The first thing non-vegans usually ask me is: “Where do you get your protein?”
The first thing a fellow-vegan usually wants to know is: “What supplements do you take?”
There’s a great deal of confusion about whether a vegan diet lacks certain nutrients and what supplements may be needed as a result. One of the main reasons for this confusion is that many doctors and dieticians haven’t been educated on a plant-based diet, and they are only aware of those nutrients that are traditionally cited to be found in animal and dairy sources. Consequently, they believe that anybody who doesn’t consume animal products must be lacking those important nutrients. Another source of this confusion comes from the fact that veganism is relatively new, and further research is needed to learn more about a plant-based diet.
I’ve compiled a list of nutrients that both vegans and omnivores talk about, and I discuss the role they play in our diets.*
*My sources are Jeff Novick, a dietitican and nutritionist, and plant-based doctors such as Dr. John McDougal, Dr. Michele McMacken and Dr. Michael Klapper.
Vitamin B12 (cobalamin)
Vitamin B12 is a must have supplement for any vegan or vegetarian. It’s so important because Vitamin B12 only comes from bacteria that live in the soil. Our ancestors from thousands of years ago used to get their Vitamin B12 from the soil by eating unwashed vegetables or drinking stream water, but we’ve evolved and now sanitise everything, hence the need for supplements.
Sure, you can also find Vitamin B12 in factory-farmed cows and pigs, but that’s only because Vitamin B12 supplements are added to their feeds. As a result, carnivores don’t need to take any supplements.
Almost all non-dairy milks and breakfast cereals are fortified with Vitamin B12. Another useful source is nutritional yeast which many vegans use to give homemade foods a “cheesy” flavour. Nutritional yeasts do not naturally contain Vitamin B12 but are fortified with it.
If you get your Vitamin B12 from fortified foods, then check the labels to make sure you’re getting the recommended daily amount (2.4 micrograms per day for adults).
Symptoms of Vitamin B12 deficiency include anemia, fatigue, nerve damage (numbness or tingling, muscle weakness), and neurocognitve changes (memory loss, depression).
Vitamin D is essential for healthy bones, and regardless of our diet, we all primarily get Vitamin D from direct sunlight. Yet in winter months or in counties where we’re not sufficiently exposed to sunlight, we are at risk of developing symptoms of Vitamin D deficiency such as achy bones and muscles, increased infection susceptibility, mood swings or hair loss.
The good news is Vitamin D can be found in non-dairy milks and tofu through fortification. Shiitake and white mushrooms that have been exposed to sunlight can also provide it to a certain degree.
Personally, I wouldn’t take Vitamin D supplements. A large 2014 study suggests that Vitamin D supplements do not work. There are two other notable studies conducted in the UK and Australia that demonstrate adverse effects of Vitamin D supplementation.
The best and easiest way to get enough Vitamin D is to spend time outdoors. According to experts, even ten minutes of sun exposure will do the trick.
Iron is an important mineral that originates from the soil. It plays an essential role in blood production and carries oxygen from the lungs throughout the body. One of the most common causes of iron deficiency is blood loss. This can happen through heavy periods (in women), gastric ulcers or haemorrhoids.
Poor iron absorption in the stomach can also lead to iron deficiency. Coffee and tea certainly inhibit the absorption of iron from foods whereas Vitamin C boosts it. That’s why it’s recommended to consume iron with some sort of Vitamin C. Luckily, plant foods are not only rich in iron but also provide Vitamin C. As a result, an iron supplement is not needed in most circumstances.
Iron-rich foods include dark leafy greens, nuts, tofu, whole grains, legumes and seeds.
Symptoms of iron deficiency are pallor, breathlessness, cold extremities, fatigue, and brittle nails.
Calcium is a mineral found in the soil and is essential for keeping our bones strong. It also plays an important role in muscle contraction and nerve function.
Severe calcium deficiency can lead to osteoporosis whereas other symptoms include muscle spasm, weak and brittle nails, tooth decay, and heart problems.
Recent studies have demonstrated that human calcium requirement is less than previously believed. The Western diet provides 800-1000mg/day, but in some developing countries, the daily intake is as low as 150-200 mg and there’s no correlating increase in the calcium deficiency rate. Ultimately, we all should be able to get our calcium requirement from plant foods.
Foods rich in calcium include kale, broccoli, sweet potato, beans, soybeans, tofu, and dried figs.
It’s also worth mentioning that when it comes to healthy bones, regular exercise plays a major role and should not be overlooked.
Zinc, naturally found in rocks, is a trace mineral that is crucial for a well-functioning immune system as well as wound healing and carbohydrate metabolism. So, if you’re susceptible to the common cold and flu, then you might be lacking zinc. Other symptoms of zinc deficiency are hair loss, hormone imbalances and acne.
There are numerous plant foods rich in zinc, and our diet should provide us with all the zinc we need. Pumpkin seeds, cashews and chickpeas are particularly excellent sources. Further, you can find zinc in oats, mushrooms, spinach, and nutritional yeast.
Iodine is a trace mineral which the body cannot produce. Although the body only needs small of amounts of iodine (about 150 micrograms), it is crucial for normal thyroid function. Low iodine levels can cause hypothyroidism which is associated with lethargy, poor memory, weight gain, muscle weakness, and depression.
Many whole foods contain iodine, however, iodine levels depend on the iodine content of the soil plants are grown on.
Best sources of iodine are sea vegetables, potatoes (ideally with skin on), cranberries, beans (navy beans), strawberries, and Himalayan crystal salt.
Essential Fatty Acids
The two essential fatty acids are omega 3 and omega 6, and they cannot be synthesised in the body and therefore must be obtained from the diet.
These fatty acids are essential for healthy cell membrane growth, proper functioning of brain and nervous system, hormone production and heathy skin and hair.
However, it’s important to maintain a ratio of omega 6 and omega 3 between 2:1 to 4:1 because excessive intake of omega 6 can inhibit the uptake of omega 3.
Omega 6 fatty acids are found in leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds and vegetable oils such as corn, sesame and sunflower oil.
A less common omega 6, gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), is found in black currants and hemp oil.
Adequate intake of omega 3 fatty acids may require some planning. Good sources of omega 3 include flaxseed oils (one teaspoon per day), ground flaxseeds (one tablespoon daily), walnuts, soybeans, and mungo beans. Just keep in mind that ground flaxseeds should be stored in the fridge to avoid oxygen damage. Also, you must not heat flaxseed oil because heat damages omega 3.
Deficiency in these fatty acids, although rare, can cause reduced growth rate, decreased immune response, dry skin, and depression.
Protein is a macronutrient, meaning that the body needs large amounts of it, though certainly not to the degree which people (vegans and omnivores alike) are consuming it.
The World Health Organisation recommends that we obtain 5% of our diet from protein – that’s about 30-40 grams depending on your body weight. Of course, athletes, especially those doing strength training, require more. However, the average Western diet consists of about 20% protein which means that nearly everybody is consuming 200-300% more protein than required.
A large 2013 study demonstrated that, on average, vegans and vegetarians get 70% more protein than they need. In fact, a diet built on unprocessed starches and vegetables makes protein deficiency impossible.
Protein deficiency causes a disease called Kwashiorkor which is really a disease of calorie deficiency.
As plant-based doctors keep saying, “If you’re getting enough calories, you’re getting enough protein.”
Excess protein is not stored in the body and will be eliminated; a process that places strain on our liver, kidneys and bones.
The other myth is the “incomplete protein theory” which suggests that a combination of certain plant foods must be consumed in order to obtain all the essential amino acids. This isn’t true. Researchers have concluded that unprocessed plant foods provide all the essential amino acids needed in the recommended amount.
There’s really no need for any sort of protein powder or shake. Instead, we should focus on consuming high-quality proteins that are low in saturated fat and cholesterol.
Good sources of protein include starchy vegetables (beans and potatoes), green vegetables (broccoli, lettuce, spinach), and grains (oatmeal, whole wheat flour).
Do We Need Supplements?
There have been many studies demonstrating that supplements can be harmful to your health and increase the risk of cancer and heart disease, to name a few. Many plant-based doctors and dietitians warn against taking supplements. After all, a whole food plant-based diet can provide all the necessary nutrients a heathy individual needs.