Supplements: The Plant-Based Guide 2021
October 05, 2020 by Samuel Anthony
Do vegans need to supplement Vitamin B12, vegan Protein Powder, Vitamin D, Sustainable Omega-3, and Iron? Are superfoods like algae/sea vegetables really good for health? I'll show you EXACTLY what you need to supplement on a plant-based diet.
Do Vegans Need to Supplement?
So you've just transitioned to plant-based for its amazing benefits for your health, but now you're being told you have to supplement... That's confusing, right?
The truth: most diets rely on supplementation in some form - vegan or not.
While complete nutrition is possible without supplements, it requires some effort, and certain nutrients are significantly less available than they once were. See source 1 on UK nutrient decline.
In order to answer the question of "can vegans get by without multivitamins and protein powders" we must first look at the individual's diet.
We must differentiate "healthy" from "vegan". Remember, chips cooked in copious amounts of vegetable fat are vegan.
A successful plant-based diet relies on a broad variety of different food sources.
Many follow the "eat the rainbow" rule which suggests that a range of colours on your plate from different fruit and vegetables can lead to better health.
If you eat a whole-food, organic, unwashed and varied plant-based diet you are far more likely to satisfy nutrition than somebody following a more processed diet.
B12 can be found in good quality soil on unwashed organic produce.
Protein is also VERY readily available in plant foods - I have never supplemented this, nor will I.
The largest mammal on land, the Elephant, and the incredibly long-living tortoise, get plenty of protein from entirely plant-based diets... so it's out there!
ALA, a form of Omega-3, is found in a variety of plant foods, including walnuts and flax seeds.
Calcium and iron, too, are found in many plant foods, including dark leafy greens. So again, there may be no need for supplements if you eat a range of fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes.
So in short, if you eat a very balanced diet, rich in plant food sources, it is technically possible to achieve complete nutrition.
Why then do we need to think about supplementing if we can achieve health with food alone?
Why is it Necessary to Supplement?
In short: achieving full nutrition through diet alone is rare and doing so with every meal is not so simple.
On top of this, in a continually growing world, more intensive farming is having a major impact on nutrition.
Let's start with B12 (cobalamin) - which mainly relies on Cobalt and bacteria for synthesis (to be made).
Simplifying things slightly, if the land is organic and allowing bacteria to thrive - no alarm bells here, remember that some bacteria are essential for our survival - while also in the presence of cobalt, B12 is more likely to be produced in the soil.
For as long as farming is intensive and relies on pesticides and constant re-harvesting, nutrients will be lost.
A 2006 study (source 2) concludes that greater consumption of soil leads to greater nutrient uptake.
This change in world soil clearly can impact our health and creates the need for supplementation as a result of the gradual degradation of essential components.
This is not just a vegan problem - pernicious anaemia is on the rise, even among meat-eaters.
The only reason meat-eaters can get some B12 is through the supplementation of the animals that are slaughtered for their consumption... So, vegans cut out the innocent middle man and supplement themselves.
So, degrading soil is one reason, what else?
Not everyone has the time for a fully balanced diet day-in-day-out. Many workplaces, for example, do not provide healthy lunches.
We all live busy lives and cannot always guarantee the time to prepare fresh meals. For some, vegetables do not even feature on their plates at all.
Low-veg diets are incredibly nutritionally poor, so supplements may be required if an individual's diet is continually fruit and veg poor.
Additionally, the changing seasons may impact our nutrition and thus our need to supplement.
Vitamin D is produced in the body when exposed to sufficient sunlight, which changes at different times of the year.
In winter, where sunlight is greatly reduced, many people supplement vitamin D3. It is then possible, come summer, to stop again.
In summary, poorer nutrient content in world food supplies, seasonal changes in the availability of nutrients, and poorer-quality diets are just some reasons many people resort to supplements.
Supplements Vegans Need
Nutritional requirements vary from person to person, vegan or not and it is therefore technically impossible to provide a "here is what you need" list.
That said, here is what I believe ALL vegans need to supplement:
Vitamin B12 (cobalamin)
Vitamin B12 is essential to all of us - without it, face serious health side effects (from depression to cardiovascular disease).
Chances are, like most of you buy mass-produced foods from supermarkets. These are often chemically treated, and vigorously cleaned of any soil.
Because B12 is naturally most present in the soil, most of us are not getting enough from food sources.
Do only vegans need this? Simply, no. Meat-eaters can get some through supplemented livestock making up a part of their diet. However, the rise of intensive farming and the subsequent decline in ground nutrition has resulted in less naturally occurring cobalt and bacteria synthesised B12 in all of our food.
Vitamin D3 (winter months only)
Vitamin D3 is required to help your body make stronger bones and lately has been noted for having great benefits for immune health and how our bodies can cope when unwell.
Some plant foods contain vitamin D, such as mushrooms and fortified foods. However, our best source is through our skin...
We synthesis (produce) vitamin D in our skin, the largest organ in our body, when exposed to sunlight.
In the summer we produce more than enough from sunlight, so long as we spend time outdoors. But come winter we cannot make enough.
This does not mean we should not be vegan, this means we are living on land much further from the equator than where we originate as a species.
In terms of what you NEED, I would say those are the two necessary supplements for everyone. However, you may want to consider the following...
Or, Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids.
These are essential anti-inflammatory healthy fats which can significantly benefit many aspects of health.
Omega-3 can reduce cellular inflammation, encourage white blood cells to be produced - which form part of the immune system, regulate blood pressure, protection against age-related degenerative conditions, and also offers protection against CVD (Cardiovascular disease).
Omega-3 assists in boosting your mood, eye health, reduce heart risks, reduce ADHD, improve metabolic syndrome, and importantly fight inflammation and inflammatory diseases.
With Omega-3, a reduction in our diet has occurred, alongside a surge in Omega-6. Where our diet was much closer to an Omega Ratio of 1:1 (3-to-6), it is now much closer to 1:20.
More foods fried in vegetable fats and less focus on fat quality in our diet means we must amend our omega ratio.
Experts believe the closer to 1:1 we can achieve, the greater the health benefits, disease control and immune and cognitive function.
The following may not be necessary, but worth considering...
Vegan Protein Powder
While I would argue that it is not only best but easy, to get all the protein you need through diet alone, many lifestyles demand higher levels of protein.
Protein is used by our body to build and repair everything from muscle, organs and our skin, to essential enzymes we use to digest our food for energy.
Sometimes described as amino acids, they play a crucial role in the strengthening and growth of muscle mass, and subsequently strength.
While I comfortably get my iron intake through diet, and recommend it, some people may require additional iron or would just like recommendations for supplementing.
Iron is essential for the production of red blood cells, converting food to energy, immune support, and cognitive function.
With low Iron levels in the body, some people develop anaemia resulting from a low red blood cell count.
This micronutrient may be essential to consider for women, as on average, women require more iron than men.
Strong bones, muscle performance, boosted enzyme function, and more... Calcium is an essential micronutrient for your body, which has incorrectly been portrayed as something all vegans lack as a result of not consuming milk.
However, satisfying Calcium requirements is completely achievable on a plant-based diet as it is abundant in foods like tofu, kale, broccoli, and fortified milk alternatives.
Also known as Ascorbic Acid, Vitamin C is vital for our immune health. A good variety of fruit and vegetables a day, I recommend 7-8, can indeed guarantee this with great ease.
That being said, Vitamin C supplements are water-soluble and can easily be removed from the body without overdose. So taking plenty Vitamin C, even when your diet can make your RDI (recommended daily intake) may still benefit your immune response.
To give your body a kick of vitamin C, and an immune boost, you can add even more to your diet by supplementing. However nothing will beat the quality and benefits of whole food sources.
Seaweed & Spirulina
Known as a "nutrient-dense food", Spirulina is a blue-green powdered algae - sound gross? Well, it provides serious nutrition...
Firstly this stuff is a great iron source but additionally is packed with vitamins A, B, C and E.
This stuff can provide great cellular protection in our bodies and give our immune system a boost.
Spirulina, therefore, benefits all-round health; from stronger immunity to higher energy uptake from food.
Cocoa Powder and Cacao
According to Dr Michael Mosely, chocolate (not milk or sugar - we are not talking sugary chocolate bars) may actually be an essential nutrient.
Dr Michael Mosely states that when broken down in our bodies it creates a by-product which expands our arteries which is good for your circulatory system.
Cocoa is also known to boost your gut bacteria because of its flavonoid and polyphenol content.
Additionally, cocoa is very rich in iron - so if you need an extra kick, or want a sure way to boost daily iron intake, consider including cocoa regularly in your diet.
Maximum Nutrition without Supplements - a Food Guide
Supplements are not for everyone, and studies are beginning to show a correlation between higher supplementation and poorer health.
So what is, in my opinion, the best answer? Well, I believe we should try to replicate a diet that is as natural as it can be. By this, I mean that a successful diet replicates what we would have eaten in "the wild".
To understand our natural diet, we must examine both the diet of our closest ancestors and our physical adaptations for eating. For example, a physical evolutionary feature of carnivorous animals is large canines - useful for tearing into other animals.
Let us compare this with our canines, which are incredibly short. In fact, the majority of our teeth are molars. The physical adaptation of our teeth suggests the need for grinding fibrous foods. Such as plant foods.
In short, our stomach acidity and the structural composition of our teeth do not suggest we would naturally rely on meat as a food source. Let's add to this our utilisation of the microbiome - our gut bacteria - which spend their time in our gut absorbing indigestible fibres.
The composition of our gut, focused on extracting energy from fibrous plant-food sources, definitely suggests we were naturally favour plant foods.
Next, carbohydrates are our primary source of energy. They, in fact, ultimately form our only energy source. Meat is not a good source of carbohydrates, where fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes all are.
So, tip #1 - reduce meat consumption to eat a more natural diet.
Orangutans are described as "opportunistic foragers", which means they freely roam and forage on the move. The primary food sources are fruit, young leaves and shoots, flowers, bark, and insects.
Truth is our bodies will not be adapted to the modern, Western diet. They are adapted for fruits and fibrous plant constituents.
On top of this, of the 200,000+ edible plants on our planet, we eat around 200.
I'm not suggesting all of these plants will be missing or necessary. BUT we certainly are missing variety in our diets.
So, tip #2 - eat a variety of fruit and vegetables, and actively broaden your selection of plant-foods.
More whole plant foods, more fibre. More fibre, better gut health.
This is because, for every cell in your body, there is a single-cell organism (microbiota). These microbiota are a mixture of bacteria, fungi, viruses and other parasites.
Think of these not as scary, dangerous, and disease-causing, but realise we have lived with these little beings in our gut for millions of years as a species.
They have grown with us. And our diet.
The point I am getting at, is they also eat our food. BUT they normally only eat the foods we can't.
What does this mean? Indigestible fibres in sweetcorn, for example, cannot be digested by our gut. But they can be digested by our microbiota.
In essence, this means we can get more energy with an abundance of healthy bacteria from foods we normally can't digest, as when they digest foods we can't, they turn the fibres into useful metabolites and nutrients.
So, tip #3 - eat more fibre, to feed the good bacteria in your gut to get more out of your food.
Additional to reducing meat, eating a variety of whole plant foods, and raising your fibre intake, it is important to learn which foods are great sources of certain essential nutrients...
Best Plant-food sources of Essential Nutrients
My ultimate guide to vegan dietary sources of B12, Vitamin D, Omega-3, Iron, Calcium, and Protein.
So supplements are not for everyone and now you want to find out how to get nutrients from food. Let us check out some top food sources for...
Dietary Sources of Vitamin B12
While I believe this one to be best supplemented, there are some dietary sources suitable for vegans...
Fortified Nutritional Yeast
Many use this nutty, cheesy flaky powder as a vegan alternative for parmesan. Granted, you won't be fooled if you're a parmesan fan... however there is strong evidence that fortified nutritional yeast can boost B12 levels significantly.
According to Healthline, some fortified nutritional yeast can provide over 700% of your daily value.
Fortified cereals contain artificial B12, not derived from animals in any way. So, a totally vegan food source of dietary B12.
Fortified Rice, Oat, Soy and other plant Milks
The majority of plant-based milk alternatives are fortified with B12.
Dietary Sources of Vitamin D
One of the best dietary sources of vitamin D is mushrooms. Certain types of mushrooms, like the maitake mushroom, can contain nearly your entire daily requirement in just 50g.
Shiitake mushrooms ( 12% RDA per 50g ) also contain some, but significantly less than raw maitake mushrooms ( 94% RDA per 50g ).
Orange Juice (Fortified)
You can also buy Vitamin D fortified orange juice which can provide additional dietary vitamin D per glass.
Dietary Sources of Omega 3
While EPA/DHA (which are two vital forms of Omega 3) are primarily found in seafood and fish, they are also found in algae. So algal oil OR algae-based supplements are your best bet, I'd argue essential, for those two forms of Omega 3 fatty acids.
However, there is a form of Omega-3 readily available in plant foods, ALA (alpha-Linoleic Acid). While this may be seen as the inferior form of n-3 (Omega-3), it can boost cognitive function, improve immunity, and increase uptake of EPA/DHA supplements.
As mentioned previously, with Omega fats (mainly n-3 and n-6), we are looking to re-optimise the ratio to favour equal amounts of Omega-3 and 6 or more Omega-3 than 6.
Flaxseeds and Flax Oil
Ratio: 4:1 (of n-3:n-6). Per tbsp: 7258mg. A clearly fantastic and highly-concentrated source of Omega 3's - with 4 times more Omega 3 than 6.
Ratio: 1:3 (of n-3:n-6). While not 1:1, this is still a really great source of Omega-3, which is much more balanced than the majority of fatty foods in our diet.
Walnuts are a great source of Omega-3 often disregarded as you in truth would have to consume an awful lot to meet your RDA. BUT it is still a fantastic and healthy source of this fatty acid and can form an important part of a nutritious diet.
Dietary Sources of Iron
Let us go straight for a cup of black beans, which comes to 16mg of Iron. For most people, that already is enough.
Natto - fermented soybeans, contains 15mg per cup.
Tahini - sesame seed paste contains 2.6mg per 2 tablespoons.
Again, essential nutrient territory - Dark Chocolate... 7mg per 3oz.
You can see how eating comprehensively should mean vegans do not need to supplement this. However, some really do require supplements here if they are not working with a qualified nutritionist and require, for whatever reason, a higher amount. For example, anaemic people will probably be recommended by a professional to consume higher amounts.
Dietary Sources of Calcium
Who needs milk anyway? Many plant foods are rich in calcium and actually contain fibre.
Tofu is a fantastic and calcium-packed soybean product offering 400mg per cup! For most this is around 40% of your RDA in just one ingredient.
These greens are high-fibre, so benefit the microbiome, while packing in around 25% RDA in just a cup.
1/2 a cup of whole almonds contains around 20% of your RDA, again just with one ingredient.
Fortified Milk Alternatives
1 cup of fortified alternative milk contains on average around 300-400mg of calcium, which can improve your immune function and strengthen bones without harming animal life.
So we can clearly meet calcium requirements without supplements or the need for dairy milk. A cup of collard greens with some tofu and broccoli, with plenty of cups of tea prepared with plant-based milk alternatives, can bring you remarkably close to the RDA.
Dietary Sources of Protein
This comes up more often than it deserves to. "Where do you get your protein from?" Plants.
For as long as it is accepted that meat is "high protein", it is accepted that plants, too, are high in protein - as the proteins eaten by the animal had to have come from plant food sources.
The elephant, vegan. The beef cow, vegan.
Meat IS NOT a good protein source. It comes with nasty fats and cholesterol. It slows down performance through arterial restriction.
If you want to make gains, you want cleaner, more efficient, less inflammatory plant proteins.
This is made using vital wheat gluten and makes a delicious plant-based meat substitute for its high protein value at 25g per 100g.
18g per cup of Lentils makes this a solid source of plant-based protein. What is more, it is super lean.
Like marmite, you love or hate this one. I cannot get enough personally, and at 8g per 2tbsp, this makes a sure contender.
Chickpeas, Baked Beans, Black Beans
These three all come in at 14-15g per cup. Again, amazingly versatile lean sources of clean protein.
Peas are making a rise in the world of protein powders. Pea protein powder is dairy-free and great for building muscle.
Not the most conventional but get this: 25g of protein per cup. That is amazing!
Yes, vegans need B12, but so too could everyone. D3 is required in the winter months - again, not just vegans. Omega-3 is in decline in everyone's diet and desperately needs putting back so consider the importance of this one - whoever you are! Vitamin C can be a nice addition to a healthy diet but is in no way necessary. While many people intake sufficient dietary iron, others cannot get by without supplements. Finally, the ever-popular algae, spirulina is by no stretch needed, but a very powerful superfood we should all consider.
If eating a broad range of foods, bearing in mind you would also need to reintroduce soil from organic foods back into your diet, it is technically possible to satisfy nutrition. However, this requires a focused diet and chances are you require B12 supplements.
Sources & Further Reading
The following articles, resources and studies have either been used for research purposes in the writing of this article or as suggested furthering reading.
1 - HealthyLife: 'Declining Nutritional Values of Food in the UK'
2 - Grace N D: 'Effect of ingestion of soil on the iodine, copper, cobalt (vitamin B12) and selenium status of grazing sheep'
3 - Oregon State University: 'Vitamin B12'
4 - Rise of the Vegan: 'B12: Why it's not just a vegan issue'
5 - Healthline: 'Omega-3s Can Fight Autoimmune Diseases'
6 - NIH: 'Vitamin C'
7 - BBC: 'The Health Benefits of Spirulina'
8 - WorldAtlas: 'What Do Orangutans Eat?'
9 - Healthline: 'Top 12 Foods That Are High in Vitamin B12'
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