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Diets, Health, Nutrition, Supplements
Guide to Vegan Supplementing

Guide to Vegan Supplementing

Vegan diets have a lot of health benefits – like lower levels of cholesterol, obesity, and even greater longevity!

In fact, a 2009 research review by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that, in addition to being associated with a number of health advantages, vegetarians and vegans tend to do better in terms of certain nutrient intakes.

This meat-free bunch eat more dietary fiber, magnesium and potassium, vitamins C and E, folate, carotenoids, flavonoids, and other phytochemicals than omnivores tend to.

On the other hand, the report emphasizes a number of nutrients that vegans can struggle to get enough of like omega 3 fatty acids, vitamins B12 and D, calcium, zinc, iron, and iodine.

It’s these vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that I’ll be covering in this article.

I’ll explain why each one is so important for vegans (and non-vegans alike!), I’ll list recommended daily values, and I’ll give you some plant-based sources so all the meat-free out there can work to meet their needs.

Omega 3 Fatty Acids

omega 3Firstly, let’s tackle the complex issue of omega 3s.

Omega 3 fats – particularly EPA and DHA – are essential fatty acids that play a role in building healthy cells, maintaining the function of our brains and nerves and fighting inflammation.

Another reason we require healthy levels of omega 3s is to maintain an optimal balance between omega 3 and omega 6 fats.

Most Americans get far more omega 6s than 3s, which can lead to inflammation, heart disease, cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and other common, but serious, diseases.

And even though omnivores struggle to reach omega 3 goals despite fish and grass-fed beef being good sources, it can be even more of a challenge for vegans.

That’s because the two crucial types of omega 3s (DHA and EPA) aren’t found in plant-based foods. Instead, they contain ALA, another type of omega 3 that our bodies must convert to DHA and EPA.

According to some research, the degree of conversion appears to be unreliable and restricted. In fact, most studies in humans have shown that, while our bodies can convert high doses of ALA to EPA, we struggle to convert to DHA.

Research has also found that a diet rich in omega 6 fatty acids reduces conversion even further – by 40 to 50%!

However, more recent research says that, even though vegans have low levels of omega 3s, they are no lower than those of omnivores!

How Much Do I Need & Where Can I Get It?

omega 3While there are no standard doses for omega 3 fatty acids, it’s vital to have a healthy balance of omega 3 to 6.

According to researcher and neurobiologist Dr. Stephan Guyenet, a healthy ratio is somewhere between 4:1 and 1:4 of omega 6 to omega 3.

To achieve this, cut down on the amount of omega 6s you get by eliminating processed foods and all sources of vegetable oils.

Good food sources of ALA are walnuts, flaxseed and flaxseed oil. Algae-derived DHA supplements are also available should you be concerned about your omega 3 levels.

Vitamin B12

food sourceVitamin B12 is vital for the proper formation of red blood cells, neurological function, and DNA synthesis.

Studies have linked a deficiency with vision loss, lower cognitive skills and brain shrinkage, depression, disrupted sleep, infertility in both men and women and many other medical issues.

2010 research, published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, has found that vegans and, to a lesser extent vegetarians, have low circulating concentrations of vitamin B12. Of the 232 vegan men in the study, 52% were classified as vitamin B12 deficient. Compare that with just 7% of the vegetarians and one lone omnivore!

Research from 2014, published in the same journal, advises that ‘vegans who do not ingest vitamin B12 supplements were found to be at especially high risk’.

Clearly, vitamin B12 supplementation is incredibly important for plant-based eaters.

How Much Do I Need & Where Can I Get It?

tablets The Office of Dietary Supplements recommends that all adults get 2.4 mcg of vitamin B12 daily, with pregnant and breastfeeding women taking slightly more.

While B12 is naturally found in animal products like fish, meat, eggs and dairy, it can’t be gotten from plant-based products.

To ensure vegans and vegetarians meet their needs, certain foods like cereals, nut milks and nutritional yeast are fortified with bioavailable B12.

Unless you are eating several forms of these fortified foods daily though, a high quality B12 capsule or spray supplement is advisable.

A word of warning: while you may read that certain plant foods – spirulina for example – contain B12, studies suggest that our bodies don’t absorb this particular form of the vitamin well, if at all.

Vitamin D

vitamin D sunshineIt’s not just vegans who need to worry about vitamin D – we all do! If you recall from my article on ‘the Sunshine Vitamin’, D plays some very important roles in the body such as:

  • contributing to the formation and preservation of strong and healthy bones
  • lung & brain development and function
  • boosting immunity
  • muscle function
  • circulation and heart health

Even though our bodies can synthesize vitamin D from the sun, a National Health and Nutrition Examination survey found that 50% of children under five, and 70% of those aged 6 to 11, have insufficient levels of vitamin D.

And 2009 research suggests that 75% of teens and adults are deficient!

That’s incredibly worrying, as low levels are linked with depression, dementia, poor bone health, thyroid problems and poor immunity.

Clearly, many of us struggle to get enough vitamin D, but vegans may find it even harder, as dietary sources come mainly from animal products.

One study looked at the vitamin D levels of vegans and omnivores over a one year period. They found that, at northern latitudes, dietary intake of vitamin D in vegans was insufficient to maintain normal levels year round, which may have negative effects on bone mineral density in the long run.

How Much Do I Need & Where Can I Get It?

sunshine mushroomsThe Recommended Daily Value (RDV) of vitamin D is 600 IU for men and women aged 19 to 70. Those aged 71 and older should be getting 800 IU.

While sun exposure is the easiest way to get vitamin D (minimum 15 minutes a day), it’s not always the best way – particularly as sunscreen with an SPF of just 8 lowers your ability to produce the vitamin by 95%!

Where you live plays a big part – in the US, only those living south of a line drawn from Los Angeles to Columbia, S.C., get enough sunlight to meet their year-round vitamin D needs!

Plant-based sources of vitamin D are limited, although fortified dairy-free milks, tofu, orange juice and cereals exist to help you reach your goal.

Be warned: many sources of synthetic vitamin D come from lanolin, a derivative of sheep’s wool, which is therefore not vegan!

Mushrooms that have been exposed to UV light are another option – with one cup providing around 64% of your daily vitamin D need.

In a study, those given mushroom powder exposed to UV rays were found to have very similar blood levels of vitamin D to those given a supplement.

However, just like most omnivores – including myself – supplementing with vitamin D may be the best solution, especially if you’re not enjoying year-round rays or being diligent about eating fortified foods.

Calcium

foods rich We need plenty of calcium for a healthy nervous system, muscles, heart and bones.

If we don’t get enough of this important mineral, we’re at risk of developing osteoporosis and calcium deficiency disease.

Vegans can often fall below the recommended intake of calcium with research finding that this can affect their bone health.

A 2007 study of almost 35,000 people compared the fracture rate of meat eaters, fish eaters, vegetarians and vegans.

Over an average of 5 years of follow-up, researchers found that fracture risk was similar for meat eaters, fish eaters and vegetarians, whereas vegans had a 30% higher risk of fracture, which was attributed to their lower calcium intake.

How Much Do I Need & Where Can I Get It?

calcium kaleAdults and children over 4 years of age need between 1,000 mg and 1,300 mg of calcium every day.

Vegan sources of calcium include:

  • Tofu, 1/2 cup fried, calcium fortified – 119% RDV
  • Orange juice, 1 cup, calcium fortified – 50%
  • Chinese cabbage, 1/2 head – 44%
  • Soy milk, 1 cup, calcium fortified – 26%
  • Kale, 1 cup, chopped – 14%
  • Almonds, 1 oz – 7%
  • Broccoli, 1 cup, cooked – 6%

Iron

lacking ironIron is essential in the production of hemoglobin – a substance in red blood cells that transports oxygen throughout the body.

It turns out that iron deficiency is the most widespread nutritional disorder in the world, affecting over 30% of the world’s population. It’s also the only nutritional deficiency significantly prevalent in industrialized countries and affects women far more than men.

Symptoms that you’re low in iron include fatigue, paleness, anemia, dizziness, anxiety, brittle nails and more.

Despite being prevalent in a number of plant-based foods, the reason that vegans and vegetarians struggle with low iron is due to the fact that non-heme iron – the type found in plant foods – is not as readily absorbed by the body.

This issue is highlighted by 2004 research carried out in Germany.

The scientists behind the study found that, even though young vegan women had a mean daily iron intake higher than recommended, 40% of them were considered iron deficient.

How Much Do I Need & Where Can I Get It?

source of ironWhile the National Institutes of Health recommend that men over 18 (and women over 51) consume 8 mg of iron a day, and women up to age 51 get 18 mg, they say that vegetarians and vegans will need to eat 1.8 times that amount.

Foods that provide a decent amount (3.5 mg or more) of iron include:

  • A cup of cooked beans
  • A 1/2 cup tofu
  • 1 oz pumpkin, sesame or squash seeds

Good sources of iron, at 2.1 mg or more, include:

  • Half cup of canned lima beans, red kidney beans or chickpeas
  • One medium baked potato
  • One medium stalk of broccoli
  • Cup of dried apricots

Other sources, 0.7 mg or more, of iron are:

Adding a source of vitamin C to an iron-rich food will boost your absorption of the iron – so squeeze lemon juice on your greens, mix red and green bell peppers in your stir fry and top your fresh strawberries with a handful of seeds.

Iodine

rich foods Iodine is an essential nutrient that our bodies can’t produce, so we need to get iodine from our diets.

It’s vital for a well-functioning thyroid – the role of which is to produce hormones that are required for a healthy heart, digestive system and muscles. They are also responsible for metabolism and body heat regulation.

Because fish, seafood and dairy are the richest sources of dietary iodine, vegans need to make a conscious effort to consume other sources of the nutrient.

In a study of iodine levels in vegans, vegetarians and omnivores, it was found that iodine was significantly lower in vegans.

A whopping 80% of the vegans suffered from iodine deficiency, compared to just 9% of omnivores and 25% of vegetarians.

How Much Do I Need & Where Can I Get It?

sea vegetableAccording to the National Institutes of Health, adults should aim for 150 mcg of iodine per day, with pregnant and breastfeeding women needing more.

Iodized salt is one of the main sources of iodine in the Standard American Diet and can be an option to help vegans reach their targets.

Make sure to buy from a reputable company though – a study of the iodine content in US iodized salt found that 53% of the samples tested contained below the recommended requirement.

Sea vegetables like kelp and nori might be the best bet for vegans as they are a concentrated source of iodine.

Watch out though – according to the Association of UK Dietitians, seaweed can provide ‘excessive amounts’, particularly so in the case of brown seaweed, so they don’t recommend eating seaweed more than once a week, especially during pregnancy.

Zinc

lentils beansZinc is an important trace mineral that is needed for the body’s immune system. It plays a role in cell division and growth, wound healing and the breakdown of carbohydrates.

The National Institutes of Health state that the bioavailability of zinc from vegetarian diets is lower than from other diets as meat’s zinc content is more easily absorbed.

Furthermore, vegans tend to eat lots of legumes and whole grains, which contain anti-nutrients that inhibit zinc absorption.

However, a 2003 report published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, highlights an important point – the zinc deficiencies seen in plant-based diets in impoverished nations are not associated with vegetarian diets in wealthier countries, like the US.

Despite this, the author claims that zinc is still a nutrient that warrants careful attention in a plant-based diet.

How Much Do I Need & Where Can I Get It?

toasted wheatgermMen over 19 years of age should aim for 11 mg of zinc daily, whereas women require just 8 mg.

However, vegetarians and vegans can require as much as 50% more than the non-vegetarian values listed below, thanks to anti-nutrient activity.

Vegan sources of zinc include:

  • Wheat germ, 1 cup, toasted – 125% RDV
  • Adzuki beans, 1 cup, cooked – 27%
  • Pumpkin, squash and sesame seeds, 1 oz – 19%
  • Chickpeas, 1 cup, cooked – 17%
  • Kidney beans, 1 cup, cooked – 12%
  • Pine nuts, 1 oz – 12%

A Note on Protein

proteinYou may be wondering why protein hasn’t been listed above. After all, the big question on everyone’s minds when they think of a vegan diet is ‘where will I get my protein?’.

But, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics review “typical protein intakes of vegetarians and vegans appear to meet and exceed requirements”.

So if you’re eating a variety of plant-based protein sources like tofu, tempeh, seitan, soy milk, lentils, quinoa, beans, nuts, chia seeds, hemp seeds and edamame, you don’t need to be too concerned with protein.

However, I still recommend you do a quick tally of your protein intake every now and then to ensure you’re hitting your targets.

If not, investing in a good quality soy, hemp or pea protein supplement would be wise.

Final Thoughts

plant dietAs you can see, with a little planning and preparation, there’s no reason why vegans can’t hit their vitamin and mineral intakes for better health and wellbeing.

If you’re worried that you’re not getting enough of any of the above nutrients on a plant-based diet, then invest in a high quality supplement or get a blood test done to find out what you’re lacking in.

 

Do you worry about any particular nutrients on a vegan diet? Or has concern surrounding deficiencies stopped you from going vegan? Let me know below!

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4 Comments

  1. Zarayna

    March 3, 2016 at 2:14 pm

    Hi Mike,

    Useful guidance and advice – thank you.
    Good luck to those who can organize their lives and their constitution to thrive with a vegan diet. I tried it many years ago and couldn’t.
    It does take dedication and focus to avoid deficiencies – very tempting to rely on supplements ‘just to make sure.’
    Good work, Mike.
    Cheers.

    Reply

    • Mike Kamo

      March 4, 2016 at 10:21 am

      Thanks for all the support and let me know if you need anything — as always 😉

      Reply

  2. Rohan Singh

    March 4, 2016 at 9:38 pm

    It’s hard for us to get rare vitamins like vitamin B12 which comes only from limited sources.
    Good that nut milks and nutritional yeast are fortified with bioavailable B12 to offer us this unusual vitamin.
    Good guide mike 🙂 very interesting.

    Reply

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About Mike Kamo



Hi, I’m Mike. One of my biggest passions in life is nutrition and after being certified, I wanted to create a site where I could help readers live a healthy and nutritious life. I believe we control our destiny and we can choose to live a long and healthy life by eating right and treating our bodies with respect.

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