Are you deficient on any vitamins or minerals?
When Katja and I decided to go vegan, we already knew that a vegan diet, if done right, is very healthy. But we still did a ton of research. We wanted to know which are the most important nutrients that our bodies need, how much they need, and which foods contain them.
But we still needed a way to periodically check if we are deficient on any vitamins or minerals. Although there are some (non-invasive, but also not very scientific) methods which may point out some deficiencies, making a blood test seems to be the only way to figure out if your body has everything it needs.
Find a vegan-friendly doctor
In Germany you start the blood-test journey at your Hausarzt (GP = general practitioner). Unfortunately most doctors here are still insufficiently informed about the vegan lifestyle, so they generally advise strongly against it. For this reason we wanted to find a vegan-friendly doctor, but that proved quite difficult. There is a list on the ProVeg page, but it only knows of 6 vegan-friendly doctors in the two-million-city of Hamburg (none of them GP).
After consulting most of our friends, we got a recommendation. But that doctor was so busy, the office receptionist told us that they are not accepting new patients at the moment. Still they recommended a different doctor, and we got an appointment there.
The doctor listened to our request and said no problem, we can do that. But he said that he gets a visit from vegans so seldom, that he is unsure which blood values are most relevant. Should we test for vitamin B12? “Yes.” How about vitamin A? “Yeah, maybe.” And selenium? “Well…”
Which values should be tested?
Apparently we needed to do some more research… Of course the internet has answers to every question, but not always the same answer. After comparing more than a dozen official-looking sites, including PETA and ProVeg international, we decided to perform the following tests:
|Nutrient||Medical test||Linked to||we paid|
|Complete blood count (German: großes Blutbild)||General health||covered by insurance|
|Cholesterol||Lipid profile (German: Lipidstatus)||Heart disease, atherosclerosis||covered by insurance or 9 EUR|
|Omega-3 fatty acids||DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid)||Brain functions, the central nervous system and eyes/retina|
|Folic acid (Vitamin B9)||Folic acid||Cell division, fertility, birth defects, stroke, depression||15 EUR|
|Vitamin B12||HoloTC (Holotranscobalamin)||Brain and nervous system, also fatigue, lethargy, depression, poor memory, breathlessness, headaches||15 EUR|
|Vitamin D||25-Hydroxy-Vitamin-D||Absorption of calcium, magnesium, and phosphate and thus directly related to osteoporosis, bone strength and bone health||19 EUR|
|Iron||Ferritin||General well-being, strength, body energy||15 EUR|
|Magnesium||Muscle tone, strength, heart rhythm, nervous system health||2 EUR|
|Zinc||Zinc||Skin, nails, hair, vision, smell, taste, immune system, psychological disorders, growth and many others||5 EUR|
- If you are eating very little salt or non-iodine salt, it is also very important to monitor your iodine levels. However this is done by a urine test. Iodine is linked to thyroid health and is thus relevant for growth and development, mental ability, metabolism, body temperature, and heart rate.
- There are two tests for iron:
- Iron in serum (2 EUR): Tests the total level of iron in the blood, which may be misleading.
- Ferritin in Serum (15 EUR): Tests the bioavailable iron and is thus much more accurate.
The actual blood test
The doctor explained that our insurance will cover the complete blood count and the lipid profile, we’d only have to pay for the additional tests.
The doctor’s assistant presented us with a long list of possible blood tests and their prices (main image above) and helped us cross the relevant boxes. After this she drew a small amount of blood from the vein and sent it to a lab for examination.
A week later the results were in, and we were back at the doctor’s office. The “consultation” was utterly unspectacular: “You have a slightly elevated cholesterol values, probably characteristic for your family. And a slight vitamin D deficiency, but it’s winter, so that’s normal. In the spring make sure to go out in the sun more often. If you like, my assistant can give you a printout of your values.”
A week later I received a bill from the lab for 140 EUR.
I definitely wanted a printout of my results, which I studied carefully. My cholesterol and triglyceride values were indeed elevated, but were significantly lower than my values from 2010 when I had my last blood test. Sadly I didn’t do a blood test around the time I switched to a vegan lifestyle; I would love to know my most recent “meat-eater values”.
And then there was the “slight deficiency” in Vitamin D. With a value was 17 and an acceptable range of 30 – 100, my value was not just slightly low, but way too low. So I contacted the doctor’s office and requested a vitamin D supplement. Without any hesitation they issued me a prescription, and I paid 35 EUR for 50 tablets (which will last me for 2 winters). The main cause of vitamin D deficiency is not enough skin exposure to sunlight. So this is not related to my vegan diet, and meat-eaters are just as susceptible to a vitamin D deficiency as vegans are.
Most webpages recommend to do a blood test once a year. Since my cholesterol was elevated and vitamin D too low, I guess that I’ll stick to this recommendation for the next 2–3 years. However if all values become normal (which I fully expect due to my vegan diet and vitamin D supplementation), I might switch to doing a blood test every two years.