Blood work: a term that might make some of us shudder in fear and wince at the mere thought of needles, but an important topic for vegans to discuss nonetheless.
Now, we know that the majority of vegans tend to be healthier than the general meat-eating population—especially if they make whole foods the staple of their diet—but that doesn't necessarily mean that those eating plant-based are completely off the hook. In fact, vegans (and to a smaller extent, vegetarians) are at risk of developing vitamin and mineral deficiencies if they take their nutritional intake for granted and fail to supplement adequately.
What exactly should you supplement for as a vegan? Well, the list of nutrients that are harder to get on a plant-based diet is not as long as you might think. Aiming to get the majority of your essential vitamins and minerals from a whole foods-centered, nutritionally balanced vegan diet while supplementing omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, and vitamin B12 with a premium quality vegan multivitamin will likely ensure optimal blood test results.
Still, you cannot be 100% certain of your overall health as a vegan until you actually get that blood work done.
If you are unsure of what vegan test to request from your doctor, how vegan testing works, and how to interpret your results, this is the article for you!
Benefits of Vegan Blood Testing
So, what exactly are the benefits of taking a blood test for vegans?
The main reason why you should consider taking these vegan-focused blood tests is the same reason why all other blood tests are done: they are the only surefire way to assess your general state of health. A blood screening can catch potential health problems before they fully develop so that they can be managed more effectively, or even prevented altogether. Annual blood tests are recommended across the board to provide a snapshot of an individual's health at a certain point in time, helping you to understand how your body changes over time and allowing you to make informed decisions based on your results.
Truth be told, keeping deficiencies at bay is only a small part of what a well-timed blood test can do. These screenings can also assess whether you have an infection, whether you are prone to certain genetic conditions, or if you might be at risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, anemia, and liver or kidney issues.
Vegans can often feel invincible and feel somewhat opposed to the idea of such a test. While it is true that veganism can be incredibly health-promoting for people of all ages, genders, and activity levels, some nutrients might fall between the cracks as time goes on and our body's daily needs change. Just like our fellow humans who follow an omnivore diet, vegan individuals should be checking in with their primary care physician regularly to make sure their health is on the right track.
And if your test results come out spotless, just think of the impact this concrete proof of veganism being healthy will have on detractors of the lifestyle. Whenever your meat-eating friend starts mentioning the risk of B12 deficiency in vegan diets, you'll have an official document at the ready to debunk their preconceptions—and perhaps your stellar results might even be enough to make them consider going vegan in the future!
What Blood Tests Should Vegans Get?
The following are the top 6 blood tests we recommend for vegans, both seasoned and newbies, who have either been experiencing mysterious symptoms (like fatigue, brain fog, and frequent headaches) or have long wondered about their real overall health status.
There's nothing more objective than a blood test to gauge whether you are following an optimal diet or not! While this is not meant to be a comprehensive list of all the tests you could get to make sure your health is as optimal as it can be, it can definitely give you early insight into what to ask for next time you go for your annual health check-up.
1. CBC – Complete Blood Count with Differential and Platelets
This is one of the most common and perhaps most important tests, as it provides an extensive overview of key markers such as the number of red and white blood cells in your body. This test allows infections and blood disorders like leukemia to be spotted, and even more crucially for people following a nutritionally inadequate plant-based diet, it can detect an anemic state.
Anemia is the most common blood disorder in the world, occurring when the number of red blood cells circulating in the body decreases. Its main symptoms include chronic fatigue, dizziness, frequent headaches, and shortness of breath. While this condition can (and does) affect a variety of people regardless of their diet choices, vegans and vegetarians are thought to be more at risk of developing pernicious anemia due to the lower iron intake and B12 deficiency often associated with a plant-based or mostly plant-based diet.
If you have been feeling increasingly light-headed and fatigued after adopting a plant-based diet, anemia could be the cause of this frustrating state, and the Complete Blood Count test should be the first test you request!
2. CMP – Comprehensive Metabolic Panel
Also known as "Chemistry Screen", this test is used to determine your general health status, allowing doctors to monitor or diagnose conditions such as kidney disease, liver disease, high blood pressure, or diabetes. The liver and kidneys are crucial to many processes involving digestion and detox, which are likely to be affected by the quality of your diet.
This is one of the most comprehensive tests you can take (it's in the name, after all!) to get a good look at your essential nutrients intake, so you can tweak your diet and lifestyle in order to get better results next time. The CMP test is comprised of 14 different tests that will tell you the levels of calcium, protein, sodium, potassium, glucose, and several other substances in your blood.
Total protein below 6.5 and albumin below 3.4 are signs of protein deficiency, which while quite uncommon in the Western world, can still be found in individuals consuming too few calories, or patients suffering from liver or kidney problems that inhibit protein absorption. Diabetes is an extremely rare condition in long-term vegans (in fact, veganism has been shown to help manage and even reverse type-2 diabetes), but if you have just adopted a vegan diet after years of unhealthy habits, prediabetes is a condition you should be aware of as soon as possible.
3. Lipid Panel
Also known as "Lipid Profile," this test will measure your risk factors for a variety of dangerous cardiovascular conditions, such as heart disease, by showing the total cholesterol and triglycerides in your blood.
You have probably heard of the terms "good cholesterol" and "bad cholesterol" before, so you should be aware of the fact that cholesterol is an essential building block for the function of your endocrine system. While an excess of LDL cholesterol in your blood carries a risk of coronary heart disease by clogging your arteries, HDL cholesterol can actually lower your risk of stroke and heart disease, promoting regular hormonal function.
Now, following a healthy vegan diet can significantly reduce your saturated fat intake (a major source of dietary cholesterol), so it's not surprising that vegan blood contains very little LDL cholesterol. At the same time, however, reduction in LDL cholesterol intake can also impact our "good cholesterol" intake, leading to total cholesterol levels being too low. Taking a lipid panel test will give you valuable insight into your hormonal and cardiovascular health!
4. Vitamin B12
Although it is certainly the one vitamin meat-eaters love to taunt vegans about, the risk of B12 deficiency among plant-based eaters (as well as among omnivores, make no mistake!) is a real issue. Vitamin B12 can be stored in your liver for up to five years, so an inadequate intake can easily go unnoticed until it's too late. This water-soluble vitamin is essential for the regular functioning of our nervous system and red blood cell formation, as well as aiding metabolism.
Symptoms of B12 deficiency include brain fog, memory problems, fatigue, lethargy, irritability, and moodiness.
These symptoms are caused by a type of anemia (often mistaken for folate deficiency anemia) that can lead to serious nerve damage if left untreated. Vitamin B12 deficiency (or even just low levels of B12) is an extremely widespread condition that affects the majority of the world's population, regardless of diet. That is why supplementation is recommended across the board, with special attention to the elderly and to pregnant women.
Taking a test to check your vitamin B12 levels is incredibly simple, so if you are concerned about your levels, it is recommended you book one with your physician straight away.
5. Vitamin D
Vitamin D, and particularly vitamin D3, is another essential vitamin that is definitely harder to get on a plant-based diet, even though deficiencies can be detected across the meat-eating population as well. Vitamin D is also known as the "sunshine vitamin," since it's made by the body after sunlight exposure. People who do not live in sunny places, especially in the Northern Hemisphere, may not get enough sunshine to stimulate this process daily, so that's when supplementation comes in handy.
As vitamin D helps with calcium absorption, a high intake of calcium in your diet may not necessarily mean your teeth and bones are growing and being maintained as they should. Vitamin D deficiency is associated with muscle weakness, fatigue, depression, and bone pain—if you've been experiencing any of these symptoms, booking a simple vitamin D test should be your first move towards recovery!
6. Omega-3 Index
Lastly, we have the Omega-3 Index test, used to measure the levels of DHA and EPA omega-3 fatty acids in your body. An Omega-3 Index of 8% or higher is considered ideal, but most people tend to fall in the 4% or below range, putting them at risk of skin and nail problems, fatigue, poor concentration, and insomnia.
Low levels of omega-3s are a widespread issue among the general population, as dietary sources of these essential fatty acids are quite rare. This becomes even a bigger problem for vegans as dietary sources of ALA fatty acids only include seaweed and a number of seeds like chia, flax, and hemp—and those are undoubtedly hard for our bodies to convert into DHA and EPA fatty acids, the most important forms for your overall health.
The bottom line is that all vegans should supplement EPA and DHA omega-3s and keep track of their levels regularly!
Unfortunately, the Omega-3 Index test is normally not included in the list of routine tests your doctor will recommend you take once a year. So, if you are worried about your levels, make sure to actively request it or even invest in a home testing kit like OmegaQuant.
How Often Should You Get a Blood Test as a Vegan?
Feeling overwhelmed by all this talk of blood work? Well, don't worry—you certainly won't need to schedule blood tests every single month!
In fact, the general recommendation for the whole population is to get a number of core tests done at least once a year, at regular intervals so as to monitor negative and positive changes. A blood test for vegan individuals is no different: once a year for each of the aforementioned tests will be enough to assess your health status.
If you are new to an animal product-free lifestyle, we would recommend booking blood work three to six months after going vegan to get a good first understanding of your fitness. Testing sooner rather than later allows you to fully comprehend what your nutritional needs are as a vegan, address low intakes of key nutrients before full-blown deficiencies arise, and work towards getting those vitamins and minerals with a carefully planned whole foods diet and adequate supplementation.
How to Talk to Your Doctor About Blood Work
Are you familiar with the joke "How can you tell someone is vegan? They'll tell you"?
Well, asking for blood tests as a vegan goes pretty much like that: your doctor will often suggest that you get tested as soon as you mention your diet choices, for better and for worse! Of course, the likelihood of your physician actively recommending you to take any of the above tests rises as you bring up possible deficiency symptoms.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to check your health status even if you haven't been experiencing any negative impacts as a result of your lifestyle, so you won't need to do much else but bring this up to your doctor and wait for them to refer you. If you live in the U.S., these tests are usually covered by your insurance too!
Interpreting Your Blood Test Results and Taking Action
So, what will your test results look like? Most of these tests will come back as a list showing you where you fall compared to the normal, healthy range for someone of your age and gender.
If the results show that you are indeed deficient in some nutrients, you can make different dietary decisions by choosing more nutrient-specific and nutrient-dense foods—along with taking omega-3s, B12, vitamin D3, and possibly iodine supplementation—to ensure your body is being nourished as it should be. The best course of action is to modify your diet for at least 8 weeks after your results are in and then testing again to ensure that your levels are adequate.
Let's say for example that your panel shows an iron and B12 deficiency, leading to an anemic state. Your first move should be to invest in a premium-quality vitamin B12 supplement, make sure to consume iron-rich plant foods like lentils, dried apricots, tofu, quinoa, spinach, and pumpkin seeds, and (if needed) take iron supplements until your levels are back on track. We will always recommend you get the majority of your vitamins and minerals from a health-promoting diet, which in the case of iron, can be very easily done with just a few informed tweaks.
Iron is available in two forms: heme iron is the most easily used by your body and it is found in meat and fish, while non-heme iron is found in plant foods. The latter form of iron is believed to be harder for your body to use efficiently, so make sure to consume a good source of vitamin C alongside your iron-rich plant foods to boost absorption!
This is just a small example of how to take action if your test results present any issues. Your doctor will talk you through everything else and perhaps even recommend a dietician to help you make better choices.
Where to Get a Vegan Blood Test
It goes without saying that your primary care physician should be the first person to contact if you are looking to get tested, as they will be able to order any of these tests and give you valuable insights on your results.
But this doesn't mean there aren't any other avenues, especially if you are looking for vegan-specific tests.
In recent years, we have seen several vegan-focused home tests pop up on the market to make blood testing more accessible, and somewhat more vegan-friendly. The UK company ForthWithLife, for example, relies on finger-prick blood tests to check vitamin levels that are then sent to and reviewed by registered doctors. The results are made available within days online on your account's personal biometric dashboard. Thriva, HealthLabs, and LifeExtension offer similar services at a variety of prices, so if you would prefer doing a home test, for any reason, you are definitely spoiled for choice!
Only you can choose the route that fits you best. What really matters, at the end of the day, is that you get tested at least once a year to be fully aware of your health status as a vegan.
It's one of the best ways to show the world just how healthy a vegan diet can be!