As nutritious as you might think a vegan diet is, there are three supplements all vegans need to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Yes, there are plant-based foods that may contain some of these nutrients, but they are either not present in adequate quantities or not readily available in their absorbable form.
What supplements should a vegan take?
There are a whole host of nutrients that we can obtain from food, but the ones that are most difficult to harness as vegans are:
- Omega 3 fats
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin D
Omega 3 fatty acids
These essential fatty acids are needed by our bodies for a multitude of reasons. Studies have demonstrated that these fats may be protective against heart disease, exhibit antioxidant activity and are needed for the production of some hormones. Omega-3 fats actually come in 3 main forms: DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), EPA (ecosopentaenoic acid) and ALA (alpha-linoleic acid).
DHA and EPA are sourced from algae. When fish consume the algae, they become a source of these omega-3 fatty acids. However, both of these forms of omega-3 fats originate from plants and therefore can be sourced without having to consume animal foods.
ALA is found in other plant foods, such as walnuts, chia seeds, hemp seeds and flaxseeds. However, ALA must be converted into EPA or DHA in order to be utilised by our bodies. This conversion rate is very low, usually around 10% in most cases, if that.
Though research is ongoing in this area to establish more certainty around optimal requirements, the general consensus is to aim for around 200-500mg of a combination of EPA and DHA per day in order to meet your body’s nutritional needs. This may vary according to age and illness. For ALA, a daily recommendation is currently set at 1.1-1.6g per day.
You may find this post useful if you’re looking for further information on omega 3 fats for vegans.
This water-soluble vitamin is available in two biologically active forms: methylcobalamin and 5-deoxyadenosylcobalamin. The other forms of this vitamin must be converted to either of these active forms otherwise our bodies cannot use them.
Vitamin B12 plays an essential role in the maintenance of our central nervous system, the production of DNA and making healthy red blood cells. It is also used in other metabolic processes that happen on a daily basis in our bodies.
The majority of foods that are rich sources of vitamin B12 come from animal products. One of the reasons for this is because animals are supplemented with vitamin B12 so consumers of these animals are likely to become supplemented too. Vitamin B12 is actually made by bacteria. Some of these bacteria are present in the guts of animals, allowing them to make their own B12 too.
Since vitamin B12 is present only in small amounts in plant foods, a supplement for vegans and vegetarians is advised to reduce the risk of deficiency. For the average adult, the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of Vitamin B12 is 2.4mcg (this varies with age, disease, and pregnancy). It is usually absorbed at a higher rate when taken at lower doses more frequently rather than at large doses less frequently.
This fat-soluble, ‘sunshine’ vitamin is present in just a few foods. We can also acquire it when UV rays hit our skin and allow us to synthesise this vitamin. As well as playing roles in immune function, metabolism and cell growth, one of the primary functions of vitamin D is to promote calcium absorption. Without it, bones can become brittle and the risk of developing diseases such as osteoporosis increases.
While vitamin D can be acquired from sun exposure, this varies greatly according to climate, skin colour and the response of our own bodies when this reaction occurs. It is also generally recommended that sun exposure is limited since UV radiation is also very damaging and deemed carcinogenic. Taking this into consideration, adequate amounts of vitamin D from sun exposure are less likely to be achieved.
The dietary reference intake (DRI) for the average healthy adult is set at 15mcg or 600 IU (international units). This varies according to age, sex, disease and pregnancy.
Supplementing in the form of D3 (cholecalciferol) has been shown to maintain higher levels compared to supplementing with D2 (ergocalciferol).
Can you get all the nutrients you need from a vegan diet?
Put bluntly, the answer to this question is a very likely ‘no’. Of course, there is always the possibility that your body is efficient enough to convert everything it needs at the optimal rate and is able to use it in the most efficient way possible. However, the likelihood of that occurring in the majority of us is pretty low. Factor into that, genetic makeup, lifestyle, hormones (just to name a few) and the chances of that drop even further. This principle can also be applied to those who consume foods abundant in animal-sourced products.
However, supplements are not the only answer. Numerous studies have shown, but not yet clarified, that many nutrients are absorbed more efficiently when sourced from foods than when in supplement form. Though many of these mechanisms are still unclear, it’s possible that there are other substances in foods that work in tandem with the nutrients our bodies require which simply can’t be extracted, isolated and nicely compressed into pill-form.
Therefore, a combination of nutrients sourced from food and supplements is ideal. There’s no need to go crazy of course, if you’re getting a well-rounded diet, then supplements can do their job – to SUPPLEMENT your diet, NOT replace it.
** Please consult a dietitian and/or physician before taking any supplements.
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