With this blog, I am going to walk you through the common nutrients & supplements that anyone living a 100% or mostly plant-based lifestyle should consider. It’s really important to note that all of our blood results and absorption rates of vitamins/minerals will differ based on plenty of factors including gender, age, gut bacteria, the types of foods we eat (processed versus nutrient-dense whole foods) and how we pair our foods (i.e coffee inhibits iron absorption). In fact, we even know that there is great variability in the way our body processes foods based on how healthy our diets are and the state of our gut microbiome.
At various points specifically for certain people who have different vitamin/mineral requirements (i.e pregnant women) along with tips for food pairing to maximise absorption. I have covered blood tests for nutrient levels in a separate blog “Blood test tips for Vegans”.
Finally, I want to make it clear that despite this blog being super long, getting nutrients on a plant-based diet is actually super easy and by default, if you eat a healthy whole food plant-based diet you are going to be flooding your body with more micronutrients than the typical Western Diet. That’s why I originally transitioned to a plant-based diet – because I was seeking maximum nutrients with as minimal toxins as possible per mouthful, and that just so happens to be a 100% whole food plant-based diet.
Before we jump into specifics I want to preface this blog by reiterating that Vitamin B12 & Vitamin D aside, you can get every macronutrient and micronutrient safely from a whole food plant based diet unless you have a certain illness or disorder which prevents you from eating certain food groups or absorbing certain nutrients well.
Note, I used the word ‘safely’ because I am a firm believer that giving your body nutrients direct from nature, as opposed to second-hand nutrients in animal products, is a cleaner, less toxic and overall more healthful way to fuel your body.
This blog explores some of the more important nutrients that need to be considered by society in general with specific information for those on a plant-based diet pertaining to the top vegan food sources to find these nutrients in. Rather than being nutrients of concern I refer to these as nutrients of focus. I hope this information helps you set up a healthy, balanced whole food plant-based diet that you can be confident will fuel your body with clean energy and all the micronutrients your body needs to thrive.
Interestingly, one of the first questions a vegan is typically faced with when talking to a non-vegan is “How do you get all your vitamins and minerals?”.
The most interesting part of this question for me is the very fact that the largest killers in Western Countries are chronic lifestyle diseases like cardiovascular disease, cancers, obesity & type 2 diabetes where over-nutrition/over-consumption is the problem. Instead of asking if vegans are deficient the entire world could very much benefit by looking at what’s killing us. Look at the hospitals (which are not full of sick vegans with heart disease) and ask why we are eating so many empty calories – foods that offer lots of calories with minimal micronutrients and phytochemicals (protective compounds in plant based foods).
The Position of the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics on Vegetarian & vegan diets supports this:
It is the position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics that appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. These diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood, and for athletes. Plant-based diets are more environmentally sustainable than diets rich in animal products because they use fewer natural resources and are associated with much less environmental damage. Vegetarians and vegans are at reduced risk of certain health conditions, including ischemic heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, certain types of cancer, and obesity. Low intake of saturated fat and high intakes of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, soy products, nuts, and seeds (all rich in fiber and phytochemicals) are characteristics of vegetarian and vegan diets that produce lower total and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels and better serum glucose control. These factors contribute to reduction of chronic disease. Vegans need reliable sources of vitamin B-12, such as fortified foods or supplements.
The Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics is the largest food and nutrition advice provider in the world comprising over 100,000 registered dieticians and nutritionists.
In addition, the American Academy of Pediatrics is in agreeance with their position on a vegetarian and vegan diets being:
Well-planned vegetarian and vegan eating patterns are healthy for infants and toddlers.
I am sure you have been told you need to “get your Omega 3’s in” but what does this actually mean & where does the science sit? Do they help us avoid heart attacks? Do they reduce inflammation? Are they only found in fish? I was confused too so I’ve done the research, spoken to experts and summarised it below so you know the most important things about these nutrients.
Firstly a little bit of basic nutrition. Omega 3’s and Omega 6’s are known as Essential Fatty Acids. This means they are the only fats that our body does not produce and hence need to be consumed from foods in our diet.
On reviewing the literature I was pretty taken back to read that the average Western diet contains around 20 times more omega-6s than omega-3’s. This severely disproportioned ratio has massive health implications, as huge intakes of omega-6’s are directly linked to the rise of obesity, cancer, autoimmune disease and heart disease. In laymen terms, the Omega 3/6 ratios affect the outside fatty later of each cell (cell membrane) in the body and are what protects them, or is meant to protect them anyway.
So humans being humans have looked at this ratio, and rather than addressing the root cause of the Omega 3/6 imbalance, have discovered that manufacturing and selling Omega 3 supplements is more lucrative. Enter the fish oil market, now worth over 2.25 Billion dollars a year. The importance of supplementing omega-3’s in the diet has long been touted by the fish & fish oil industries but are their claims supported by science? Well it just so happens that the most comprehensive review ever done (Cochrane Review) of the research on Omega 3’s, published in July 2018, has found that the science does not support the vast majority of fish oil claims, particularly claims to suggest that consuming these essential fats reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity and early death.
So step 1, before worrying about Omega 3 for anyone, vegan or not, should be to clean their processed food diet up and concentrate on more whole foods closer to how they look when freshly picked in nature so you can reduce your total Omega 6 intake. Practically speaking there are some ideas that you can implement:
Secondly, if you still do want to supplement Omega 3’s and you’re on a plant-based diet, then those smelly little golden capsules full of fish, and who knows what, are well, less than appealing.
Luckily there are multiple plant-based foods, and more pure supplements, which are valuable sources of omega fatty acids, which I will cover shortly but first, it’s important to understand some basic nutrition & physiology here. Omega 3 fatty acids in fish are known as DHA & EPA. These long chain molecules are responsible for all of the above-listed health benefits. The fish get these long chain fatty acids by eating algae. In comparison, common plant food sources of Omega 3’s like chia, flaxseed & walnuts (you would have seen this heavily advertised) contain the Omega 3 ALA, which is a short chain Omega 3 and has to be converted by the body to DHA & EPA. Scientific studies have shown us that our bodies can only convert about 5% of ALA into EPA/DHA but in vegans, this is slightly higher (the body recognises no direct source of EPA/DHA and up-regulates conversion of ALA into these health-promoting Omega 3’s).
Now that you understand the difference between EPA/DHA & ALA let’s break this down further. If you are on a 100% plant-based diet or do not eat fish, you have two options for getting the recommended dietary intake of long chain Omega 3’s.
Personally, I consume Omega 3 rich plant foods such as chia, hemp and ground flaxseeds almost everyday but I also take an Omega 3 DHA/EPA supplement as an insurance policy. I find this to be a bulletproof way to ensure that my body has sufficient levels of these essential fats – particularly helpful when I am traveling and out of my normal food routine. I also find many plant-based parents give their kids a DHA/EPA algae oil supplement – it can be hard keeping track of what your kids eat!
Iodine is a very important mineral for the maintenance of a healthy thyroid and metabolism. Deficiency of Iodine can lead to slow metabolism, hypothyroidism, weight gain, fatigue etc. When thinking about a plant-based diet and iodine it’s best to think about sea vegetables.
The below are great sources of iodine and will help you easily achieve the daily recommendation of 150mcg (pregnant and lactating women have a higher recommended daily intake which is typically 220mcg when pregnant and 270mcg when lactating)
It’s important to note this is not a mineral you want to go overboard with. The RDI is set at the safe level for optimal function based on the clinical science. People who consume too much iodine may developer an overactive thyroid or ‘hyperthyroidism” which can cause heart palpitations, weight loss, fatigue etc. So take home message – iodine is important to consider, particularly for pregnant or breastfeeding women, but it’s not something you really need to think about once you have it worked into your routine.
Vitamin D is critical in increasing calcium absorption when needed and supporting phosphorus absorption to help promote healthy bone mineral density. Vitamin D also has an incredibly important role in the heart, brain, immune system, thyroid and muscles and regulates insulin production in the pancreas helping to protect against diabetes. If you have light skin and are not getting 20 minutes of sun on your face and lower arms per day (average) or you have dark skin then it is advisable to get your daily dose of Vitamin D from fortified foods or a supplement. Typically the RDI of Vitamin D is:
These are the Australian reference values. Some other parts of the world recommend 15 mcg per day for all ages. It’s worth noting that many expert health professionals recommend up to 50 mcg as the optimal dose of Vitamin D per day which is well within the tolerable upper intake level of 100mcg.
If you are wanting to find Vitamin D within fortified foods you want to look for products clearly marked as vegan or those that use Vitamin D2 (form of Vitamin D sourced from plants) or Vitamin D3 from Lichen. Reason being is that most Vitamin D3 is sourced from fish, wool or animal hides. A small percentage of Vitamin D3 is now sourced from lichen (plant) however when companies use this they generally call out ‘vegan’ or ‘sourced from lichen’ on their packaging.
If you choose to supplement Vitamin D because you are not getting the required sunlight and are not eating enough Vitamin D fortified foods then you should search online or ask your local health store/nutritionist/doctor for a VEGAN Vitamin D supplement. Note the supplement dosage per serve can be expressed in mcg (as above) or also IU (International Units). 1 mcg of Vitamin D3 = 40 IU. So if you want to target 50mcg per day of Vitamin D look for a 2000 IU Vegan Vitamin D supplement when you are next shopping. It may even be something you just take through the winter months where there are fewer hours of sun and you spend more time indoors. And remember, the same rule applies about the source of Vitamin D2/D3 as goes for fortified foods, so if you are wanting a vegan Vitamin D supplement be sure to read the label thoroughly as the majority are not vegan.
…and yes mushrooms do contain a compound that can be converted into Vitamin D but it’s hard to determine how much you are actually consuming so I wouldn’t recommend eating mushrooms as your daily Vitamin D source but they do have other benefits and are extremely delicious so make them a part of your balanced whole food plant-based meals where possible anyway!
Vitamin B12 is the most important nutrient of focus for anyone following a predominately or completely plant-based diet. Clinical evidence supporting B12 supplementation has shown it to be completely safe & a great way to prevent B12 deficiency or reverse it. B12 deficiency is not something that only vegans have to worry about but also the ageing population who naturally, by consuming lower calories, are ingesting less and less Vitamin B12 as they get older. For many vegans, Vitamin B12 along with Vitamin D, are the only supplements they take – a small price to pay to get all the added health benefits of removing animal products from your diet.
So what is Vitamin B12 anyway and why is it so important? B12, along with other vitamins helps us convince eat fat, carbohydrates and protein into energy. It is also crucial to DNA synthesis, maintenance of a healthy myelin sheath (outer protective layer of nerves), red blood cell production and clearing out excess homocysteine (elevated homocysteine is linked to arterial wall damage & cardiovascular disease). Without adequate Vitamin B12 you can end up with nerve damage, cardiovascular issues, fatigue, shortness of breath, reduced ability to transport oxygen in the blood and a plethora of other serious health symptoms which everyone no doubt wants to avoid.
As I have alluded to above Vitamin B12 is not reliably found within a plant-based diet (no clinical science to show that the fortified foods are reliable). As a result, it’s best for anyone following a 100% or nearly 100% plant-based diet to supplement Vitamin B12. However, you will hear about foods such as the list below which claim to contain B12 or are fortified with B12.
Because of the importance of this vitamin and potential discrepancies between fortified food batches (it’s hard to guarantee an even amount of the vitamin ends up in each unit of food sold) I advise all vegans to just use a B12 supplement.
There are a few different Vitamin B 12’s on the market with the main two being Cyanocobalamin (synthetic form) and Methylcobalamin (active form). As it stands right now there is only clinical evidence to support Cyanocobalamin as an effective supplement for reversing Vitamin B12 deficiency and avoiding deficiency. Some proponents of Methylcobalamin will talk about the presence of cyanide in Cyanocobalamin but in reality, the amount of Cyanide ingested from a dose of this supplement is about 1/30th of the cyanide in Flaxseed. I previously recommended Methylcobalamin however on delving into the cyanide a little deeper I am now suggesting that unless you have kidney disease or are a smoker you are best, for now, to supplement with Cyanocobalamin (or alternate between the two) until new clinical evidence comes out to support Methylcobalamin. The recommended daily intake is 2.4mcg (2.6mcg for pregnant women and 2.8mcg for lactating women) but we only ever absorb about 1% (some people slightly less) of the Vitamin B12 consumed. There are a few different ways that you can supplement B12 based on your individual preference. These serving recommendations take into consideration the diminishing absorption rate with higher doses:
It is worth noting that during pregnancy and lactation if you are 100% plant-based Vitamin B12 is absolutely crucial and should be something you discuss closely with your Doctor and/or Nutritionist/Dietician – if there is ever a time to avoid Vitamin B12 deficiency it is during those times because it can have a serious effect on the development of the baby. The only times I would recommend someone take another form of B12 is if you’re a smoker, have kidney disease or carry the MTHFR gene, in which case the Methylcobalamin & Adenosylcobalamin forms taken together would be better suited as such people may have difficulty converting Cyanocobalamin to the active forms of B12.
Iron is an extremely important mineral central to the transport of oxygen around the body in the blood and muscle tissue. People with low iron or anaemia can experience a reduction in energy, reduced immunity, paleness, dizziness and shortness of breath.
The recommended daily intake for men and postmenopausal women is 8mg, 18mg for women of childbearing age and 27mg for pregnant women (often pregnant women are recommended to take a 30mg iron supplement, particularly those with iron on the lower end of the spectrum). Because the iron found in animal-foods (combination of heme and non-heme iron) is absorbed slightly better than the iron found in plant foods (100% non-heme iron) it is recommended that vegetarians and vegans consume 1.8x the typical daily recommendation (14.4mg for men and 32.4mg for women).
You can find iron naturally in plant-based foods such as legumes, including soybeans, tofu and tempeh, are a great source along with oats, pumpkin seeds and dark leafy greens like broccoli, kale and spinach. Dried fruits and in particular apricots, peaches, pears and raisins also pack a lot of iron per serve! For most people, a good balance of those foods in your diet and your Iron levels will be fine. If you perform a blood test and your health professional advises you have low iron then there are a few things you can do to try and increase your absorption of the natural iron in your iron-rich foods before you consider supplementation.
To increase iron absorption, you want to consume Vitamin C loaded foods with your iron sources. E.g. lemon, bell peppers, oranges, tomatoes, broccoli, kiwi fruit, strawberries, papaya, apricots, cauliflower and pineapple. ⠀Other enhances include onion and garlic. And at the same time when having iron-rich meals you want to avoid coffee, tea, calcium supplements, chocolate and red wine which contain molecules that inhibit/reduce iron absorption. If you try this and still cannot get your iron to the recommended levels I would recommend you then look at an iron supplement in consultation with your personal health professional. Iron injections can also be used but are typically only required for those with iron deficiency anaemia. It is worth noting that excessive iron is something to avoid so as soon as your iron levels are corrected it’s best to then try and maintain the levels by eating a diet rich in plant-based iron sources, vitamin c and avoiding the above-mentioned inhibitors.
There is more information on Iron specific recommendations in the Animal Iron vs Plant Iron blog.
Calcium is an important mineral for strong bones, healthy teeth and is also crucial to healthy nervous system functioning, muscle contractions and blood clotting. Getting the RDI of calcium can easily be achieved on a vegan or plant-based diet. For adults, the recommended amount of calcium to consume per day is between 1000-1300mg depending on your age and gender (females require slightly more and everyone requires more as they get older). The upper level is set at 2,500mg (from 1 years and older) and this should not be exceeded unless advised by your personal health professional under close clinical supervision.
I have previously done a blog on calcium and why we do not need cows milk which goes through calcium in a lot more detail. I have included the chart of the top calcium-rich plant-based foods below to help you determine where you are getting calcium from in your own diet.
Want more info on Calcium? Download the Plant Proof Calcium Fact Sheet for Vegans
For more information, the recommendations check out the Calcium Nutrient Reference Values for Australia & NZ which is fairly consistent with the rest of the world.
Folate, a B Vitamin, plays an important role in the production of healthy DNA and amino acids. During pregnancy where there is rapid cell proliferation/division, more folate is required to prevent neural tube and other forms of birth defects. Another important role of Folate is to work synergistically with Vitamin B6 and Vitamin B12 to help reduce the amount of serum homocysteine, which if allowed to build up is thought to increase the risk of cardiovascular complications. On top of these crucial roles, Folate supports fertility in both men and women and is protective against various cancers. It is important to note that ‘Folic Acid’ is the synthetic form of Folate and is often found in fortified foods. This form of Folate may have different actions and in fact may increase the risk of various cancers, particularly when consumed in high doses (over 1,000mcg/day), so it’s best to either opt for a ‘folate’ supplement or consume folic acid in amounts less than this.
The RDI for Folate is 400mcg from age 14and over for both males and females except for when pregnant where the RDI is 600mcg and 500mcg during lactation. When trying to conceive, pregnant or breastfeeding you should seek advice from your local doctor/nutritionist to set up your food & supplementation plan – Folate/Folic Acid is an important part of that plan.
For vegans who are not pregnant, lactating or trying to conceive you will be happy to hear that studies have shown the average vegan meets the RDI of Folate within their diet without supplementation. Folate-rich foods to concentrate on are:
For more information, the recommendations check out the Folate Nutrient Reference Values for Australia & NZ which is fairly consistent with the rest of the world.
Selenium is an important antioxidant and forms part of many extremely important enzymes that participate in vital cellular reactions within the body. The RDI for Selenium in Australia is 60mcg per day for women and 70mcg for men which is based on the fact that men typically have a greater body mass (RDI’s summarised below for all ages). In terms of getting Selenium in your diet from plant-based sources, it’s pretty easy to achieve and the best source by far is Brazil Nuts – there is no better source of Selenium, from animals or plants than Brazil Nuts!
One Brazil Nut = 95mcg of Selenium.
Given this is an average I typically recommend adding 2 Brazil Nuts to your daily eating regime. They are easy to enjoy by themselves or in your smoothie, porridge or even broken up on savoury meals.
Some other good plant-based sources are shown below:
Alternatively, if you are allergic to nuts, you could use a vegan Selenium supplement (typically 100mcg) if you are allergic to nuts or for some reason cannot work Brazil nuts into your daily diet.
For more information, the recommendations check out the Selenium Nutrient Reference Values for Australia & NZ which is fairly consistent with the rest of the world.
As mentioned above I recommend a B12 supplement for anyone living a plant-based, or even close to plant-based, lifestyle. I then recommend you go through the above and consider each nutrient one by one. Are you getting enough through your diet (or Sun in the case of Vitamin D) and if not ask yourself:
At the end of the day, it’s best to try and get your nutrients naturally from the food you eat and the sun. However, some supplementation is by no means a negative thing and in this crazy fast-paced world, it can make more sense for some people and provides peace of mind that their body has what it needs to thrive.
Of course, during various life stages (pre-natal, post-natal, infancy) nutritional requirements change and as such I highly recommend people in such positions to see a Qualified Dietician or Nutritionist for a one on one consultation.
Finally, I recommend you chat about any information from this blog with your personal Doctor, Dietician or Nutritionist, particularly if you are suffering from an illness or are feeling sick, lethargic or run down. Little symptoms are our bodies way of talking to us – try not to ignore them.
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