One of the most frequently asked questions about plant-based eating is, “which supplements should I take?” Vegan diets can offer a lot of benefits but many friends, family, and co-workers will still have concerns about your eating habits that may make you want to roll your eyes (or at least this can be my general reaction if I’m not mindful 😉 ). Everyone eats and sometimes people in our lives want us to do what they think is best for our bodies and choosing to eat plant-based is really a decision that you need to make for yourself (and know that it’s great and protein rich either way 😉 ).
I eat plant-based, but I feel strongly when the vegans of the world get righteous in preaching that plant-based is the only way and for some reason if you don’t eat a vegan diet, you’re a horrible person. I don’t think that vegan eating is for every person’s constitution. I do think that people can benefit from more plants on their plate.
We all have choices and I’ve found that as our awareness, knowledge, and bodies change, the way we eat changes as well. These choices start with awareness. The more awareness we have about how foods make us feel, the impact of food on our bodies and the environment, the more our awareness will guide our choices. This awareness is power. The nourishment our body needs/craves/wants becomes clear. Eating becomes satisfying.
Regardless of what you choose to eat, it’s important to tune into your own natural instincts. Diet culture has told our society to “eat this and not that” or “don’t drink foods with calories” or “only have pizza on ‘cheat days’.” All of these unnecessary rules make us doubt or question what we really want and what our bodies need. For example, I have a natural aversion to meat and for so long I was told to eat meat and that by eating meat, it was the only way for me to be healthy. Or that’s the message I perceived. I ignored the visceral reactions. I ignored the trying to hide and disguise meat in mixed dishes. I ignored the crying…basically all the signs that animal products were just not for my constitution. So please know that while I promote plant-based diets, I don’t think being vegan is for everyone.
BUT…if you are plant-based, keep reading to see which nutrients and supplements I recommend and why. (PS: if you are interested in becoming more plant-based, please reach out and I’d love to help you along.)
This is the mama bear vitamin in the plant-based world. Vegans and vegetarians with a well-balanced diet really only need Vitamin B 12 and Vitamin D. Vitamin B 12 is in the intestinal tracts of animals and if you do not consume animal products, you automatically consume less Vitamin B 12. This vitamin is also produced by bacteria in our large intestines but we never really know how much our bodies produce (less for those out there will autoimmune/GI/chronic disease). You can find Vitamin B12 added into most nutritional yeasts but I also think a 2.4mg supplement once or twice per week (if not daily) is a good idea for anyone who eats little meat (not only vegans), is over the age of 65 years old, or has a chronic illness. A deficiency can take years to develop but once it does, the first irreversible sign is nerve damage. So, just take the Vitamin B12.
This is another Vitamin that has been researched a lot in the last several years and is another one that I think not only vegans but many of us out there should supplement (for lots of reasons – comment below if you are curious for more here). Before you go out and buy Vitamin D, keep in mind there are two kinds. Vitamin D2 comes from plants and D3 comes from animals (there are some vegan supplements out there with D3). Most people brush off sun exposure as enough (20-30 minutes of face and arms), but not everyone converts the UVB rays the same. If you have darker skin pigmentation, it becomes more difficult for the rays to penetrate. As we age it becomes more difficult to convert sunlight to Vitamin D. Vitamin D is fat soluble vitamin, and if you are overweight or obese, more vitamin D is trapped in the fat cell instead of floating around in your blood stream. And then of course there’s sunscreen.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
There are ALA omega-3 fatty acids found in some vegan foods, like chia seeds and flax seeds. ALA omegas are short chain but long chain fatty acids like DHA and EPA are only found in seafood. Adequate omegas prevent inflammation and depression while supporting brain and eye health. There are algae-based DHA and EPA omega-3 fatty acid supplements that I would recommend checking out.
Not every vegan requires an iron supplement but it’s important to know that iron is found in heme and non-heme sources. Non-heme is only found in plants while heme is only found in animals. Because heme iron has already been oxygenated by the animal being consumed, it tends to be better absorbed. Vegans and vegetarians can usually consume enough iron by doubling the RDA (18mg for adult women, 8mg for adult men). For an adult woman, this could look like 1 cup cooked oatmeal (14mg), 1 cup cooked chickpeas (13mg), ¼ block tofu (6mg), 1 cup cooked spinach (2mg), and 2 tablespoons hemp seeds (4mg) in one day (even though you’d be eating more!) for a total of 39mg. However, if you anemic or incredibly tired beyond what any coffee/sleep/decreased stress can help with, it may be a good idea to get your iron levels checked and consider a supplement.
Zinc is an important mineral to be aware of on a plant-based diet. Most zinc sources either animal based or poorly absorbed from plant sources. For example, there is a substantial amount of zinc in beans and legumes but the phytates (components that bind to vitamins and minerals) naturally found in these foods can make the zinc hard to be absorbed. Similar to iron, I aim for about 1.5 times the RDA when consuming zinc only from plant-sources. This would be 17mg for adult men and 12mg for adult women (the RDA is 11mg zinc for men and 8mg zinc for women). To put this into perspective, using about the same foods as for iron: 1 cup oatmeal (6.2mg), 1 cup cooked chickpeas (2.5mg), ¼ block tofu (3mg), 1 cup cooked spinach (3mg), 2 tablespoons hemp seeds (5mg) = 20mg zinc per day. So it’s very do able, just requires a bit of knowledge, understanding, and intuition.
Zinc deficiencies present themselves as hair loss, diarrhea, and delayed wound healing. If you are looking for a zinc supplement, Zinc citrate or zinc gluconate will be better absorbed than zinc oxide. Zinc oxide is found in many multivitamins and has mixed results in studies in terms of absorbance and availability.
I hope this helped give you a little more guidance to start. Keep in mind that nutrition is not a one size fits all concept. There are other supplements I would consider depending on your current eating habits but other close considerations include a probiotic and tumeric.
I’m curious, do you currently take any of these vitamins or supplements? Or do you plan on starting?
If you’re still wondering whether or not you need a supplement, or curious about specific brands, please reach out. I’m here to help. 🙂
Plant-Based Grocery List
Simplify your grocery store trips and nourish your body with this FREE plant-based Dietitian approved checklist!