Going vegan has been known to have its fair share of benefits. Choosing to go vegan with a plant based diet is a decision that more and more people are making. Whether you’re an athlete, have religious convictions that call for a vegan diet, have concerns about the use of antibiotics and hormones used when producing livestock, or are simply in search of a healthier lifestyle that includes a diet that avoids excessive use of our natural and environmental resources, going vegan may be the right choice for you. With such a life changing decision, many questions and concerns arise. One common concern about a vegan diet is that vegan diets are missing crucial nutrients, because meat and animal based products provide the much needed nutrients to nourish our bodies.
According to Harvard Health: “Traditionally, research into vegetarianism focused mainly on potential nutritional deficiencies, but in recent years, the pendulum has swung the other way, and studies are confirming the health benefits of meat-free eating. Nowadays, plant-based eating is recognized as not only nutritionally sufficient but also as a way to reduce the risk for many chronic illnesses.” According to the American Dietetic Association, “appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.” Yet, the burning question remains: how can we make sure that we are receiving adequate nutrition to replace those found in meat and animal products that we used to consume?
According to the Global Healing Center, a vegan diet can be quite nutritious and contains most of the essential nutrients you need. Even so, there are some minerals and vitamins you may end up missing. The article also notes that many vitamins and minerals are more readily available from animal sources, and as a result, it is important to know how taking certain supplements could affect your health. Typical vitamins such as B12 and vitamin D tend to be lacking in an all plant based diet. Although plant foods provide an assortment of nutrients, some may be on the low end in comparison to other foods. As a result, the article includes six of the best supplements every vegan and non-vegan should know about and use to help boost your all plant based diet, or a diet without much animal products.
Vitamin B12 remains number one on their list. Vitamin B is one of the essential B-complex nutrients, and the article notes that B12 maintains brain and nervous system health. However, the vegan diet doesn’t really offer the amount that our bodies need to remain productive. B12 is known to maintain the brain and nervous systems health. Low levels of B12 can lead to serious health complications, such as anemia, pregnancy complications, potential irreversible nerve damage, temporary blindness, etc. As a result, B12 is highly important to every vegan’s supplement regimen. Vegan.com goes into more depth about the significance of vitamin B12. The site goes on to say that the only vegan foods that reliably contain significant amounts of B12 are those that have been fortified with lab-cultured B-12. Every person is different when it comes to how our bodies absorb vitamin B-12, and because it vastly varies from person to person, it is said to be quite possibly low or deficient even if you consume 100% of the U.S. RDA. The site further recommends that everyone have blood work done occasionally, and adjust their supplement regimen if B12 levels fall below 500 pg/mL.
Vegan.com says that the easiest way for most people to avoid a deficiency is to take a B12 supplement containing at least 1000 micrograms of B12 two or three times a week. These types of supplements are said to come in lozenge form. This is said to be ideal because the B12 will be absorbed by your mouth’s capillaries more efficiently than if you swallowed the lozenge, and because side effects from B12 are rare, it’s almost a worry free supplement.
If you have already done your own research into vitamin B12, you may be aware that there are two different types of B12 molecules used by the supplement industry: cyanocobalamin and methylcobalamin. According to vegan.com, some people are adamant that methylcobalamin is best, but clinical evidence currently leans toward cyanocobalamin being the better choice (although either molecule will probably be beneficial).
Red blood cells are responsible for using iron to transport oxygen and nutrients. Low Iron can lead to anemia. According to the article, of the two types of iron, non-heme, which is found in plant sources, is much harder for the body to absorb. This means that vegans and vegetarians can have lower iron stores in the blood. So, supplementing Iron into the vegan regime is highly crucial to maintaining an optimum level of health. According to Harvard health, studies have shown that “the iron in meat (especially red meat) is more readily absorbed than the kind found in plant foods, known as non-heme iron. The absorption of non-heme iron is enhanced by vitamin C and other acids found in fruits and vegetables, but it may be inhibited by the phytic acid in whole grains, beans, lentils, seeds, and nuts.”
When it comes to foods and Iron, vegan.com says that Iron is abundant in a number of vegan foods including leafy green vegetables, seaweed, and some types of beans. Iron supplementing can be tricky. As Vegan.com points out, it is possible to take too much iron, so always check with your doctor before adding a supplement to your regimen, and consult him or her about the results of your blood work. We all know that too little of vitamin or mineral is bad for us and can cause adverse health problems, but the same can often be said about taking too much.
Zinc is found in every cell in the body. It helps with everything from maintaining your immune system to aiding reproduction. While zinc can be found in vegetable sources, Harvard Health tells us that “Phytic acid in whole grains, seeds, beans, and legumes also reduces zinc absorption.” The Global Healing Center notes that taking additional zinc is highly recommended for vegetarians and vegans for this reason. It turns out that the body actually lacks any kind of zinc storage system, zinc orotate is one form that passes quickly and easily through cell membranes, allowing the body to get most of the mineral.
The Global Healing Center also says that no matter what your diet is, vegan, vegetarian or not, supplementing with enzymes can provide your body with a great deal of help. There are some studies that suggest proteolytic enzymes can reduce irritation in the body, while digestive enzymes help digest food molecules into nutrients. The article gives a helpful example as to what this actually means: someone who is lactose intolerant could take the enzyme, lactase, in order to better digest dairy. As a vegan or vegetarian, it’s especially important to make sure your enzyme supplement isn’t sourced from animal products.
For many people, Vitamin D is essential. It is primarily obtained in three ways: by exposing your skin to direct sunlight, through drinking fortified milks, vegan and/or cow’s milk, or through supplements. Regardless of your diet, low vitamin D can lead to depression and other adverse health issues that are not pleasant. Vegan.com points out that it’s not a vitamin that appears naturally in unfortified foods, and most people in temperate climates will not receive adequate sunlight exposure in winter months to ensure sufficient vitamin D levels. So, a supplement can be a great way to obtain sufficient vitamin D. The Global Healing Center tells us that Vitamin D is necessary for calcium absorption, but most people, regardless of diet, just don’t seem to get enough. While calcium can be found very easily in the diet, vitamin D is far trickier. In fact, according to the article, many vegans don’t get any vitamin D at all from the foods that they do eat. Studies suggest that vitamin D is actually just as important as calcium when it comes to reducing the risk of osteoporosis. So, it is highly important to everyone, vegans especially, to ensure that you are getting enough of both. Adding vitamin D can also aide in calcium absorption as well.
Vegan.com says many (but not all) brands of soy or almond milk contain D3, so it’s possible to meet your needs by drinking a couple glasses of these products a day. Vegan.com also adds that just recently, a vegan version of Vitamin D made with the most common Vitamin D molecule (D3) is now available for purchase.
Iodine is also very important to the everyday person. For the vegan diet, it’s even more important. Everyone needs iodine to function. According to the Global Healing Center, Iodine helps to support a healthy thyroid, and too little intake can throw metabolic functions out of whack. It might seem a little strange, but your body can’t produce iodine on its own. The only options for making sure you’re getting enough iodine are through trace amounts in food and supplements. As mentioned, vegans are especially vulnerable, because research suggests that iodine occurs in only minute amounts in plants.
Vegan.com adds Calcium as a top supplement to consider when choosing to go vegan. “The good news for vegans is that most brands of soy or almond milk contain more calcium than cows’ milk, but of course you’ll want to check the label to confirm your favorite brand packs a sufficient dose of calcium. Drinking these products daily and regularly eating tofu prepared with calcium sulfate can go a long way towards ensuring adequate calcium intake. Kale is another excellent source of calcium, and it’s packed with other important nutrients too. Beans vary widely in the amount of calcium they contain, with soybeans and white beans offering the most.”
Foods that are calcium-rich include: vegan milk, beans, greens and tofu. Vegan.com says that if you don’t consume much of those daily foods, it will be very difficult to meet the US RDA of 1000 mgs per day. It’s also important to note that some calcium supplements are made from oyster shells, and are therefore not vegan, and many brands either contain lanolin-derived vitamin D, or come in gelatin capsules or tablets with non-vegan coating.
The consensus among most leading vegan websites is that protein powders are a great way to substitute the primary thing missed from the daily vegan diet: poultry, eggs, meat, etc. Protein powders offer a quick, convenient and easy way to ensure that you restore or maintain the right levels of protein in your diet to stay healthy. Despite popular belief, it is possible to consume sufficient protein on a vegan diet, even without using any form or protein supplements at all.
Vegan.com offers a general rule of thumb when it comes to protein: “some of the hardest-to-digest vegan foods are those that are richest in protein, particularly beans and wheat gluten. So vegan protein powder makes a great alternative. Just one scoop of most brands provides nearly the amount of protein as an entire 16-ounce can of beans!”
On a daily basis, Harvard Health says that the average adult vegan may need 0.45 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. There are many plant sources that can help vegans meet their protein needs, including peas, beans, lentils, chickpeas, seeds, nuts, soy products, and whole grains (for example, wheat, oats, barley, and brown rice). If none of these options are appealing to you, then a protein rich powder just may be the solution. However, According to the American Dietetic Association, eating a wide variety of protein sources every day is sufficient.
Omega-3 and DHA
Another consensus among the leading vegan enthusiasts is that there is good reason to include Omega-3 fats in your diet. Of course we can all consume a fairly decent amount of Omega-3 fats from fish and fish oils, however, for the vegan, the struggle is real. According to vegan.com, there are few rich sources of this particular fat that are vegan. The site lists: “walnuts, chia seeds, flax, and to a lesser extent hemp and pumpkin seeds. Of these, walnuts and chia are probably the most convenient sources. You can significantly raise your Omega-3 consumption by eating a dozen or so walnut halves a day. And there are numerous vegan recipes that include chia seeds. Adding a tablespoon of chia to your smoothies is probably the easiest way to include this food in your diet.”
The site further explains: “Even if you’re getting plenty of Omega-3s, your body may not be properly converting these fats to provide sufficient levels of DHA and EPA. Fortunately, there are several DHA/EPA supplements on the market. Of all supplements of special interest to vegans, these are probably the most expensive. That’s because the vegan brands are algae-derived, rather than being derived from fish. But not only are they more humane, because they’re lower on the food chain they’re less subject to contamination.” Harvard health adds: “Diets that include no fish or eggs are low in EPA and DHA. Our bodies can convert ALA in plant foods to EPA and DHA, but not very efficiently. Vegans can get DHA from algae supplements, which increase blood levels of DHA as well as EPA (by a process called retroversion). DHA-fortified breakfast bars and soy milk are also available. Official dietary guidelines recommend 1.10 grams per day of ALA for women, but vegetarians who consume little or no EPA and DHA should probably get more than that. Good ALA sources include flaxseed, walnuts, canola oil, and soy.”