5 Supplements you Need on a Vegan Diet
What supplements do you need while on a vegan diet? Or more importantly, do you need a supplement while you are on a plant-based diet? Many people on plant-based diets or those considering starting one often wonder if a whole-food, plant-based diet can provide all the essential vitamins and nutrients our bodies need to thrive as vegans.
Even though there are differing opinions about what extra supplements vegans need, several studies show why these 5 supplements are important in any plant-based diet.
1. Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is very important for many of our body functions including the proper functioning of our nervous system, formation of red blood cells, and protein metabolism. No surprise that a deficiency in vitamin B12 will cause nervous system damage, heart disease, and anaemia.
Low vitamin B12 also affects our bones and fertility. Although anyone can be low on vitamin B12 for so many reasons, people on plant-based diets tend to have higher risk of vitamin B12 deficiency.
The recommended daily dose of vitamin B12 is 2.4 micrograms per day, and this can either be achieved through extra supplementation in small doses and under the supervision of a physician, or by eating vitamin B12-fortified foods such as breakfast cereals and soy products.
A clinical analysis of 689 British men found that vitamin B12 was higher in omnivores than vegetarians or vegans. In fact, over 50% of the vegans in that study had vitamin B12 levels low enough to be classified as vitamin-B12 deficient, putting them at an increased risk of having negative health symptoms related to vitamin B12 deficiency.
Zinc is important for metabolism as well as optimal immune function. It also an essential nutrient for cell repair and proper development of the body. Deficiency of zinc leads to several problems including hair loss, weight loss, eye sores, skin sores, loss of appetite, decreased alertness, and frequent diarrhoea.
The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for zinc is 8–11mg per day for adults. The allowance increases up to 12 mg for pregnant women and up to 13 mg for lactating women.
Even though not all vegans have low levels of zinc, zinc deficiency is more prevalent in vegans than omnivores. This is because very few plants have high zinc content. Vegans concerned about their zinc levels should aim to maximize their intake of foods rich in zinc like legumes, chickpeas, lentils, beans, tofu, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.
However, if you are concerned about your zinc level even after maximizing your intake of high-zinc-containing foods, consider taking a zinc supplement under the supervision of a physician.
3. Vitamin D
Vitamin D is essential for so many processes in our body, including our immune system, memory, and mood. It is also responsible for enhancing the action of other essential vitamins and nutrients such as calcium and phosphorus.
Vitamin D is important in our muscle recovery after intense exercise and also protects our body from skeletal injuries. Deficiency in vitamin D can lead to loss in bone density, osteoporosis, and even broken bones (fractures).
It can also lead to stomach disorders, kidney problems, and liver disease. In children, vitamin D deficiency can lead to rickets, a disease that causes the bone to soften and bend.
The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for adults is 600 IU (international units), or 15 microgram per day. However, not very many foods contain vitamin D, leading to a worldwide problem of low vitamin D levels in both vegans and omnivores. Vegans who cannot increase their vitamin D level to normal levels with food alone should consider taking a vitamin D supplement under the supervision of their physician.
Most people know calcium is very important for teeth and bone health. Reduced levels of calcium increases the risk of bone fractures and osteoporosis, especially in the elderly. Studies show that vegans are at a higher risk of calcium-deficiency bone fractures compared to non-vegans.
Calcium, however, is a lot more than just a bone mineral; it also plays a critical role in how our muscles, nerves, and heart function. The RDA for calcium is 1000-1200 mg per day for adults. Although a lot of foods are rich in calcium, studies show a lot of vegans are often deficient in calcium.
This may be due to the inaccurate perception that vegans have a decreased need for calcium and might not necessarily seek out extra calcium or supplements when needed.
Fortunately, vegans can easily increase their calcium intake by eating foods rich in calcium, including soyabeans, bok choy, seeds, nuts, seaweed, lentils, kale, greens, broccoli, calcium-fortified tofu, calcium-fortified orange juice, and navy beans.
Vegans who feel they cannot meet the RDA for calcium through their diet should consider supplementation under the direction of a physician.
5. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
There are two types of omega-3 fatty acids:
Essential omega-3 fatty acids – obtained from diet and also known as Alpha-linolenic Acid (ALA). Plants high in ALA include chai seeds, walnuts, soybeans, flax seeds, and hempseeds.
Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids – made from ALA, but also mostly found in animal products such as fish.
Both essential and long chain omega-3 fatty acids play crucial roles in the body; however, long-chain omega-3, also known as free fatty acid, plays a big role in promoting eye health, improving brain health, reducing the risk of breast cancer, reducing the risk of diabetes, as well as storing energy for the body.
Studies show that vegans and vegetarians have low levels of these free fatty acids and run a risk of experiencing negative symptoms associated with omega-3 fatty acid deficiency.
For vegans who are worried about their omega-3 fatty acids intake or those who may have increased need for omega-3 fatty acids, like pregnant or lactating women, a supplementary dose of 200-300 mg of free fatty acids is recommended under the supervision of a physician.