Your blood can reveal a lot about your health. One of the things you can check with a blood sample is how well you are supplied with nutrients.
To make sure you get enough of the vitamins and minerals that are considered critical on a vegan diet, it's a good idea to get a blood test done once or twice a year.
When getting your blood drawn, you should make sure standard values, as well as values that are particularly important for vegans, are tested.
So, in this post, you'll learn about the 8 blood tests vegans should get as well as which values provide the most reliable results.
Naturally, these are general recommendations, a starting point, you should always consult your doctor.
Moreover, to improve the accuracy of the results, you should not eat or drink anything in the 12 hours prior to getting your blood drawn.
What standard values should you check with a blood test:
- Basic blood count
- Differential blood count
- Kidney and liver function parameters
- Lipid levels (cholesterol)
- Blood sugar (including HbA1c)
8 blood tests vegans should get
Note: There may be additional costs associated with checking some of the following values. Please don't let this discourage you because getting these tests is vital. If a deficiency stays undetected, it may lead to a variety of negative (and possibly irreversible) health consequences.
1. Vitamin B12
Plants contain vitamin B12 only in minute amounts. Therefore, vegans must supplement the vitamin regularly.
Getting a blood test done every two years is crucial to make sure that the body can absorb and use the supplement you take. (Vitamin B12 is an exception, and you don't need to test it every year because the body stores it for several years.)
Measuring vitamin B12 levels is necessary because a deficiency can disrupt blood formation and lead to irreversible neurological damage. Moreover, it may promote atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease.
The most reliable parameters to test are holotranscobalamin and methylmalonate. Holotranscobalamin detects a deficiency the earliest, so you can treat it before long-term damage occurs.
Methylmalonate shows how well you are supplied with B12 over an extended time period and is also a reliable value.
Checking the B12 concentration in the serum is not sufficient. By the time a deficiency is detected with this method, possibly (irreversible) damage may have already occurred.
The homocysteine value is also not ideal, as it can be influenced by folate and vitamin B6 levels.
You can find more information about Vitamin B12 here.Summary: The most reliable parameters to test for vitamin B12 deficiency are holotranscobalamin and methylmalonate.
2. Vitamin D
Extraordinary about vitamin D is that the body can produce it under specific circumstances.
When the body's production is limited,( f.e. during the winter months or if you generally spend little time outdoors) vegans need to take a vitamin D supplement regularly.
It's essential to check your vitamin D supply because a deficiency can increase the risk of bone fractures and osteoporosis.
Furthermore, a shortage can lead to muscle diseases, increased susceptibility to infections, nervous system disorders, and problems with blood clotting.
The most reliable blood value to test is serum 25-cholecalciferol.
There is also the possibility of measuring the active vitamin D3 in the blood. However, this parameter has little significance because it is strictly regulated. Thus, it remains relatively stable even in case of a deficiency.
You can learn more about vitamin D here.Summary: The most reliable blood value to measure your vitamin D supply is serum 25-cholecalciferol.
Iron deficiency affects a lot of people; the majority of them are women. While it's possible to meet the need on a vegan diet, iron absorption from plant foods is lower*, which increases the risk of deficiency.
* By using certain preparation methods, you can increase iron absorption and reduce the risk of deficiency.
Not getting enough iron can lead to anemia. As a result, not enough oxygen is transported to the cells. A severe deficiency can lead to cardiac arrhythmia or, at worst, heart failure.
As you can see, checking your iron levels is very important.
There are various ways to check your iron supply with a blood test, but not all are equally well suited.
The most reliable value is ferritin/serum ferritin, which is the iron storage and shows how good your iron supply is over a prolonged time.
It's not ideal to test for parameters such as serum iron, erythrocyte count, hemoglobin level, or hematocrit value.
The serum iron shows the current iron level in the blood. Since this is just momentary, the value has little significance (it fluctuates a lot).
The hemoglobin level, hematocrit value, and the erythrocyte count can detect iron deficiency anemia but not low iron storage. Therefore, they are not the best choice, either.
You can find more information about iron for vegans here.Summary: The most reliable way to check your iron supply is by testing the ferritin/serum ferritin levels.
4. Omega-3 including EPA and DHA
Omega-3 is an umbrella term for specific unsaturated fatty acids. The most important ones are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
ALA is usually abundant in the vegan diet. The body then converts ALA to EPA and DHA. However, this conversion is limited.
Therefore, many physicians who specialize in a plant-based diet, recommend supplementing DHA and EPA with microalgae oil.
Since an omega-3 deficiency can increase the risk of various chronic diseases, it's essential to check your supply regularly.
One way to do this is by measuring the fatty acid distribution in the serum. However, this method is not ideal because fluctuations can occur.
More suitable would be testing the omega-3 index. However, not all doctors/labs do this test.
Therefore, it is possible to do a self-test. If you are thinking about going that route, please talk to your doctor beforehand.Summary: The most reliable way to check your Omega-3 levels is with an Omega-3 index.
The trace element is abundant in plants, and vegans usually get enough of it. However, zinc absorption from plant foods is lower. That's why some sources recommend checking your zinc levels when you get a blood panel.
Yet, the significance of this value is limited. So, if you suspect a deficiency, your doctor usually recommends an analysis of your diet.
Again, you can implement strategies that boost absorption.
You can find more information about zinc here.Summary: Some sources recommend getting your zinc levels checked with a blood test. The significance, however, is limited. Alternatively, you can get your diet analyzed.
Whether plants serve as a selenium source depends on where the plants were grown. In countries where the soil is low in selenium (f.e.in Europe), vegans have an increased risk of deficiency.
The easiest way to meet the need is by consuming 2 to 3 Brazil nuts a day. Nevertheless, the selenium content in Brazil nuts may vary.
Consequences of a deficiency include enlargement of red blood cells, weakened immune system as well as problems with muscle function and sperm formation.
Therefore, you should also get your selenium levels examined.
The best way to check if you are getting enough selenium is by measuring the selenium content in whole blood.
Alternative values to test are glutathione peroxidase or selenoprotein P in blood plasma.
Subideal values are the selenium content in serum or plasma because factors such as smoking, alcohol, age, and disease can influence the result.Summary: The best way to check your selenium levels is by testing the selenium content in whole blood.
7. Folic acid
Vegans usually get sufficient amounts of folic acid. Nevertheless, folic acid is essential for the development of the child in the case of pregnancy. Thus, checking the folic acid levels is recommended, especially for women of childbearing age.
The most reliable value is erythrocyte folic acid.
Other options are checking the folic acid in the plasma or serum, but these are subject to dietary fluctuations.Summary: The most reliable value to measure your folic acid levels is erythrocyte folic acid.
Plant foods contain almost no iodine. Therefore, vegans have an increased risk of deficiency, especially if they consume little iodized table salt or algae. That's why dietary associations advise vegans to "supplement" iodine with nori flakes.
Iodine deficiency can lead to enlargement of the thyroid and reduction of thyroid hormones. Therefore, it's a good idea to check your iodine levels regularly.
However, a blood test (Thyroglobulin) may not be the most reliable option.
More suited would be checking your supply with a urine sample (24h collection urine or spontaneous urine).
You can find more information about iodine here.Summary: A blood test can only hint at a deficiency. A better option is checking your supply with a urine sample.