Carnitine, creatine, and carnosine aren’t the first concern for a plant-based diet. They usually come to light after reading articles cautioning would-be vegans of potential nutritional pitfalls. Should vegans be concerned about these nutrients? Dr. Michael Greger has the answers.
Table Of Contents
- What is Carnitine? And What Foods Contain Carnitine?
- Introducing Dr. Michael Greger & the Vegan Nutrition Concerns Series
- Dr. Greger on How to Get Carnitine, Carnosine & Creatine on a Plant-Based Vegan Diet
- In Closing...
So far in the Vegan Nutrition Concerns Series, Dr. Michael Greger has helped us answer common questions about protein, Omega-3s, calcium, iron, vitamin D, vitamin B12, zinc, and iodine. But what about something as “carnovirous-sounding” as carnitine? Or, for that matter, carnosine, creatine, or taurine?
What are these obscure, primarily animal-derived substances, and how do we get them on a vegan diet?
Carnitine—often paired or confused with carnosine and creatine—is a quaternary ammonium compound, biosynthesized from the amino acids lysine and methionine. As far as what it does?—it’s main job is transporting fatty acids from the intermembraneous space in the mitochondria into the mitochondrial matrix during the breakdown of lipids (fats) for the generation of metabolic energy.
Basically, it helps with burning fat for energy.
This sounds like a great thing, right? Apparently so, as carnitine supplements abound! (Just watch the video for a striking visual…and a bulldog).
As far as direct food sources, carnitine is almost exclusively found in animal foods—though tempeh, avocado, whole-wheat and white bread, peanut butter, and cooked rice make the list.
So is carnitine—and for that matter carnosine and creatine—something vegans should be concerned about? Let’s hear from the doctor!
Today is the final installation in the series with Dr. Michael Greger of NutritionFacts.org. We’ve gone through the most common concerns when switching to a plant-based vegan diet and have come to those nutrients you find out about during a 3am Google search.
Dr. Greger is a licensed general practitioner specializing in clinical nutrition, an author, and an internationally-recognized speaker on nutrition, food safety, and matters of public health.
This interview is the ninth in the Vegan Nutrition Concerns Series with Dr. Greger. This series addresses common nutrient-specific concerns related to a plant-based diet, and touches upon the health impacts of animal products.
The following transcript of my interview with Dr. Greger (from the video above) is edited for clarity, order, and readability.
Dr. Greger: There’s a number of nutrients—carnitine, carnosine, taurine, creatine—that are not made by plants. Then you say “Uh oh!…That’s all I eat. What do I do? They’re only made by animals.” Well, guess what? You’re an animal, right?
And we make it just like the cow…that people eat [makes it]. We make it too, [because] we’re animals too. So, we make all the…carnitine we need, just like the cow does.
So, for example we have a requirement for vitamin C. If we don’t get enough vitamin C, we get scurvy and die, but actually we used to be able to make vitamin C. We actually have the gene to make vitamin C, but our bodies basically junked it because there was no need. Why?
Because we evolved eating plant-heavy diets just like all our other…great ape cousins. And so, [if] all we [were] doing is eating vitamin C all day long, why would we need to make our own? It seems wasteful, so we just scrapped it, similar [to] cats.
Packaged cat food typically contains added taurine. I asked Dr. Greger why this is the case, if other animals (including humans) produce taurine.
Dr. Greger: We make all the taurine that we want; why don’t cats make taurine? Why would cat[s] need to make taurine?…They get all the taurine [they need] from all the mice that they eat. So let the mouse makes it and [the cats] don’t even have to.
So, the fact that we don’t make some of the plant-based nutrients like vitamin C, but we do make the animal-based nutrients, kind of suggests that maybe we were meant to eat lots of plants. We don’t need to eat animals because we make all…these animal-derived nutrients, typically your kind of amino acid configuration.
Dr. Greger: In about 1 in 40,000 births, there is a hereditary disease [of] a carnitine transport protein disorder. You can actually still make all the carnitine you need, but you…lose it in your urine. And so, [around] 1 in 40,000 people actually need to [supplement] carnitine.
I have a video about this kid in Israel about 30 years ago. He was seen in and out of the hospital every couple of months. They didn’t know what was wrong with him, and then he went vegetarian, and things got [a lot] worse. …He was in the hospital every couple of weeks, and that was the clue…”ah ha!” It turns out that he had this rare 1 in 40,000 carnitine problem.
And so…when he went vegetarian, all of a sudden he wasn’t getting [carnitine] in his diet, and…he was losing too much of it in his urine. …They gave him carnitine supplements and he did fine; he continued being a vegetarian actually.
There are indeed rare cases in which there’s some biochemical abnormality where you have to actually take [carnitine] in supplemental form. But for the 39,999 kids that are born out of 40,000, they make all they need.
I hope you enjoyed hearing from Dr. Greger on the topic of how to get carnitine, carnosine, and creatine on a vegan diet.
You may not think much about these nutrients, but they are important nonetheless — and, as Dr. Greger pointed out, you are likely producing all you need!
I’d love to hear from you: Is carnitine or carnosine, or even taurine, something that you’ve heard of before? If you’re vegan, is it something you’re concerned about? If you’re not vegan, is it a concern making you reluctant to go vegan? Do you supplement or just allow your body to make its own? Let me know in the comments!
— Emily Moran Barwick
Please note that when it comes to your health and nutrition, there is no substitute for the guidance of a trained medical professional, especially if you have any medical conditions or complications.
Finding a plant-based provider can be challenging, depending on your location and health insurance (or lack thereof). In the accordion below are online directories for plant-based providers. I hope to expand the list to include ones that serve more countries. If you know of any additional directories, please let me know!
Plant-based medical provider directories
Please note: in listing these directories, I am not recommending or endorsing them or any health care providers listed within them.
- The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) (Worldwide)
- Plantrician Providers (U.S.)
- Plant-Based Health Professionals (UK)
- Plant-Based Canada (Canada)
- Vegan Friendly Registered Dietitians (Worldwide – telehealth) from Challenge22
Do you know of other directories? Especially ones serving more parts of the world? Please let me know!
MORE FROM THE VEGAN NUTRITION CONCERNS SERIES:
- The Crime Of Raising Vegan Kids | When Diet Is Deadly
- How NOT To DIE: Foods That Add Years | Dr. Michael Greger
- Deadly Nutrition: The REAL Dietary Killers | Dr. Michael Greger
- How to Get Iodine on a Plant-Based Vegan Diet | Dr. Michael Greger of Nutritionfacts.org
- How to Get Zinc on a Plant-Based Vegan Diet | Dr. Michael Greger of Nutritionfacts.org
- How to Get Vitamin B12 on a Plant-Based Vegan Diet | Dr. Michael Greger of Nutritionfacts.org
- How to Get Vitamin D on a Plant-Based Vegan Diet | Dr. Michael Greger of Nutritionfacts.org
- How to Get Iron on a Plant-Based Vegan Diet | Dr. Michael Greger of NutritionFacts.org
- How to Get Calcium on a Plant-Based Vegan Diet | Dr. Michael Greger of Nutritionfacts.org
- How to Get Omega-3 on a Plant-Based Vegan Diet | Dr. Michael Greger of Nutritionfacts.org