For those of you wondering what supplements should vegans take or if you will be able to meet all your nutritional needs with plants, this guide is for you.
What Supplements Should Vegans Take?
When I google which supplements vegans should take, the first thing that comes up is an article with a long list of vitamins and minerals. You will also find lists of supposed nutrients found in animal products alone. How do you weed out the misinformation and fearmongering to find the sensible truth?
Do we really need to supplement with vitamin B12, vitamin D, DHA, iron, iodine, calcium, and zinc? What about creatine, carnosine, taurine, and heme iron? Is a vegan diet nutritionally inferior?
When I first found this list, it gave me the impression of a vegan diet being inadequate. Lists like these are enough to scare anyone considering going vegan. But, with a bit of research, we can learn it is possible to be successful and thrive on a plant-based lifestyle.
What The Experts Have To Say About Veganism
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics,“appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.” They also go on to mention that plant-based diets are suitable for all phases of life, from infancy to old age and for athletes and pregnant or lactating women.
A Well-Planned Vegan Diet
A well-planned vegan diet includes a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. By eating in a balanced way and being mindful of the nutrients in the foods you’re eating it is possible to get all essential nutrients except for vitamin b12.
Vitamin B12 Supplement
Reliable sources of vitamin B12 are not found in plant foods. It is the consensus among nutrition professionals that all vegans must take a vitamin B12 supplement or consume fortified foods. Harvard Health recommends the average adult to consume 2.4 micrograms per day.
Vitamin B12 is an essential nutrient needed for cell division and the formation of healthy red blood cells. It is also important for making myelin in the body. Myelin is a mixture of proteins forming a protective sheath around our nerve fibers.
Risking vitamin b12 deficiency can lead to anemia and nerve damage. Additionally, low intake can upsurge risks of some chronic illnesses like heart disease.
At my annual check-ups, I always ask my physician to test my B12 levels and I recommend this for vegans and non-vegans alike. It is still possible to be deficient in this crucial nutrient when including meat in the diet.
Whether vegan or not, 8% of the U.S. population is at risk of vitamin D deficiency. Our skin makes this essential nutrient when it soaks in sunlight. Except for a few select foods, our primary source of vitamin D is the sun. Unless you are deficient in this vitamin or unable to get outside, there is no need to supplement. Being mindful of your vitamin D levels and making sure you either get adequate sunlight or take a supplement is important to remain in good health.
Plant food sources: mushrooms, fortified plant milk, fortified cereals, fortified orange juice
The subject of EPA and DHA is controversial in the vegan and vegetarian community. They are a type of Omega 3 fatty acids believed to be important for cardiovascular health due to their ability to reduce blood clotting and inflammation. Not having enough dietary intake of this fatty acid in the diet could also potentially cause neurological problems like depression.
In general, vegan and vegetarians tend to be lower in these fats because they are mostly found in animal products like fish and eggs. Sea vegetables provide small amounts of EPA.
ALA is also an omega 3 fatty acid. Our bodies convert the ALA from plants into DHA. However, there is some debate as to whether this process is effective.
Nevertheless, making sure that you eat foods containing ALA will ensure your body has the necessary building blocks for synthesizing DHA. Flaxseeds are one of the best plant sources of ALA with just two tablespoons containing 133% of the dietary reference intake or DRI.
Plant food sources: chia seeds, flax seeds, walnuts, beans, leafy greens, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, winter squash, edamame, pumpkin seeds
It is very common for new or potential vegans/vegetarians to be concerned about iron deficiency. It is the most common nutrient deficiency in the United States no matter if animal foods form a part of the diet or not. Although plant-based diets offer plenty of non-heme iron, the problem is how well it is absorbed.
Iron is necessary to produce healthy red blood cells and aids in the transportation of oxygen all over the body. It is also essential to maintain healthy cells including skin and nails. An iron deficiency can lead to anemia and further complications. This can cause fatigue, weakness, and even hair loss among other things.
Heme Iron Vs Non-Heme Iron
There are two forms of iron: heme iron which is only found in meat and non-heme iron found in plants. It is known that the body better absorbs heme iron. The absorption of non-heme iron is lower and can be repressed or boosted by other components in the diet or meal. Luckily there are tactics that can enhance the intake of this vital mineral.
One of the easiest ways to improve non-heme iron’s absorption is by including foods rich in vitamin C at every meal. Phytates block mineral absorption. Methods like soaking, sprouting, and fermenting reduce the content of phytates in foods which should enhance the retention of iron at meals.
Plant food sources: lentils, soybeans, tofu, tempeh, quinoa, oatmeal, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, pistachios, cashews, leafy greens, blackstrap molasses
Iodine is a tricky one and a mineral most people are rarely concerned about. In the United States, most of us obtain iodine from fish, dairy, and iodized salt. The content of iodine in plant foods is dependent on the soil upon which it was grown. This makes it a bit tricky to know if you are getting enough. While some nutritionists recommend eating sea vegetables and other plant foods, it may be unreliable since iodine content is variable and dependent on soil quality. Other vegan dieticians like Jack Norris recommend taking a modest supplement providing 75 to 150 micrograms of iodine three to four times per week.
When people first find out I don’t consume any dairy, their immediate concern is how I’m getting my calcium. This mineral can be found in a variety of plant foods including leafy greens, legumes, nuts, and other vegetables.
Consuming fortified foods like plant-based milks, breakfast cereals, protein bars, orange or other fruit juice, blackstrap molasses, and tofu set in calcium sulfate are a simple way to get calcium into your diet. Check the label to make sure that the product contains calcium.
Plant food sources: fortified plant milk, collard greens, kale, great northern beans, chia seeds, amaranth, mustard greens, soybeans, almonds, blackstrap molasses, sesame seeds, broccoli
Zinc is necessary for the catalytic activity of about 100 different enzymes. The body uses it for healthy immune function, protein synthesis, blood creation, and cell growth.
It is recommended that women consume 8 mg of zinc per day while men need 11 mg. However, the Food and Nutrition Board suggests vegans need at least 50% more than the RDI. This would that women consuming a plant-based diet need 12 mg a day and men 16.5 mg.
Plant food sources: adzuki beans, wild rice, lentils, tempeh, almond butter, avocado, potato, brussels sprouts, oats, wheat germ, nutritional yeast
Nutrients Not Found in Plants
The only essential nutrient that cannot be obtained from plants is vitamin b12. Creatine, carnitine, carnosine, taurine, and heme iron are nonessential nutrients.
Creatine, carnitine, carnosine, and taurine are amino acids that we synthesize ourselves from the consumption of lysine and methionine found in plants. This means that it isn’t necessary to supplement these nutrients.
Heme iron, which is only found in animal products, is much more easily absorbed by the body. Non-heme iron is absorbed at a lower level and may be enhanced or inhibited by other components in the meal. With this said, it is still not necessary for humans to consume heme iron to maintain healthy levels in the blood. It is possible to get all the iron you need from plants alone.
Vegan Supplements: Do You Need Them?
What supplements should vegans take? The simple answer is: we are all different. Whether you decide to supplement or not depends on your individual needs. Except for vitamin b12, which must be supplemented, you can get all essential nutrients from plant-based foods.