Plant foods have so many health benefits. Unfortunately, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points out, most of us don’t get enough plants in our diet. In fact, only one in ten individuals meet the recommended guidelines for consuming at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily. However, there are some nutrients that you find only in animal-based foods. The amount of these nutrients can vary based on how the animal used to make the food was raised. Conventionally-raised meat and grass-fed meat often differ substantially in the amount of some nutrients, particularly omega-3s. Let’s look at some of the key nutrients you find almost solely in animal foods.
You don’t find vitamin B12 naturally in plant-based food. Spirulina, a type of algae, contains plant-based B12, but studies show that it doesn’t behave the same as B-12 in meat and dairy. The B12 in spirulina is in the form of vitamin B12 analogs. They look like vitamin B12 and bind to the same receptors that vitamin B12 does but have little or no vitamin B12 activity. In general, plant foods lack reliable vitamin B12 activity, unlike meat and dairy.
There is a bright spot for plant-based eaters. Some packaged foods are fortified with vitamin B12, including plant-based milk and some cereals. Bacteria in the gut can also make modest amounts of vitamin B12, but vegans are at higher risk of developing a vitamin B12 deficiency unless they take a vitamin B12 supplement.
Why is vitamin B12 so important? Low levels of this vitamin increase the risk of cardiovascular disease by raising levels of an inflammatory marker called homocysteine. Plus, you need vitamin B12 to synthesize the myelin sheath that surrounds nerve cells. A low vitamin B12 level can lead to permanent nerve damage as well as anemia.
Taurine is an amino acid abundant in animal-based foods while plant-based foods lack taurine. However, your body can make taurine from the amino acid cysteine and cysteine is available in plant-based foods. If you eat a vegetarian or vegan diet, it’s important to get enough cysteine from plant-based sources to supply your body with taurine. Studies show it helps regulate the immune system and antioxidant function and supports eye and brain health.
In addition, taurine helps maintain calcium and electrolyte balance. Other research shows that taurine aids in blood sugar control. For this reason, people who have type 2 diabetes or heart disease may need more of this amino acid. Taurine also appears to help with blood pressure control. If you don’t eat animal foods, vegan taurine supplements are available.
Carnitine and its close cousin acetyl-L-carnitine play a key role in fat metabolism. One of carnitine’s tasks is to carry fat into the mitochondria where it can be used for energy. So, carnitine may play a role in weight control. Getting adequate carnitine may also help support a healthy energy level so that you don’t feel so fatigued at the end of the day. Some research suggests that acetyl-L-carnitine modestly boosts brain function and slows the aging of mitochondria, the energy-producing components of cells. So, L-carnitine could potentially slow the aging process, although more research is needed.
The best source of carnitine is red meat. Beefsteak and ground beef top the list of top carnitine sources. Dairy products, fish, and chicken contain substantially less. In dairy, most of the L-carnitine is in the whey fraction of the dairy product. Plant-based foods have only small amounts of carnitine. According to the National Institutes of Health, people who eat animal-based foods get 60 to 80 milligrams of carnitine daily while vegans only get up to 12 milligrams. As with taurine, carnitine supplements are available for vegans and vegetarians.
Creatine phosphate is an important energy source for muscle cells during short bursts of activity. Studies show that creatine boosts exercise performance by supplying muscles with a readily available source of phosphate to produce ATP. For this reason, some athletes and bodybuilders take a creatine phosphate supplement. By accumulating in the muscle and attracting water, creatine causes muscles to swell and look more prominent, giving bodybuilders the so-called muscle pump.
What foods contain creatine phosphate? The amount of creatine in animal-based foods is variable Beef contains it with chicken being a close second. However, it’s difficult to get the full benefits of exercise performance through diet alone. That’s why creatine supplements have become so popular. However, you don’t have an absolute requirement for creatine through diet as the liver can make it. But studies show vegetarians and vegans have lower levels than people who eat animal-based foods.
Like the other nutrients, you find carnosine mainly in meat. Your body doesn’t have an absolute requirement for carnosine but it’s the focus of research due to its potential health benefits. Sugars circulating in the blood can modify proteins on tissues and blood vessels through a process called glycosylation. This causes the proteins to cross-link together in a way that damages them. This protein-damaging cross-linking is associated with the aging process. More specifically, cross-linking that damages the lenses of the eyes leads to cataracts. According to some studies, carnosine helps prevent this type of damage due to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity. As with carnitine, taurine, and creatine, carnosine supplements are available for vegans and vegetarians but do your research carefully before taking one.
DHA, also known as docosahexaenoic acid, is an omega-3 fatty acid that’s key in brain development. It’s especially important that women who are pregnant get enough DHA in their diet. The best source is fatty fish like salmon. Grass-fed beef also contains modest amounts. Although plant-based foods, like chia seeds, flaxseed, and walnuts, contain omega-3s, they’re in a form called ALA or alpha-linolenic acid. Bacteria in the gut can convert a small portion of ALA to DHA but the quantity is low, less than 5%. One non-animal-based source of DHA that’s growing in popularity is algae oil. A study found that algal oil is roughly equivalent to cooked salmon in terms of the amount of DHA it supplies.
The Bottom Line
Now, you know what is missing from plant-based foods. However, you can supplement with these missing components if you eat a plant-based diet but do your research beforehand.
HealthLine.com. “What Is Taurine? Benefits, Side Effects and More”
National Institutes of Health. “Carnitine” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Only 1 in 10 Adults Get Enough Fruits or Vegetables”
Berkley Wellness. “Algal Oil for Omega3s”