The only way to know if your diet is working for you or not is to get a blood test. You can assume that you are healthy, or that you are getting all of your nutrients, or that the diet you are on works for you, but assumptions and reality are two very different things.
That’s why I recently had my blood tested. I had been putting it if off for a while because I’m terrified of needles, but I finally worked up the courage to go to a lab, have my arm poked and my blood analyzed.
You do not need a doctor to order blood tests for you. Several companies online offer routine blood tests that you can order yourself. Most routine blood tests are quite affordable too, so chances are, you can afford them even if you do not have health insurance.
How To Order Your Own Blood Tests
The process for ordering your own blood tests is extremely simple. I went to the Health One Labs website, picked the tests I wanted and paid for them with my credit card.
During the ordering process, I was prompted to select a “patient service center” that was closest to me. Within two hours, I was e-mailed a lab requisition form. I printed it out (it was already filled out) and showed up at the patient service center the next morning (no appointment necessary).
I handed the receptionist my requisition form. She had me take a seat for about 2 minutes, then I was ushered into a small room where a vial of my blood was drawn by a friendly lab tech and that was it. I was in and out of there in under ten minutes! (Be sure to show up right when the lab opens, otherwise bring some reading material and make yourself comfortable in the waiting room!)
The very next day, I received an e-mail indicating that my lab results were in. I clicked on the link in the e-mail and downloaded a PDF of my results.
Really, the process could not have been any simpler!
How Often Should You Get Your Blood Tested?
For most people, there really isn’t a reason to get your blood drawn unless you are experiencing symptoms of a disease, or feeling run down.
However, it is critically important to get your blood periodically tested (perhaps once per year) if you are following a vegan, raw food, primal (paleo), or any other new diet. Ideally, you would get your blood work done before you start the diet, then retest about six months into the diet to see how the changes you’ve made to your lifestyle have improved your health. Annual blood work might be a good idea the longer you stick to any sort of strict dietary regimen.
If you are experiencing unexplained symptoms or suspect that you might have an illness, it is important to work directly with a qualified health care professional. Do not try to self-diagnose using your blood test results. However, taking the initiative to order your own blood tests could save you money (especially if you do not have health insurance) and confirm a general, preliminary diagnosis, and save yourself some steps when you consult your doctor.
In short, if I ever feel run down or chronically “not quite right”, or I exhibit deficiency symptoms, I will test my blood immediately. If a blood result were to show deficiency in a certain vitamin, I would modify my diet or supplement, then have it retested a month later. In the absence of symptoms or feelings of ill health, I’ll probably test my blood every 12-18 months.
Which Blood Tests Should You Get?
There are a many different lab tests available that you can order through the Health One website. Here’s a few that I think have value to check on how your diet and lifestyle are impacting your overall health. You might want to get other blood tests depending on certain health conditions or risk factors you might have. The prices listed are as of this writing and may change at any time.
Comprehensive Health Profile – $59: This test screens for cardiovascular risk, major organ function, anemia, diabetes, infection, blood disease, and other indications of illness. It includes the Complete Blood Count (CBC), lipid panel, liver panel, kidney panel, minerals and bone, fluids and electrolytes as well as a diabetes screen. It’s good base test to check for any indication of abnormalities. It’s not a complete picture of your overall health, but it’s a good snapshot and it’s what is typically ordered during a routine physical.
Ferritin (Iron levels) – $39: This is a good test for vegans and vegetarians to take to ensure adequate iron levels are maintained. Vegan and raw vegan women especially should have this checked routinely to ensure they are getting adequate iron from their diet and/or supplements.
Thyroid Panel – $39: A thyroid panel is a group of tests that are often ordered together to help evaluate thyroid gland function and to help diagnose thyroid disorders. This is a good test for vegans and raw food vegans to take on occasion to ensure proper thyroid function, and to address any deficiency in iodine that might lead to problems with your thyroid. Basically, if you are a vegan, make sure your sea vegetables or supplements are doing what they are supposed to be doing.
Vitamin A and Carotene – $49: This test checks your vitamin A levels. It’s a good test for a long-term or struggling vegan or vegetarian to take to ensure that you are synthesizing vitamin A from beta-carotene efficiently enough to maintain adequate levels to prevent deficiency. It is not impossible for a vegan or even a raw food vegan to be deficient in vitamin A despite consuming foods rich in beta-carotene if your body is not efficient in the conversion process.
Vitamin B12 – $39: This should be a standard test for vegans, vegetarians and even meat eaters to check your B12 levels and ensure that you are getting adequate amounts from your diet or supplements. Perhaps get this test done once to ensure that you have a healthy B12 level, then retest in a year. If the level doesn’t fall, then keep doing what you are doing and retest every few years, or if deficiency symptoms manifest.
Vitamin D, 25 Hydoxy – $49: This test should probably be routine for everybody, whether you are vegan or omnivore. Recent studies suggest that many people might be vitamin D deficient than previously thought. If you are vegan and/or spend a lot of time indoors or out of the sun, then get this test to ensure your diet and/or supplements are supplying what your body needs.
Testosterone, Total and Free – $59: This is an important test for men, especially older men or those who follow strict fruitarian and low fat diets. Symptoms of low testosterone can mimic those of “adrenal fatigue” or “candida”. While vegan and raw food diets don’t necessarily cause low testosterone, there are some risk factors such as insufficient zinc, iron, iodine and selenium, excessive fiber and inadequate fat intake – which could lead to hormone imbalances if you are not paying attention to your nutrient intake, or severely restricting fat and protein. Be sure to get both total and free testosterone tested together.
This is, of course, not an exhaustive list of blood tests. If you are in good health, you probably don’t need a battery of tests to tell you absolutely everything about what is going on inside your body. The ones I mention above are good starting points that will give you a snapshot into your overall health and levels for certain vitamins and minerals if you are testing your blood for the very first time.
Of course, there are some opportunities to get free non-blood tests. For example, I got a free “osteoporosis screening” at Costco last year. My result came back normal. I’m not sure how accurate these screenings are or if they are intended to sell you calcium supplements, but it’s something. Many drug stores have free, in-store blood pressure screening machines too. Keep your eye out for heart health or diabetes awareness events where you can typically get free screenings at a local clinic.
How To Read Your Blood Test Results
Okay, so you went through the easy process of ordering your blood test and getting your blood drawn. Now you’ve downloaded your lab results and need to make sense of them.
Your lab results will show up in a column next to a column called “Reference Interval”. The reference interval is a range of numbers that indicate what is within normal levels for 95% of the population who is considered healthy. (Take a look at a sample lab result.)
For example, the reference interval for total cholesterol is between 100-199. As long as your result is within this range, it is considered normal, and you can easily compare your numbers with the reference intervals on your blood test results to determine if you are within the normal, healthy range or if you are too high (above 199) or too low (below 100).
Now here is the tricky part of ordering your own blood tests and having the results in your hand. If any of your numbers come back too high or two low, there is no way for you to know what that indicates without discussing it with a physician or researching it on the Internet.
Now a word of caution about researching the meaning of your lab results online – don’t do it! Just don’t! You’ll end up on alarmist websites with bad information and you will freak yourself out. Even if your numbers are on the low or high end of normal, there are websites and “Internet experts” out there who write alarming articles and blog posts about how normal isn’t really normal and that you need this or you need that (usually a supplement or e-book).
Trust me, the best thing to do if you have any questions about or abnormal results on your blood test is to discuss it with your doctor and heed their advice regarding further testing or changes you can make to bring your results within normal levels.
Of course, if your vitamin B12 lab result shows low levels, you know what to do. Increase your B12 levels through diet and supplements and have your blood retested to ensure your levels are going back up to normal levels (if your results show deficiency, you may need to see a doctor who can administer a B12 shot or provide recommendations to bring your B12 level back up quickly and safely). But if your blood counts are off, or other numbers have been flagged as too high or too low, seek the advice of a medical professional and NOT some Internet health expert.
It’s perfectly fine to look up what certain things on your blood test mean so you can understand them. For example, feel free to read up on what triglycerides are or what bilirubin is. If you’re a health nerd like me, you’ll be fascinated. But let me say it one more time, do not look for answers online for what a low or high result might mean. You’ll just scare yourself, and perhaps needlessly. Or worse, you’ll follow bad advice and make things worse.
I can’t stress enough how important it is to test your blood on a periodic basis. The ONLY way to ensure that your diet and lifestyle is optimal for you is not by following a strict diet to the letter, or adhering to health regimens prescribed by gurus, but to test your blood and look at the results based on your diet choices.
Tracy Russell is the creator of the Green Smoothie Health & Weight Loss Program and founder of Incredible Smoothies. She is passionate about helping people improve their health with green smoothies and a whole foods lifestyle.