Despite what we have known for a long time about the nutritional risks of cutting out all animal products, many influencers and even polarised medical professionals will deny the need for supplementation on a vegan diet. While the British Dietetic Association agree that a well planned plant based diet can be healthy at every life stage, it is important to acknowledge the difference between thriving and surviving from a nutritional perspective. More often than not, we hear more about what we need to take out of our diets in order to fulfil a criteria and less about what to include. This article will discuss the key nutrients that are harder to source on plant based diets, where to source them and when to consider supplementation.
Vitamin B12 is essential for normal brain function and a healthy nervous system. This is the deficiency we hear about most frequently on plant based diets because there are no naturally occurring plant based sources of B12. Because B12 is so essential to health, our bodies can usually store around 6 months supply of it. This can mean that the effects are not seen until the levels are very low. Symptoms include fatigue, bowel problems, ‘brain fog’ and later, tingling sensations and paranoia. You can’t absorb a lot of B12 all at once so having several portions of foods fortified with B12 or nutritional yeast throughout the day is usually advisable. A tablet or mouth spray would also act as an insurance policy to prevent deficiency.
Iron is essential for healthy red blood cells which carry oxygen around our body. There are lots of plant based sources of iron but we are less able to absorb these efficiently. Eating foods with vitamin C help us to absorb plant sources of iron more effectively so orange juice at breakfast with an iron fortified cereal can be really helpful. Signs of iron deficiency include breathlessness, brittle nails and hair loss.
Vitamin D is essential for healthy bones, teeth and muscle function. When there isn’t adequate sunlight or spend lots of time indoors, we need to get plenty of vitamin D from our diet. Aside from sun exposed mushrooms and fortified foods, vitamin D doesn’t occur in a vegan diet. Most people benefit from a supplement in winter months and vegans should prioritise this.
Calcium occurs in plant based foods but is usually bound to another compound that makes it difficult to absorb. People on vegan diets typically have lower bone mineral density than meat eaters which increases the risk of fractures. It is therefore vital to ensure that calcium intake is optimised either through fortified foods or a supplement.
Zinc is an essential nutrient for almost all the vital functions in your body because of the key role in protein formation. This means that DNA, collagen and essential immune functions can’t happen without adequate zinc. Although there is zinc in plant foods, it is much harder for our bodies to absorb. Fermented soya, whole grains and nuts are the best vegan sources.
Iodine is required to regulate our metabolic rate through thyroid function and is essential for fertility. Iodine mainly comes from dairy and fish. Some plants grown in iodine rich soil can be good sources but this is unreliable. An iodine supplement or plenty of iodine fortified foods is advisable.
Protein is easily available from plant sources but getting enough individual amino acids can be harder. It is essential to combine pulses and grains on a daily basis to get the balance of all the essential proteins right and ensuring a varied diet is key. If you replace protein sources with carbs like jack fruit or quinoa, you won’t get the full compliment of proteins that are required for optimum health.
Lastly, essential fatty acids are vital to consider. Our brains and cardiovascular systems require the fatty acids DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid). DHA is responsible for the structure of our brain and EPA is key for healthy blood flow. These would usually come from meat, fish or eggs but they are only available from algae supplements on a vegan diet. Whilst our bodies can convert some EPA and DHA from other fats, this will not be in adequate amounts to optimise brain and heart function so algae oil supplements is recommended on a vegan diet.
Overall, a heavily fortified vegan diet may meet all nutritional needs. That being said, this can mean a reliance on what might be considered ‘processed foods’ which is often juxtaposed from the motivation of many vegans. For this reason, supplementation becomes a useful safety net from deficiency and to support optimum function. Anyone lacking energy, focus, struggling with bowel function, or low mood, with hair loss or disruption to skin, vision or immune function on a vegan diet needs to seek professional advice on supplementation to prevent further complications.