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Ask The Expert

Protein and Omega 3 Fatty Acids

Q: I’ve been a vegan for three years now and have felt really great healthwise until a few months ago when I started to constantly feel tired, and my hair and skin seemed drier. What can you suggest that is vegan-friendly to help this?- Tanya, Oakville


A:  Many vegans who I have worked with have remarked that they experienced great improvements to their health and well-being quite quickly after making the switch to a vegan diet.  However, some noted a decline in areas of their vitality, such as fatigue, weakness, gas and bloating and lacklustre skin a few years after choosing to go vegan.


With symptoms of fatigue, first and foremost run some blood tests to assess iron, B12 and thyroid function. Each of these areas can affect health and energy levels in a person. Iron and B12 are fairly common nutrient deficiencies in vegetarian and vegan diets.  If blood levels are low, supplementation can be simple and effective.  If thyroid blood levels are off, work with an ND or MD to properly support healthy thyroid function.  


In a more general sense, the human body has some basic needs to run optimally.  Protein and omega 3 fatty acids are two health-promoting fuels for the body that might be lacking in a vegan diet.  

Protein: Protein gets broken down into 20 different amino acids, all of which play a crucial role in the body. Amino acids are important components of every cell. They are the building blocks for bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, hair, nails and blood. They are necessary to make enzymes, hormones, biochemicals, and to build and repair tissues.  Switching to a plant-based diet by simply omitting meat can lead to protein deficiency if not mindful of protein intake. A protein deficiency can result in decreased immune function, feeling weaker, foggy headed, and tired.  For vegans and vegetarians, tempeh is the best source of protein.  Other sources are nuts, seeds, soy, beans, legumes, lentils, some whole grains (especially quinoa), and hemp.  Amino acids can also be found in avocados, spirulina, spinach and nutritional yeast. Eating a robust variety of these vegan proteins ensures the ingestion of the complete amino acid profile.

One of the easiest ways to improve daily protein intake is to supplement with a vegan protein powder. I would recommend a blend that is fermented, sprouted, or both, to improve its digestibility (to decrease gas and bloating) and bioavailability (better absorption and use).

EPA/DHA: EPA and DHA are the two healthy essential fatty acids from the omega 3s of fish oil.  They are vital in supporting brain health, cellular health, skin, vision, cardiovascular function, and reducing inflammation. Walnuts, chia seeds, and flax seeds are sources of omega 3, but not necessary ideal sources of EPA and DHA, as conversion to these is poor in the body. Thankfully, the omega 3 supplement world has stretched its scope beyond fish and now provides great vegan algae sources of omega 3s that specifically provide doses of EPA and DHA.


Dr. Michelle Pobega, ND, runs a naturopathic practice near the Annex neighbourhood of Toronto. Stay connected with her at drmichellend.ca, Facebook and Twitter @MPobegaND