*Keep in mind that I have no qualifications in nutrition or any similar subjects, this is just knowledge I’ve gained from 5 years of veganism*
This is a subject I see a lot of vegans don’t want to speak about: Supplementing.
A lot of vegans are experts in advocating for veganism as the healthiest diet one can have, while simultaneously ignoring the part about supplementation, or even worse; talking against it.
Let me get one thing right, veganism is a wonderful way to eat and live – you get the opportunity to eat delicious, nutritious and filling food while doing the least harm as one can. But you need to make sure you’re not harming yourself in the process.
Many vegan products does not naturally contain high levels of some vital nutrients; plant milk, cereals and other products like this has been fortified with these vital vitamins – and if you’re the kind of vegan I was during some of my veganism you won’t be eating enough of those fortified products.
Nutrients to keep an eye on & why:
- Vitamin B12: If there is one vitamin I want you to keep a strict eye on it’s B12. B12 is made by bacteria that live inside animals. To get a vegan version of B12 one ‘farms’ the bacteria and gather the vitamin from that. A lack of vitamin B12 can cause severe tiredness, pins and needles in limbs, increased symptoms of mental illness, muscle weakness and deterioration of cognitive functions. Vitamin B12 is a ‘common’ vitamin to be lacking in no matter if you’re plant based or not – absorption is complex and decreases with age.
- Vitamin D: Contributes to maintain normal blood levels of calcium and phosphate, which then keeps the mineralization of bone, muscle contraction, nerve conduction and cellular functions normal. Both WHO and NCBI acknowledges that vitamin D deficiency is a global problem and people especially living in northern countries should supplement in the months containing the letter ‘R’ because the sun is not enough a those times of the year.
- Calcium: Plays a vital role for strong bones and recovery after exercise. If your vitamin D levels are low it will be harder to absorb calcium. Although calcium is found in a lot of green and leafy vegetables a vegan diet is not always synonymous with a diet heavy in green, leafy vegetables.
- Omega-3 fatty acid: Important for cell membranes and receptors, hormone production, cardiovascular, brain, joint, eye and skin health. Fats like walnuts, chia & flax seeds re good sources but might not convert it as well into DHA and EPA.
- Iron: Improves growth and development of the body, in addition to making hemoglobin and myoglobin. Loads of vegan foods contains iron but they often contain anti-nutrients which hinders absorption.
- Zinc: Important for immune system, cell growth, healing and breaking down carbs. Loads of plants contain zinc but there are some concerns around phytates which often is bound to plants. Phytic acids can bind minerals before absorption which makes it harder to absorb zinc and iron despite consuming adequate amounts in theory.
- Iodine: Helps in the production of thyroid hormones, which keeps cells and metabolism healthy. It’s most easily found in dairy and iodine salt.
- Selenium: Contributes to a healthy immune system and cells – it is found in some plants but the amounts depend on the selenium in the soil.
- Vitamin B12: Nutritional yeast (make sure it’s the fortified kind), fortified plant milk, yoghurt, cereal, cheese and other processed (and fortified) plant products and marmite.
- Vitamin D: Fortified plant milk, yoghurt, cereal, cheese and other processed (and fortified) plant products, mushrooms (smaller amounts). Sunlight is also a source but it’s often not enough for your daily need – in addition to it not being enough too much (which is not much at all) exposure can and will damage your skin. Don’t be dumb, use sunscreen and get into the shade when the sun is at it’s highest.
- Calcium: Fortified plant milk, yoghurt, cereal, cheese and other processed (and fortified) plant products, leafy greens, almonds, figs and chia seeds. But do remember that your calcium intake depends on your vitamin D intake!
- Omega-3 fatty acid: Fortified plant milk, yoghurt, cereal, cheese and other processed (and fortified) plant products, chia-, flax-, and hemp seeds, leafy greens. You can find DHA and EPA in algal oil and alge.
- Iron: Fortified plant milk, yoghurt, cereal, cheese and other processed (and fortified) plant products, beans, legumes, spinach and other leafy greens and linseed.
- Zinc: Fortified plant milk, yoghurt, cereal, cheese and other processed (and fortified) plant products, pumpkin- and sunflower seeds, spinach, cacao, beans, legumes, cashews and avocado.
- Iodine: Iodised salt, whole grains and seaweed.
- Selenium: Brazil nuts, mushrooms, oats, whole grains and sunflower seeds.
How to know if you are consuming enough:
I’ve done four things to make sure I get enough of these nutrients:
- I went to the doctor and got my blood tested – I was experiencing extreme tiredness, symptoms of depression and pins and needles: Turns out I was low in vitamin D and I was so low in vitamin B12 that I needed shots in my butt cheek – you do not want that, trust me.
- I track my food a couple of times a week or month in cronometer.com – here I am able to see my levels for all of these nutrients and if I’m getting adequate levels. I don’t need to do this every day because I generally eat most of the same foods during the week.
- I check in with myself to see how I’m feeling – have I been more tired or feeling ill than usual the last couple of weeks without a good explanation?
- I supplement! There is no way without it! Fortified foods are also supplementing! But I know that I do not eat enough fortified foods as I’m not too much into mock meats and plant yogurts/milks (but I do drink my milk with coffee – coffee contains anti-nutrients which hinders absorption of iron and other nutrients). So I take a multivitamin every day to make sure I’m getting what I need.
Most vegans and even non-vegans should supplement many of these nutrients because of what we eat in 2018! You want to thrive, not just be generally ok!
I hope this will make it easier for all of you, despite what type of diet – and I hope this openness will make it easier for new vegans to not fall into the ‘new vegan mistakes’ as I once did. Remember that veganism is such an amazing diet, but it still needs to be done properly and safely as any other diet.
Have you ever experienced nutrient deficiency? Do you supplement? How are you managing your diet and making sure you get enough of what you need?