Do vegans need supplements?
This post is also available in: Deutsch (German)
Whenever I tell people that I’m vegan I get asked about my health:
Where do you get your protein from?
Do you check your blood levels regularly?
Are you sure you’re not deficient in iron?
I’m sure many of you out there know these kind of questions only too well. Or you are on of those people who asked exactly one of these to someone. However: This blog post should be quite interesting and informative for both of you.
When it comes to the supplements on a vegan diet, the opinions are quite divided. Many claim that a whole-food, plant-based diet easily meets all the daily nutrient requirements. Some even encourage vegans to avoid all those additions. Others are convinced that we have to make sure to supplement some nutrients to make sure we are all covered. In my opinion it is important to check your blood levels once a year. Like this you can take the decision about taking supplements or not right after getting your results. Especially if you switched from another diet to a vegan one I would really make sure to see a doctor from time to time.
Recently I tested my own blood levels too to check, if my iron and vitamin B12 levels are still all right. The result? I don’t have a lack of iron at all but my Vitamin B12 was too low. Not in a way that it would get dangerous but the doctor still recommanded me to take supplement to cover this. What I want to admit here: Not only vegan people have a lack of iron or vitamin B12. I have a lot of friends, especially young women, you struggle with their iron levels. And it’s quite the same for vitamin B12 as well. Even people who eat meat regularly may have a deficiency there. The only difference is that most of them won’t even realise it because they never get tested.
As you can see it’s tricky to say wheter you should take some extra nutrients or not. What I do is list you all the potential supplements that might be good for you. I tell you why your body needs them and how you realise that you have a deficiency of a certain nutrient. Furthermore I tell you about my own experiences and which nutrients I substitute.
1) Vitamin B12
You can’t get enough Vitamin B12 by eating unwashed organic produce. I know some people who eat nutritional yeast daily and they think they are covered by only eating a spoon of it. But the recommended dose is 25 to 100 micrograms per day or 1,000 micrograms 2-3 times per week. This intake you can only reach if you take it as a supplement. If you haven’t been taking B12 for a while, start out with 2,000 micrograms daily for several weeks. Tip: Get a blood test to see where you are and whether you might need a higher dose.
You can get vitamin B12 in animal foods, which have it naturally, or from items that have been fortified with it. Animal sources include dairy products, eggs, fish, meat, and poultry. Note: A lot of meat eating people have a lack of vitamin B12 too. Vitamin B12 is very difficult for the body to absorb. It requires a special protein called R-factor to protect it from stomach acid, and then another protein called gastric intrinsic factor to convey it into the cells that line the small intestine, and then a third protein called transcobalamin to carry it out of those cells and into the lymphatic vessels where it can travel to the liver for distribution to the rest of the body. If your body is deficient in making one of those three proteins, it’s not possible to absorb B12.
- weakness, tiredness
- Pale skin
- smooth tongue
- Diarrhea, loss of appetite
- numbness or tingling, muscle weakness, and problems walking
- Mental problems like depression, memory loss, sometimes even behavioral changes
My personal opinion:
If you don’t eat animal products, or you have a medical condition that limits how well your body absorbs nutrients, you can take vitamin B12 as a supplement. Personally, I take it every day since my blood levels showed, that vitamin B12 was quite on a low level. If you choose to take vitamin B12 supplements, let your doctor know. The Institute of Medicine recommends that everyone over the age of 50 should add vitamin B12 supplements or fortified foods to their diet. Why? It becomes increasingly difficult to digest and absorb the vitamin B12 in animal foods with aging.
2) Vitamin D
Vitamin D deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency in the Western world (not only for vegans). If you live where it’s sunny and warm all year and you spend time outdoors without sunscreen, you can make enough Vitamin D. The rest of us need a supplement. This is a huge concern when you consider it benefits bone strength, mental health, (potentially) cancer risk, and more. It actually acts as a hormone. Vitamin D is produced by our cholesterol, as long as we get an adequate amount of UV light exposure (from the sun) on our skin. Studies estimate that over 40% of adults are vitamin D deficient, largely due to our modern indoor lifestyles!
- fatigue and tiredness
- bone and back pain
- impaired wound healing
- hair loss
My personal opinion:
Vitamin D deficiency is incredibly common and most people are unaware of it. Fortunately, a vitamin D deficiency is usually easy to fix. You can either increase your sun exposure, or simply take a supplement. Personally, I supplement Vitamin D during the winter months when we don’t get enough sun in Switzerland. It makes me feel more energized and less tired.
Especially women with heavy periods may have a tough time keeping up with iron needs. But this is not a problem that is specific to vegans, again. Without enough iron, your body can’t produce enough of a substance in red blood cells that enables them to carry oxygen. As a result, iron deficiency anemia may leave you tired and short of breath.
- fast heartbeat or shortness of breath
- headache, dizziness
- cold hands and feet
- inflammation or soreness of your tongue
My personal opinion:
I don’t take an iron supplement since I don’t have a lack here. I eat a lot of iron rich foods like beans, dark leafy veggies (spinach, etc.), dried fruit like apricots and raisins, peas… It seems like I’m one of those lucky people who absorb the iron in the food really well. This might be different for you though. Also, if you choose to not eat meat, you may need to increase your intake of iron-rich, plant-based foods to absorb the same amount of iron as does someone who eats meat. I can recommand you to kick off your day with a green smoothie. Like this you already make sure to take in enough leavy greens in the morning.
Calcium is needed for strong bones. It is found in dark green leafy vegetables, calcium-fortified soy milk and orange juice, and many other foods commonly eaten by vegans. Although lower animal protein intake may reduce calcium losses, there is currently not enough evidence to suggest that vegans have lower calcium needs. Vegans should eat foods that are high in calcium and/or use a calcium supplement.
- muscle spasm
- numbness in the hands, feet
- brittle nails
- easy fracturing of the bones
My personal opinion:
I don’t take a supplement here since I’m covered by eating enough foods which contain calcium. Calcium deficiency is usually easy to treat. It typically involves adding more calcium to your diet.
Zinc is an essential nutrient required by the body for creating over 300 enzymes in our bodies. And it is the most abundant metal in the body after iron. Health benefits of zinc includes enhanced immune function, reductions of the common cold, and faster wound healing. Zinc can be found in nuts, seeds, tofu, beans, etc. There are a lot of sources as you can see.
- loss of hair
- more susceptibility to colds and the flu
- hormone imbalances
My personal opinion:
Currently I’m getting in some extra zinc whenever I feel like a cold is just around the corner. And it helps. Especially during the winter months when your immune system is attacked, I can recommand you to try it out. I just listen to my body here and take it from time to time.
And where do you get your protein from?
Since this is quite a common question I’d love to answer it in this blog post too. If you’re worried about getting enough protein on a vegan diet, you may be in for a surprise now. Did you know, that most people eat too much protein? All beans, lentils, and peas are an excellent vegan source of protein. Furthermore also tofu, quinoa, nuts, seeds, and chick peas have great protein levels. If you’re still worried about your protein intake there are natural vegan powders too which you can take as a protein shake.
Personally, I eat a lot of beans, lentils and co. I eat tofu twice a week too. Here it is important to go for an organic option. You often hear that soy products are bad, right. That’s only because we are talking about the non-organic foods. If you choose a tofu which is organic, it’s super healthy for you. Let me know if you want me to write an extra blog post about soy products. I think there is a lot of enlightenment to do.
Fist of all: Your nutrients should come from food. Vitamins and supplements can’t replace a healthy and balanced diet. Make sure you get in as many nutrients as possible. Following a wholesome plant based diet is mainly the key here. Note: I’m convinced that a vegan diet is the best thing for you body, as long as you’re aware of all the food you get in. I personally know a lot of plant based people who eat nothing like crappy food. So it would be too easy to say “go vegan and the you’ll be fine”. It’s not like that. Plus I don’t say that people who still eat dairy and milk – in moderation – can’t be healthy too. It’s all about the balance. That said, I tend to recommand you to listen to your own body. Go and see your doctor and really think about every single supplement you think.
Choose wisely, don’t just take every single one of them just to be covered. Let me give you an example here: You’d probably think that I have to supplement iron because I’m on a vegan diet + I’m a young woman. But no, I never had a lack of iron at all. But on the other hand, my B12 levels are quite low. So what I want to say: Everyone is different here. I can only give you informations about my own experience and about the health benefits, etc. But in the end it’s you who decide. It’s your body!
Lastly, if you do not eat fermented foods (like miso and sauerkraut), you may want to take a pro-biotic for digestion. That doesn’t really belongs to supplements but I still wanted to comment on it here too.
It would be super interesting to hear your thoughts about this topic in the comments below. Which supplements do you take and why? Or maybe you don’t take any of these? I’m looking forward to reach out to you.
Lots of love from Zurich,