
- 28% manganese
In a cup of almond milk:
- 36 calories
- 1.4 g carbs
- 2.6 g fat: 1.7 g MUFA, 0.6 g linoleic acid
- 1.4 g protein
- 45% vitamin E (added)
- 17% vitamin A (added)
- 25% vitamin D2 (added)
- 4% magnesium
- 4% manganese
- 39% calcium (added)
- 8% copper
Not great carry over. No prebiotic almond fiber. Almost no protein, magnesium, manganese, or copper. The richest nutrients are all the ones they added after the fact.
Cashew milk is in the same boat: mostly water, not too much cashew.
In an ounce of cashews:
- 156.8 calories
- 8.6 g carbs: 0.9 g fiber
- 12.4 g fat: 6.7 g MUFA, 2.2 g LA, 2.2 g SFA
- 5.2 g protein
- 10% vitamin B1 (thiamine)
- 69% copper
- 24% iron
- 20% magnesium
- 20% manganese
- 15% zinc
In a cup of cashew milk:
- 25 calories
- 1.4 g carbs: 0.2 g fiber
- 2 g fat: 1.1 g MUFA, 0.4 g linoleic acid
- 0.8 g protein
- 2% vitamin B1
- 11% copper
- 4% iron
- 3% magnesium
- 3% manganese
- 2% zinc
- 17% vitamin A (added)
- 25% vitamin D2 (added)
- 18% vitamin E (added)
- 37% calcium (added)
Traditionally, you make coconut milk by pulverizing fresh coconut flesh, blending it with a little water, and passing it through a cheesecloth or fine strainer. This produces a very rich, very high-fat milk that runs about 550 calories per cup. This is the coconut milk used in cooking that comes in cans and cartons. A second pass with the coconut solids produces a thinner, less-rich coconut milk that runs about 150 calories per cup. This is often called “Lite Coconut Milk” and can be used to cook or to drink.
Besides the abundance of medium chain triglycerides and a lot of manganese, neither thick or thin coconut milk are nutrient-dense. A cup of rich, full-fat coconut milk gives decent amounts of magnesium, copper, zinc, selenium, and iron, but you have to realize that it takes 600 calories to get those nutrients. That’s not exactly nutrient-dense; the micronutrient-to-calorie ratio is skewed.
They do sell jugs of thin coconut milk as a milk replacement. Except for the fortifications they add (vitamin D, calcium, riboflavin, and the other usual suspects), these aren’t going to supply much in the way of nutrition.
In an ounce of flaxseed:
- 151.4 calories
- 8.2 g carbs: 7.7 g fiber
- 12 g fat: 2.1 g MUFA, 6.5 g ALA (omega-3), 1.7 g LA, 1 g SFA
- 5.2 g protein
- 39% vitamin B1 (thiamine)
- 38% copper
- 20% iron
- 26% magnesium
- 31% manganese
- 13% selenium
- 11% zinc
In a cup of flax milk:
- 25 calories
- 1 g carbs
- 2.5 g fat: 1.2 g ALA (omega-3)
- 5% iron
- 63% B12 (added)
- 25% vitamin D2 (added)
- 17% vitamin A (added)
- 25% calcium (added)
The main standout is the omega-3 content. Flax milk has a little over a gram of alpha-linolenic acid (the plant form of omega-3) per cup.
I’m not talking about the oncoming wave of high-THC cannabis milks. This is hemp milk, produced by blending non-psychoactive hemp seeds with water and straining the solids out.
In an ounce:
- 149.1 calories
- 7.8 carbs: 7.8 g fiber (all fiber)
- 10.1 g fat: 1.1 g MUFA, 2.2 g ALA, 4.8 g LA, 0.8 g SFA
- 7 g protein
- 24% vitamin A
- 63% copper
- 50% iron
- 33% magnesium
- 86% manganese
- 13% selenium
- 18% zinc
In a cup of hemp milk:
- 70 calories
- 2.2 g carbs, all fiber
- 6 g fat, 1 g ALA (omega-3), 3 g omega-6
- 2 g protein
- 18% copper
- 13% iron
- 10% magnesium
- 24% manganese
- Plus all the usual fortifications (calcium, vitamin D, vitamin A, riboflavin, vitamin B12
That’s not too bad, actually. It picks up some decent mineral levels, and hemp fat is one of the only fats to contain stearidonic acid, an intermediate omega-3 fat in the conversion pathway from ALA to EPA that increases the EPA content of red blood cells in humans (a very good thing).
There’s a product called Milkadamia. Great name, disappointing result.
In an ounce:
- 203.5 calories
- 3.9 g carbs: 2.4 g fiber
- 21.5 g fat: 16.7 g MUFA, 0.4 g LA, 0.1 g alpha linolenic acid (ALA), 3.4 g SFA
- 2.2 g protein
- 28% vitamin B1 (thiamine)
- 24% copper
- 13% iron
- 51% manganese
In a cup of mac nut milk:
- 50 calories
- 1 g carbs
- 5 g fat
- 1 g protein
- 125% vitamin B12
- 17% vitamin D
- 25% vitamin A
- 38% calcium
Despite having the best product name and the most potential for being a creamy milk substitute (has anyone tried adding mac nuts to a smoothie?—incredible!), the nutrient profile is low, and there’s not much going on.
I’ve written about oats before. They have some interesting properties, some beneficial fiber, and a decent mineral profile. Adding oat beta-glucan fibers to fiber-free instant oatmeal reduces the postprandial glucose response, so at least in the context of refined starch, oat fiber can be helpful.
The most popular and widely-available oat milk is called Oatly. The website explains the process: mill raw oats with water, add enzymes to extract the starch, separate the beta-glucan from the bran, discard the bran, pasteurize it, bottle it. This retains the beta-glucans (2 grams of fiber per cup) and starch (16 grams carbs per cup). The only micronutrients they advertise are the ones they add, including calcium, potassium, vitamin A, riboflavin, vitamin D, and vitamin B12; there’s no indication that the normal oat-bound minerals like magnesium, manganese, and zinc make it into Oatly in significant amounts. To top things off, they add canola oil for texture and mouthfeel.
Rice milk is made by blending water with cooked rice, brown rice syrup, and brown rice starch.
Like the others, its only real micronutrients comes from the ones they add to it. It’s higher in carbohydrates than any of the other milks I found.
Believe it or not, of all the popular non-dairy milks out there, soy milk contains the most nutrients and is probably the closest to cow milk. It’s high in protein. It contains a nice balanced selection of minerals. A review comparing soy milk, coconut milk, almond milk, and rice milk to cow milk found that soy milk was the closest—mostly because it actually featured measurable nutrients.
In a cup of soy milk:
- 74 calories
- 3.6 g carbs; 2 g fiber
- 4 g fat
- 8 g protein
- All the usual additions, like calcium, vitamin B12, vitamin D, riboflavin, and vitamin A
- 10% magnesium
- 15% manganese
- 6% folate
- 6% potassium
- 19% copper
- 10% selenium
It’s not ideal though. People who regularly drink soy milk tend to end up with micronutrient deficiencies. Kids who drink cow milk are less likely to have atopic eczema, while soy milk drinkers have no such protection (and may even have increased risk). The protein in soy milk can help people build muscle, but milk proteins work better and also provide other benefits to the immune system.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t use non-dairy milks. They are inoffensive and helpful for recipes. Just don’t expect any incredible health benefits from them.
3 Notable Brands With Extra Benefits
But there are a few specific non-dairy milk products that deserve a closer look, especially if you’re going to go this route.
Vita Coco Coconut Milk
Instead of blending coconut meat with water and filtering out the solids, Vita Coco mixes coconut cream into coconut water to produce a milk-like product. I haven’t tasted it myself, but the nutrient profile is pretty compelling.
- Moderate levels of fat (5 grams per cup), primarily from saturated medium chain triglycerides.
- Low carb (5 grams per cup). Naturally sweet from the coconut.
- Decent mineral levels (RDIs: 45% calcium, 15% magnesium, 10% potassium, 10% zinc).
Some of the calcium, magnesium, and zinc is added, some is natural (coconut water can be a good source of all three). Still, it’s cool to see magnesium added because so many are deficient and supplementary magnesium is well-tolerated and effective.
Back when I was toying with the idea of getting a significant amount of my protein from plant sources for a quick experiment (long story short: I didn’t do it, I like animals too much, and I found myself relying too heavily on processed powders), I got a bottle of something called Ripple. Ripple is pea-based milk, fortified with extra pea protein, algae-based DHA, calcium, iron, and vitamin D. It has as much protein per serving as milk (8 grams), using a type of protein that can promote muscle gain, and it tastes quite good. It uses high-oleic sunflower oil for fat, which is low in polyunsaturated fat. If I truly couldn’t have dairy and desperately wanted something to drink or make smoothies with, I’d probably do Ripple.
Tempt Hemp Milk
I’ve never tried this brand, or hemp milk in general. But just like the generic hemp milk analyzed above, Tempt Hemp Milk has a far better nutrient profile than most of the other nut or other non-dairy milks I ran across. If it tastes anything like hemp seed, which has a nutty, subtle flavor, I can imagine hemp milk having a pleasant taste.
Tips For Making Your Own
You’re all an enterprising bunch. Why not make your own non-dairy milk?
- You can make your own nut milk. There are thousands of recipes out there, but they generally seem to involve soaking nuts in water and a pinch of salt overnight, draining them, and blending the nuts with fresh water, straining out the solids, and sometimes adding a date or a dab of maple syrup for sweetening. The higher the nut:water ratio, the richer, more nutritious the milk.
- You can also make thicker, more nutrient-dense nut milk by blending nut butter and water until you reach the desired consistency. You aren’t discarding anything with this method.
- You can avoid nuts altogether. One scoop of MCT powder, one scoop of collagen peptides, whisked into water makes a decent approximation of milk. Use 3 tablespoons of water to make creamer for coffee. This isn’t a nutrient-powerhouse, but it provides medium chain triglycerides (which boost ketone production) and collagen.
- Or how about making a kind of nut broth? The usual audience for non-dairy milks is obsessed with consuming raw foods. They make a point to prevent their food from ever getting warmer than the hemp-clad crotch of a Trustafarian hitchhiking through Joshua Tree in the middle of summer. But consider that applying heated water to pulverized nuts will extract even more nutrients from the nut and deliver them into the water. Then you strain the solids and refrigerate the broth, producing “milk.” I bet that’d be quite tasty and more nutritious than a cold water nut wash.
The Bottom Line on Nut Milks…
Nothing on the market or that you cook up in your kitchen is going to rival the nutrient density of cow’s milk. From the protein to the healthy dairy fats to the dozens of micronutrients we know about and the dozens we have yet to catalogue, actual milk packs a real wallop that your basic almond, cashew, pecan, or flax milk simply can’t defeat. So, you’ll have to shift your view of “milk” as a whole food. Don’t give your kid four glasses of hemp milk and think you’re replacing cow dairy. Don’t wean your infant off the breast and fill a bottle with hazelnut milk instead; it’s not the same. Don’t eat a dog bowl-sized serving of cereal with some rice milk. The only nutritious part of cereal is the milk, and non-dairy milks do not qualify. Don’t rely on non-dairy milks for your nutrient intakes. Those are shoes they’ll never fill.
Instead, use non-dairy milks to make nutrient-dense smoothies. Use them in your coffee. Make protein shakes with them. In short, use these non-dairy plant-based milks to make it easier to eat more nutrient-dense foods.
Before you run out to buy cashew milk or pea milk or something similar, I will say this: I’m a fan of dairy. It’s a nutrient-dense source of bioavailable protein, healthy fat, calcium, vitamin K2, and other important and helpful compounds. If you can eat it without tolerance issues, you probably should. And if you can’t, you may be able to tolerate other animal milks, like goat’s milk. Many people who can’t do cow dairy can handle goat. It’s worth a try.
What about you? What’s your favorite non-dairy milk? Do you have any plant-based milks that you swear by?
Onuegbu AJ, Olisekodiaka JM, Irogue SE, et al. Consumption of Soymilk Reduces Lipid Peroxidation But May Lower Micronutrient Status in Apparently Healthy Individuals. J Med Food. 2018;21(5):506-510.
Hon KL, Tsang YC, Poon TC, et al. Dairy and nondairy beverage consumption for childhood atopic eczema: what health advice to give?. Clin Exp Dermatol. 2016;41(2):129-37.
Babault N, Païzis C, Deley G, et al. Pea proteins oral supplementation promotes muscle thickness gains during resistance training: a double-blind, randomized, Placebo-controlled clinical trial vs. Whey protein. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2015;12(1):3.
Wolever TMS, Jenkins AL, Prudence K, et al. Effect of adding oat bran to instant oatmeal on glycaemic response in humans – a study to establish the minimum effective dose of oat ?-glucan. Food Funct. 2018;9(3):1692-1700.
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For today’s edition of Dear Mark, I’m responding to four reader comments. First up, if a person can’t eat eggs, doesn’t like liver, but really wants choline, can they just supplement? Second, are a couple handfuls of almonds too much omega-6 for the average person? What if they eat fish? Third, a new study claims to show that keto dieting tanks hepatic insulin sensitivity. What should we make of it? Are we giving ourselves type 2 diabetes by going keto? And fourth, I highlight a great approach to drinking alcohol (and living in general) from one of our readers.
If I can’t eat eggs, and don’t like liver, can I supplement with choline? What would be a good dose?
Yes, you can supplement with choline. Men need around 550 mg per day. Women, 425 mg. Those requirements go up if you’re pregnant or nursing, and they very likely go up if you’re drinking.
It’s very possible that those are good levels for the average person eating a low-moderate fat diet. If you’re eating a high-fat diet or engaging in cognitively-demanding work, you may benefit from higher doses.
What jumped out at me was high O6 from snacking on almonds…this was in the fish oil post too, and it’s got me looking twice at how much is too much. I have a handful or two almost every day, and not supplementing with O3 ( although just started an experiment with daily supplements or fish). Too much?
Thanks as always for the excellent post—I’ve been wondering about alcohol too!
Don’t get me wrong. Almonds are a nutrient-dense whole food. They’ve got tons of magnesium, prebiotic fiber, polyphenols. Their health effect profile is impressive:
- Almond consumption improves fatty acid profile of serum lipids.
- Almonds reduce lipid oxidation biomarkers in older adults.
- Almonds reduce 24-hour insulin secretion in non-diabetics.
- Almonds improve glycemic control in type 2 diabetics.
- Almonds improve satiety and postprandial glucose when consumed as snacks and do not increase overall energy intake.
- Almonds possess potent prebiotic fibers, particularly in the skins.
- Almond consumption improves the endocrine profile of women with PCOS.
But they are high in linoleic acid. Absent fish, two handfuls a day is probably excessive. Having some fish fat will balance it nicely.
Try this: Replace one of your handfuls of almonds with a can of sardines or smoked oysters.
Does keto cause liver insulin resistance? Just saw this study and don’t want type 2 diabetes…
First of all, it’s a mouse study.
Second of all, it was a three-day study designed to look at the short-term transitory effects of going keto. Anyone who’s gone keto knows that the early days are a bit rough. Your mitochondria aren’t good at burning fat or ketones yet. You haven’t built the metabolic machinery required to extract the energy you need from the new balance of macronutrients. This period of transition coincides with the “keto flu”—that period of fatigue, listlessness, and headaches.
If you stick with the diet and make it through to the point where you can crank out and utilize ketones, everything changes. You can suddenly start making ATP from all that body fat you’re burning off, giving you a virtually limitless supply of energy at all times. It’s great.
But in the meantime, for that early period it’s rough. You’re insulin resistant, yet unable to burn much fat. Your liver is perpetually overloaded with energy, making insulin resistance almost unavoidable (if transitory).
Third, the composition of this study’s “keto” diet was about as bad as you could get (PDF). The fat came from Crisco—the classic trans-fat laden version—rounded out with a bit of corn oil. Trans-fats and omega-6 linoleic acid. Does this look like the diet you’re eating? Does this look like the keto diet anyone is eating? If the researchers set out to get the worst possible results for the keto group, it wouldn’t have looked any different. almost looks like they were trying to get the worst possible results.
Alcohol in ketosis is just one aspect of alcohol use in a healthy lifestyle. For me personally I perceive alcohol to play not a vital but an extremely useful role.
I drink about 40 gm of ethanol just about every day in the form of a classic gin martini made with 3.5 oz of premium gin (healthy fats in that olive, brother). I consider gin to be a very special spirit because it is comprised of water, ethanol, and botanical substances like the l-terpenes from juniper berries which are known to have a tonic effect on the human organism – and none of the hundreds of dubious organic chemicals (referred to as “cogeners”) contained in whisky or tequila. I always consume this martini between 5:00 and 7:00pm, and I very rarely drink anything else at any time of day or night. I have this drink immediately before and with the evening meal which I personally prepare from scratch with fresh ingredients and consume with my wife of 51 years.
The martini seems to me to punctuate and enhance the transition from “doing” – being responsible, making things happen, solving problems, exerting myself – to “not doing” – resting, refreshing, nourishing, regenerating. Subjectively, I feel like this one drink, consumed with food, stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. The alcohol research, so-called, tends to produce the opposite result, but in my opinion, virtually all of the alcohol effects research is dreadful – just about the junkiest junk science you can find anywhere.
I will be 80 on my next birthday, my resting heart rate, measured with a Polar FT7 heart rate monitor as an average over 3-5 minutes is 51-52. I ride a mountain bike on intermediate level trails – often in a fasted state – and recently recorded a maximum heart rate of 167. This is considerably higher than the HRmax predicted by any of the recently validated formulas. My GGT level is 16, so I have to conclude that my liver thrives on classic gin martinis. I take no prescription medications and no over-the-counter medications. I am not trying to brag here, I am just trying to document that by just about any measure my health and physical condition is exceptional for a person my age.
My personal belief is that alcohol in the right form and used properly is a health food. This conclusion is based on my personal experience, but I dearly wish that some enterprising biochemists, neurologists, and social psychologists would get together and design a quality research program to examine alcohol’s health effects under various real-world conditions. People like to drink, but a lot of what they drink is full of cogeners and sugar and genuinely toxic crap. Almost nobody has a clue what is in what they are drinking and what its health effects – positive or negative – might be. Millennials are currently destroying their livers in droves and even killing themselves with booze at distressingly early ages. Beliefs about alcohol and drinking in our culture are pathetically primitive.
I think I’ve got it figured out for me, but I think it would wonderful for the rest of the world to know the score.
I’m highlighting Daniel’s words even though he wasn’t asking a question. This man gets it. This is how to approach, appreciate, and consume alcohol. He’s drinking with complete lucidity, total awareness, and mindfulness. Alcohol isn’t “just” something you use to get loaded. It’s a sacred chemical that marks the transition from “doing” to “being.”
Many people blur the lines, drinking for the hell of it. Make it more of a special occasion, consume it mindfully and purposefully. Having a couple glasses of wine at night because I’m bored will ruin my sleep and throw off my tomorrow. Having those same two glasses of wine and some conversation with my wife or dear friends over cheese and olives has an entirely different physiological—not just psychological—effect. My liver actually processes the wine consumed with mindfulness differently.
That’s it for this week, everyone. Thanks for reading and be sure to chime in down below with your own comments, answers, or concerns.
The post Dear Mark: Choline Supplementing, Too Many Almonds, Keto and Insulin Resistance, and How to Drink appeared first on Mark’s Daily Apple.
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Absolutely! Anyone can go keto, including vegans. They might not be able to stay vegan, but they can certainly go keto. Nothing stopping them. The more the merrier.
Jokes aside. Can someone go keto while remaining vegan?
That’s a tougher problem. Not intractable. But real tough.
Why is it so hard?
For one, the most protein-rich vegan foods also happen to be relatively high in carbohydrates—the very macronutrient you need to limit on keto. You could load up on a complex blend of legumes and rice to obtain adequate protein containing all the essential amino acids, but you’d end up overdoing it on carbohydrates and knocking yourself out of ketosis. Protein is extremely important and hard to obtain on a normal vegan diet. It’s even harder on a keto vegan diet.
Two, the easiest vegan sources of fat and protein—nuts and seeds—aren’t meant to be staple foods. No one should base their diet on nuts for a few reasons.
- Excessive omega-6. Most nuts are very high in linoleic acid, the omega-6 fat that most modern people consume too much of already. This will throw your omega-3:omega-6 ratio out of whack.
- Excessive calories. Nuts can just disappear down your gullet. The ability to consume entire sackfuls of nuts in a single sitting without having to remove the shells is a modern aberration, one we’re not really prepared as an organism to regulate.
- Carbs. When you start getting into the “several handful” range, the carb content of nuts adds up. It’s not enough carbs to disrupt a normal eater, but it can ruin ketosis.
- Anti-nutrients. Nuts and seeds can’t run from predators, so they employ biological warfare to dissuade animals from eating them, manufacturing anti-nutrient compounds that impair nutrient absorption. This isn’t a deal breaker. We’ve adapted to many of these compounds, and I even think it’s likely that some of these anti-nutrients, like phytate, offer hormetic benefits in smaller doses. But if you’re eating enough almonds to satisfy your protein requirements, you’re overdoing it.
(And yes, in certain parts of the year, the Hadza of East Africa consume the bulk of their calories from the mongongo nut, but you’re not Hadza. It’s a different genetic situation, a different lifestyle, a different microbiome. The Hadza also eat thousands of calories of wild honey each day when it’s available. You lining up to do that, too?)
Successfully implementing a vegan keto diet requires the resolution of those two main problems. You need complete protein without all the carbs that beans entail, and you need a reliable source of fat without all the omega-6 fatty acids nuts and seeds entail.
For the protein, you have a few options.
Consider some concessions. Compare the spirit of your commitment to the “letter of the law” approach. The following will make your journey far more enjoyable, nutrient-dense, and sustainable.
1.Consider eating eggs from a trusted source (even yourself).
You can usually go on Craigslist and find a local source of pastured chicken eggs. Simply introduce yourself and ask to see their operation. I mean, it’s not like the hobby farmer who considers her hens members of the family is going to give those birds a bad life. Go see for yourself, then eat the eggs.
Heck, why not take the plunge and raise your own chickens? If you have the space, do it. You know yourself. You know you’ll do it without cruelty. You’ll give them a good, happy life. You won’t “cull” the non-producers.
A regular intake of pastured eggs will give you most of the nutrients you’re missing out on as a keto vegan—like choline, omega-3s, iron, and zinc, not to mention high quality animal protein.
If you’re worried about the whole eggs/heart disease myth, know that it’s exactly that—a myth. The most recent evidence suggests that any relationship between egg consumption and health issues stems from “a dietary pattern often accompanying high egg intake and/or the cluster of other risk factors in people with high egg consumption,” not the eggs themselves.
2. Still not willing to eat eggs? Consider eating bivalves.
Most evidence suggests that bivalves—oysters and mussels—have no central nervous system capable of registering pain and are not mobile, and that the farming practices used to grow them are environmentally friendly.
They’re incredibly nutrient-dense with many of the nutrients vegans miss out on. Oysters in particular will give you all the zinc and iron you need, plus a good amount of omega-3. Mussels are loaded with protein, omega-3s, and micronutrients.
3. If bivalves are out, you’ll need some protein powders.
Low-carb plant foods dense with protein just don’t really exist. And no, broccoli doesn’t actually have more protein than steak. Protein powders that extract the protein from plant sources and leave behind most of the fat and carbohydrates, however, do exist.
The obvious animal-based choices like whey or egg are out. The best bet seems to be a mix of rice, pea, and hemp protein powders.
Rice protein powder is almost complete with all the essential amino acids (those we can’t manufacture in our bodies and must get from outside sources), but it’s low in lysine. Rice protein powder did perform admirably compared to whey protein in one study among weight lifting adults, but they weren’t on vegan diets, and the rest of their diets probably contained plenty of animal protein to make up for any missing amino acids. Here’s one to try.
Pea protein powder has plenty of lysine to make up for what’s missing in rice protein. Here’s a good one.
Hemp protein is complete and usually comes with a nice dose of micronutrients, including magnesium, prebiotic fiber, and omega-3s, but it’s lower in protein than rice and pea protein powder, so I wouldn’t rely exclusively on it. Try this one.
For the fat, you have many options that aren’t excessively high in omega-6 fats.
Eat lots of avocado and avocado oil. These are mostly monounsaturated fat. I hear there’s a pretty great vegan ranch dressing made with avocado oil on the market.
Eat coconut. An excellent source of healthy saturated fat, coconut and its constituents like coconut oil and coconut butter are essentials for the vegan-keto pantry. A spoonful of coconut butter is one of my go-to snacks, and it’s totally keto-friendly.
Eat olives and olive oil. This is mostly monounsaturated fat. Just make sure you’re buying actual olive oil.
Eat macadamia nuts. Again, mostly monounsaturated. Great for snacks.
Eat hemp seeds. Fairly high in omega-6, but it’s balanced with a large dose of omega-3 and some of the omega-6 is anti-inflammatory GLA. The complete protein, prebiotic fiber, and loads of magnesium don’t hurt either.
Eat red palm oil. Palm oil gets a bad rap, as most Southeast Asian palm production impedes on dwindling orangutan habitats. The majority of red palm oil—the unrefined version higher in micronutrients—comes from sustainable palm farms that don’t impact orangutan populations. Mostly saturated fat.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t eat almonds, cashews, pecans, walnuts, and all the other ones higher in omega-6. Eat nuts (and seeds) of all kinds, just not to the exclusion of everything else. There is such a thing as too many nuts, as I explained earlier.
No matter what you eat, you’ll need to take supplements.
Choline: The higher your fat intake, the more choline your liver needs to process it all. Choline is most abundant in animal foods that you aren’t eating, like liver and egg yolks. A good vegan source of choline is sunflower lecithin.
Creatine: Creatine monohydrate is cheap, safe, and effective. You should take it, because you’re not getting it from your food; the best sources of creatine are red meat and fish. Far more than a “weight lifting supplement,” creatine has been shown to improve both muscular and cognitive function in vegetarians.
Carnosine: Not many know about carnosine. It’s another meat-based nutrient that improves mood, enhances endurance, and serves as a brain antioxidant. Though we can make it in our bodies, studies show that vegans and vegetarians have fairly low levels and supplementation can help.
Taurine: Taurine is similar to carnosine—though it’s not essential (we make it, just probably not enough), it appears only in animal foods and plays a major yet under-appreciated role in preventing death and disease. Easy supplement.
B12: You just need B12. There’s no way around it, unless you don’t mind your central nervous system going haywire.
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. Don’t take a chance with this stuff; it’s critical. Here’s a good one.
Algal oil: Since you can’t take fish oil, and you don’t want to rely on inefficient elongation of ALA into the more effective omega-3s DHA and EPA, you should take algal oil. Algae is where most marine life gets its DHA and EPA. It’s totally vegan-friendly, and studies show it improves blood lipids and increases blood levels of EPA. Here’s one.
Those are the big things to worry about. Once you’ve them all squared away, the rest is easy: just eat delicious whole plant foods.
You’d better like avocados and coconut.
You’d better eat tons of non-starchy vegetables: leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, and other above-ground vegetables.
Eat mushrooms. They aren’t vegetables, but you can treat them like it.
You can even eat fruit, so long as you choose the lower-sugar ones and moderate your intake. Berries are perfect. Watermelon and cantaloupe are surprisingly low in sugar.
Oh, and grab a copy of Accidental Paleo, a paleo vegetarian cookbook with a good number of vegan recipes.
Can you be a perfectly healthy whole-foods vegan keto dieter? Probably not. There are just too many limitations. But if you make a few concessions, include a few supplements, and accept that vegan purity is neither necessary nor desirable (particularly for keto eating), you can get very good results.
If you have any questions about any of this, don’t hesitate to ask down below in the comment section. I’ll do my best to address them in a later post.
Thanks for reading, everyone!
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Imagine money is no object. Imagine you wield absolute control over the scientific community and can direct it to run whichever study you desire. If you can dream it up, they’ll get the subjects, produce the money, and make it happen. All you need to come up with is the overarching design. What would you choose? What do you wonder? What questions do you want answered once and for all?
Here’s what I’d choose:
Omega-6 From Seed Oils vs. Omega-6 From Nuts and Seeds
Linoleic acid isn’t linoleic acid. In nuts and seeds, the fragile omega-6 fats have a home. They have cellular walls and antioxidant compounds protecting them from these oxidative stressors. In theory, eating nuts is far different than consuming an equivalent amount of omega-6 through seed oils.
In a seed oil, the omega-6 fats are adrift like storm-tossed sailors, subject to oxidative stressors like heat, light, and oxygen with little protection. To make matters worse, the refining process often strips them of what few endogenous antioxidant compounds remain. They tend to arrive in your kitchen already oxidized and rancid, and if they aren’t, cooking finishes the process. Consuming these oxidized fats makes your LDL particles more vulnerable to oxidation, and oxidized LDL particles are strong candidates for primary progenitors of heart disease.
What’s more, we’re eating (well, maybe not us so much as the average Westerner) more seed oils than ever before. In observational studies, the two sources are conflated. Omega-6 from nuts might be perfectly safe and healthy, and I suspect they are, but we just don’t know. A study pitting the two against each other over a period of 6-12 months would be among the most important for public health.
If you wanted to really isolate the effect of the fatty acids alone and eliminate the variables, you’d give the seed oil group a vitamin/mineral/micronutrient supplement replicating the nutrient content of the nuts. But I don’t think this is necessary, and it may even be counterproductive; people don’t eat seed oils with complicated nutrient complexes to replace the missing nutrients they’d otherwise get from nuts. They just eat crappy refined oils. The simpler study pitting nuts against oils would be more realistic and applicable to how people actually eat.
Track: Bodyweight, lipids, oxidized LDL, inflammation, liver health/fat.
Strict Keto vs. “Keto Zone”
While staying strict when you first embark on the Keto Reset journey is highly recommended, if not downright mandatory, not everyone remains so. Hardcore keto eaters are often lifers, figuring if it worked better than anything else they’d tried early on, there’s no reason to think the benefits would slow or reverse. That may be true. But I like flexibility. I like being able to drift in and out of ketosis as needed. And from what I can tell, the beauty of going strict keto is that it unlocks and enhances your fat-burning machinery and ability to obtain energy from fat—so that you regain the metabolic flexibility to shift between sources of energy.
That’s the keto zone I often talk about—that range of macros where you have the necessary metabolic machinery to shift back and forth between ketosis and straight-up fat-burning based on the number of carbs you eat. A sweet potato doesn’t “knock you out” of ketosis for days; slipping back in just happens because you’re so accustomed to it.
I call it the keto zone because it’s exactly that: a range of carbohydrate intake that causes you to drift in and out of ketosis without even realizing it. For most, the keto zone might correlate to consuming between 20-120 grams of carbs per day. Less one day, more the next. More ketones today, fewer tomorrow. You’re constantly on the verge of either leaving or entering ketosis, and it’s okay.
Is strict keto superior to the keto zone, where you drift in and out of ketosis transiently? I have my biases, but this study would let us find out for sure.
Participants would all start on strict keto for two months, after which they’d split into two groups. One group would stay strict keto, the other would drift into the keto zone. This portion of the study would go for six months.
Track: bodyweight/composition, physical and cognitive performance, inflammatory markers, lipids.
Grilled Meat vs. Gently Cooked Meat: Long Term (5-ish Years) With Health Outcomes
I’ve written about the apparent benefits of gently cooked meat compared to high heat grilled meat. I’ve also dug into the research implicating high heat grilled meat and various diseases, and found it wanting. This would get to the bottom of it.
Except for how the meat is cooked, the diets are identical. The fatty acids are identical, so the differential effects of polyunsaturated vs saturated fat on meat carcinogenicity don’t enter. Each diet has adequate calcium, since low calcium appears to be a prerequisite for “meat-induced” colon cancer. The meat sources are identical; everything is grass-fed (or not). You compare a burger patty grilled over charcoal to a burger patty lightly simmered in some water. A pork chop over fire versus the same pork chop in the pressure cooker.
Track: Incidence of cancer (and related biomarkers), diabetes, heart disease, and everything else they say meat will inflict upon us.
Battle Of the Carnivores: Muscle Meat Carnivore vs. Whole Animal Carnivore (e.g. organs, bones, skin) Over 5 Years
Many zero-carbers are adamant that beef muscle meat is all one needs to thrive. They’ll eat steak and nothing else. Ground beef and nothing else. They’ll drink water and sometimes coffee. They’ll salt their food, but pepper is a stretch. Obviously, there’s something to this. Meat offers nutrients you simply can’t get anywhere else, and in the most bioavailable form around. Eating a bunch of it is probably better than eating none of it.
I suspect that a whole animal carnivore would be healthier, one who ate organs, bones, skin in addition to the muscle meat. This provides a wider range of nutrients, particularly by eating nature’s multivitamin (liver). It balances the methionine (from muscle meat) and glycine (from connective tissue), a ratio that plays a role in the lifespan according to animal models. It’s also more evolutionarily congruent than discarding everything but the muscle meat.
That said, we don’t know for sure. The anecdotes are persuasive. I’d argue that their results are preliminary, and we don’t know if the effects will persist 3, 4, 5 years out. This study would give us a good idea.
It would be cool to throw in another meat-based group who also ate leafy greens and other non-starchy vegetables.
Track: Lipids, body composition/weight, metabolic health, inflammation markers, physical performance, strength, endurance, health endpoints like mortality, diabetes, cancer.
Three-Year Study Of Keto In Anaerobic Athletes (e.g. basketball or soccer)—Enough Time For Full Adaptation
Even skeptics admit that getting fat adapted can help endurance athletes excel at their sport, but what remains to be seen is if keto is good for athletes who perform above the anaerobic threshold. Traditionally, going anaerobic means burning glucose. If you don’t have glucose, either because you’re not eating it or your metabolism isn’t optimized for its utilization, your performance will suffer. That’s the story, at least. The data so far is spotty, mixed, and plagued by the fact that the perfect study hasn’t been done.
My intuition is that the keto team would do better than expected. Maybe not better than the other team, but better than the skeptics would assume, and perhaps equal. After all, fat-adaptation extends your anaerobic threshold. You can go longer and harder burning primarily fatty acids than a “normal” athlete. This should preserve glycogen for when you truly need it. And certain “intangibles” might be better in the keto team, like teamwork/cooperation/morale (from improved cognition) and injury rates (from lower inflammation).
A fun wrinkle would be to add a third team that does “keto zone.” They’d start with a strict keto adaptation period, after which they’d cycle carbs in for workouts and games. I suspect that team would be the most successful.
Track: Performance at regular intervals, both team and individual. W/L ratio, points scored, defense, overall success, injury rates. Player attributes like speed, stamina, power.
Those are the five studies I think would be the most illuminating. What about you? What would you like to investigate?
Let me know down below. Thanks for reading, everybody.
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For today’s edition of Dear Mark, I’m answering three questions. You guys had more questions about folate. Since it’s such an important vitamin, I answer those first. Then I discuss the study mentioned in last week’s Dear Mark in which removing polyphenol-rich fruits and vegetables from the diet improved oxidative stress markers instead of worsening them. I got my hands on the full study, so I have more to say on the subject.
First, Tiffany asked:
What about the folate in sunflower seeds and leafy greens? How much does cooking affect those?
“Cooked” sunflower seeds are roasted sunflower seeds. According to USDA nutritional data, both roasted and raw sunflower seeds have the same amount of folate. You’re probably safe there.
For greens, how much folate you retain depends on how you cook them.
Boiling spinach or broccoli causes about 50% folate loss. Steamed spinach or broccoli lose almost zero folate. For what it’s worth, potato folate is impervious to boiling.
Another study found similar results: Cooking in water causes leafy green folate loss.
Overall, folate loss from vegetables is primarily due to leaching (into cooking water) rather than degradation by heat.
Even though you didn’t mention them, legumes is where it gets interesting.
In one study, cooking beans without soaking retained 60% of folate. A quick pre-soak (boiled for 2 minutes, covered for an hour, then drained) followed by 20 minutes of cooking retained 18% folate; followed by 90 minutes of cooking, 31%. A long soak (16 hours in water overnight) followed by 20 minutes of cooking retained 35% folate; followed by 90 minutes of cooking, 42%. Oddly, how you soaked the beans didn’t matter when you cooked the beans for 150 minutes. A quick soak retained 41%, a long soak 44%. I suspect the longer cooking times give the folate more time to be re-absorbed.
Another study found that pressure cooking was better for folate retention than boiling, and that chickpea folate was more resilient than field pea folate.
Steph Windmill asked:
For some years now I’ve been whizzing Ox Liver up in the blender and then adding it to vats of chilli or bolognaise. It gives an additional meaty taste, but I’ve been mostly (and smugly!) doing it for the nutrition. Based on the idea that pan-frying depletes folate, is the 2+ hours of cooking time I’m giving this dish going to make adding the liver completely redundant on the nutrition front?!
Wet cooking will deplete folate, but as in the case of beans, it ends up in the cooking water. Since you’re consuming the cooking liquid, it shouldn’t be a problem.
Still, if you want to be really sure, I have a solution. Classic bolognese sauce recipes call for chopped or pureed liver to be added in the last ten minutes of cooking, not right away. Try that instead of dropping it in at the beginning. Liver cooks really quickly, so ten minutes is plenty of time.
Time Traveler swooped in with assistance:
Hey Mark, here’s the link to the full smokers study, if you wish analyze thoroughly. It took me 2 seconds to find (-:
Very interesting. The full paper clears up a lot of questions I had.
The fruit and vegetable-free diet was decent, as lab diets go, drawn from standard Danish foods:
- Fermented milk
- Rye bread (traditionally fermented in Denmark)
- Cheese sauce
- Brown sauce (Danish brown sauce is butter, broth, flour, vinegar, sherry)
- Tuna salad
- Meat patties (with or without green tea added)
Is it Primal? Not exactly, but you could definitely cobble together a nice Primal diet by removing some foods. And everything is “real,” not processed or overly refined.
They do point to other studies in which removal of fruits and vegetables had the effect of increasing oxidative stress, so the effect is equivocal.
The 16 subjects of the study were young, lean, and—besides half of them smoking—quite healthy males. If you’ve ever fit that category, it’s a good time to be alive. You don’t worry about much. You’re focused on the day at hand. You have very low stress levels. You’re living for the moment. Old enough to reap the benefits of adulthood, young enough to avoid the consequences.
I’ve always maintained that polyphenols and other phytonutrients found in fruits and vegetables are most critical for people undergoing significant oxidative stress. These include the obese and overweight, the diabetic, the old and sedentary, the chronically stressed. The overworked athlete who needs an edge for recovery.
And one big reason I emphasize produce and even sell a powerful antioxidant/mineral/vitamin supplement is that most people come to this site to improve their health. Many of us got into Primal because we were trying to fix something broken in us. We were starting from a health deficit. We needed (and still need) extra help.
The subjects in this study weren’t really the target audience for phytonutrients. What really throws me for a loop is that their oxidative stress markers were worse on the habitual diet with more polyphenols. It wasn’t that removing polyphenols had no effect. It actually improved their oxidative status.
Here’s a thought that could explain it: Denmark isn’t known for its natural bounty of high-polyphenol plant foods. We know from previous posts that our genetic ancestry can partially determine our nutrient requirements and how we respond to foods. If these were ethnic Danes (as of 2017, 86% of the country is ethnically Danish; the study was in 2002, so Denmark was probably even more homogeneous), and ethnic Danes have a genetic adaptation to the historically lower levels of dietary phytonutrients available in the area, this could explain the results.
Interesting study to hypothesize about. Maybe I should pursue this ancestry angle further—thoughts?
That’s it for me, folks. Thanks for reading, thanks for writing in, and be sure to keep it going down below!
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