Supplements are all the rage in many wellness circles, but are they necessary? They were originally created because people stopped getting essential nutrients as they moved away from whole foods and toward processed ones. So what does this mean for folks following a nutrient-dense plant-based diet? Do they still need them?
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Before we begin: vegan athletes, here's how to get the nutrients you need
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Supplements came about because so many people eating Western diets were struggling with nutrient deficiency (3). Why are we lacking in nutrients? We're not getting them from our food. The Standard American Diet leaves many malnourished (I’m not referring to underfed here), and over-consuming fat and animal protein, which can lead to a range of noncommunicable diseases including obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and arthritis.
While these days it can feel like you need a nutrition degree to “eat right, the truth is much simpler: eat your fruits and veggies.
Studies show that a whole food plant-based diet can extend your life by an average of almost a decade, and can prevent and even reverse many of these noncommunicable diseases.
A whole food plant based diet is packed to the brim with nutrient dense foods. Fiber, protein, calcium, iron, and Omega 3s are found in abundance in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes — and the best part is, you can forget micromanaging everything you eat. No more weighing, measuring and calculating to see if you’re getting sufficient nutrients.
And for the most part, you don't need to stock up on supplements, with one exception..
A little anecdote about my first month after going vegan: I spent hours scanning the internet for a vegan supplement that contained “all the nutrients I would be missing out on after giving up meat.” And… I had a harder time finding one than I was expecting.
My initial thoughts were “wow, going vegan is hard!” “I’m nervous to do this without all the right tools, maybe I should reconsider until I’m more prepared” and “if being plant based is so ‘natural’ than why do I need supplements?”
Turns out I couldn’t find a multivitamin for vegans back then because…. Well, you really just need one, and that is due to modern farming practices!
On a plant based diet there is really only 1 supplement you may need to consider, and that is only if you buy your veggies store bought instead of growing them yourself: B-12.
An RDN weights in on vitamin B12 and a plant-based diet
We caught up with Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Licensed Dietitian, Addie Dulaney Majnaric, to hear her thoughts on vitamin B12. Here's what she has to say:
“Vitamin B12 is a water-soluble vitamin that aids in the health of our nerve and blood cells. It also prevents megaloblastic anemia.
B12 is made by bacteria found in the soil. It is also found in the guts of animals. (Humans no longer produce B12 in the gut.) Because you are no longer eating meat, and we all wash the soil from our vegetables, I recommend that you take a B12 supplement.
Our bodies require about 4-7 micrograms a day. However, we can only absorb about 1.5 micrograms every 4 to 6 hours. One recommendation is to take a 2500-microgram tablet under the tongue, once a week, as our bodies do passively diffuse about 1% of the tablet through our gut and into the bloodstream after the 1.5 microgram limit is reached.
If you prefer to take a small amount several times a week, you can take a 1,000-microgram sublingual tablet 3-4 times a week. Note that as B12 is a water-soluble vitamin, any excess amount is not stored, but filtered out through urine.
You can get some of your B12 from fortified foods such as nutritional yeast, some soy products, some plant milks, and some cereals. It is best to take a B12 supplement in addition to eating these foods, as there is no risk of over consumption.”
If a plant-based diet is best for the human body, then why do we need supplements, even if just one?
This question is raised by both new vegans, and those who critique the vegan diet alike. And it’s important to address, because until you’re totally informed, it can be scary to make a lifestyle change, especially when it involves your health.
The quick answer is that humans lead a very different lifestyle than they did originally. For example: we process our food greatly (this includes store bought whole fruits and veggies), and we spend less time in the sunshine.
Speaking of sunshine...what's the deal with Vitamin D? And do you need dairy products to get it?
When we talk about vitamin D, we're talking about D3, which is something our bodies synthesize when exposed to sunlight. Other animals, and even mushrooms do the same, so D3 can be found in both meat and outdoor grown mushrooms.
Humans used to spend much more time outdoors in the sunlight, and as we have become a mostly indoors society, we may not get the full amount of Vitamin D3 that our bodies require for healthy function, especially during the winter months, and for those with darker skin.
Although the evidence suggesting that Vitamin D supplements work is inconclusive, many doctors recommend the supplement (2) . Scientists and doctors alike do agree, however, that the best way to get Vitamin D is through safe sun exposure (10-30 minutes a day) and diet.
Another common question from plant-based beginners. Addie Dulaney Majnaric, RDN, has to say about omega-3s and a plant-based lifestyle:
“DHA is an omega-3 fatty acid. It’s one of two “long-chain” omega-3s in our bodies (the other is called EPA).
We need DHA to improve heart health and vision and to reduce inflammation in the body. It also is crucial for the development of the brain during pregnancy and early child childhood.
Our bodies make DHA from “short-chain” omega-3 fatty acids that we eat. Our bodies do not make any omega-3s fatty acids on their own. We have to eat them in order to have them.
Plant-based foods high in omega-3 fatty acids are flax seed, chia seeds, and walnuts.
It’s recommended for adults to consume, per day, about 2-3 Tablespoons of ground flax seed, about 2 Tbsp of chia seeds, or ¼ cup walnuts to get appropriate amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. If you’re glucose-intolerant, flax seed may be the best choice for you. It is less fatty and less calorically dense than the other sources.
There are a few reasons to consider taking a DHA supplement.
- You’re unable to consume these foods regularly.
- You’re pregnant or breastfeeding.
- You don’t efficiently convert “short-chain” fatty acids to “long-chain” DHA. Your doctor can order a blood test to see how well you convert omega-3 fatty acids.
If any of these apply to you, one supplement option is 200 mg/day of DHA derived from marine algae. (This is where fish get their DHA.) When you avoid fish sources of DHA and EPA, you also avoid mercury, PCBs, dioxins, and other pollutant exposure. This is one reason it’s best to choose a vegan, non-contaminated source of DHA, such as supplements made with marine algae.
If you’re curious about DHA, then you’ve probably heard about another fatty acid — omega-6.
We need to eat both, but we need a lot more omega-3. And if we eat more omega-6 than omega-3, we actually become less efficient at converting omega-3s to DHA!
So how do you make sure you don’t over consume omega-6 fatty acids? First, you can ask your doctor to test your omega-3 to omega 6 ratio to see where your body is at.
Second, you can also stop eating animal products. This drops the amount of omega-6 fatty acids in your body. If you eat a no-oil, whole food, plant-based diet that is low in nuts and seeds, your ratio of omegas should be just fine.”
You're getting enough protein!
Protein anxiety is real! After all, it's one of the first questions folks may ask you when you say you're going plant-based: "But what about protein!?"
Good news: it is easy to get enough protein on a plant-based, without even trying! Actually, it is VERY difficult to become protein deficient, unless you are not consuming enough calories. Here's a simple protein calculator to show you just how much (or really, how little) protein you actually need.
You'll get plenty of iron, too.
Yep! Most plant foods are rich in iron. Some of our favorite: leafy greens, beans, fruits, and seeds.
No need to drink cow's milk for calcium
Did you know that plant-based calcium absorbs 2X more effectively than animal-based calcium? And there are loads of plant-based sources of calcium you can add to your diet (chances are you're eating most of these already!).
- Supplements are trending in the wellness space because many Americans are nutrient deficient thanks to a Standard American Diet
- A well rounded whole food plant based diet provides all the nutrients you need...save for one possible exception, B-12.
- B12 is made by bacteria found in the soil and it's in the guts of animals. When you remove meat from your diet and if you buy and wash your produce, it may be wise to supplement B-12.
- You most likely don't need to a Vitamin D supplement if you're eating Vitamin D rich foods and getting plenty of sunshine.
- You don't need to eat fish or take Omega-3 supplements to get these important fatty acids. Eat flax seeds, chia seeds, and walnuts to get your fill.
- It's very hard to be protein deficient on a plant-based diet! You don't need as much protein as you think.
- There's plenty of iron in plant-based foods.
- Skip the cow's milk! Plant-based sources of calcium absorbs 2X more effectively than animal-based calcium
Caroline is a plant-based chef, recipe designer, and whole food plant-based nutrition educator, with a Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies.