Supplementing a plant-based vegan diet

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Disclaimer: I'm not a doctor, nutritionist, dietician or health care professional. Please consult your doctor before making any changes to your diet or nutrition.

Although I've been vegan for well over a decade, I don't agree with and nor do I preach the ideal that a vegan diet is a perfect one, both in terms of nutrition or the environment. There are many complex reasons why a person chooses to follow a plant-based diet, it's certainly not a black and white issue. However, I do believe that vegan diets are on the whole better for humans, animals and the planet than a carnivorous one, which is why the majority of vegans subscribe to such a lifestyle. It's an effort to do better where we feel we can, take a stand on some ethical issues we disagree with and be more mindful over what we consume. If you're interested in reading more about why and how I became vegan, I go into it in more detail in this post on my philosophy of food.

It is entirely possible to be healthy and full of energy while living a plant-based lifestyle. I've done it for over ten years, and can certainly attest to the many ways it has enhanced my life and my health. That said, as far as I understand, it absolutely isn't possible to get everything you need from a purely vegan diet. You can come pretty close, easily finding adequate sources of protein, calcium and iron which are typically the main nutrients that other people seem most unsure you can get by being vegan. Even nutrients like B12 and Iodine which are much trickier to get as there are fewer plant based sources, with a little planning and clever tweaks to your diet you may still be able to get an adequate supply. It's really only the essential Omega 3 fatty acids DHA and EPA, found only in fish, that you can't get from a vegan diet unless you supplement. It is important to note that our bodies and our guts are all different. We all absorb nutrients from our food differently, our metabolisms are different and so are our environments. The most important thing to do is to get more in tune with your own body and how you feel both physically and mentally. This can give you some pretty clear signals that everything either is or is not ok when it comes to your nutrition.

Since having a baby in early 2016, I've really struggled with my mood and energy levels. Initially due to lack of sleep, recovery from birth, breastfeeding and all that comes with caring for a newborn. Earlier this year, I realised there was a problem with my health because even after 8-10 hours of sleep I was still waking up lethargic. Frequently feeling exhausted, with aching muscles and a whole heap of food sensitivities. The reality of being a full time parent with a business to run on the side means I don't always do as well at taking care of myself as I should. My diet often suffers, along with my health. I decided that it was time to improve the situation, and so I spent a good few weeks doing a ton of research into supplements and re-educating myself on vegan/plant based nutrition. I must admit I do get a little lazy sometimes around this subject, because I’ve been vegan for such a long time that I have so many habits around my food. Some good, some not so good. It was time for a shake up, and I feel so much better and more energised for it!

It goes without saying that you should always strive to get enough nutrients from your diet, and that supplements are not a substitute for good eating habits. But, for those nutrients that are a little trickier to get from our diets, and for those days we're a little busy and don't eat as well or as much as we should, I think supplements give us all the boost we need. In the case of a vegan diet, where there are a few key nutrients that it is either difficult or impossible to obtain from plant based sources, some supplements are essential. I would like to add, however, that an omnivorous diet does not automatically contain all the nutrients a person needs, and that paying close attention to our nutrition is something all of us should be doing. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies are most certainly not just confined to those on a vegan or plant based diet. A good place to start when looking at improving your nutrition is always to make an appointment with your doctor to get your nutrient levels checked. In the UK, you can get your iron, B12, folate and Vitamin D levels checked on the NHS, but I think for anything more specific (unless you're pregnant or at risk) you have to pay for a private blood test. I have mine done fairly regularly, and my levels have always been above average on everything they tested for, except during my first pregnancy when my Iron levels were lower than ideal (still within acceptable levels) and I took some high potency supplements prescribed by a doctor.

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Essential supplements for a vegan diet:

Omega 3 fatty acids DHA and EPA - there are three important Omega 3 fatty acids with regards to our nutrition - ALA, DHA and EPA. The human body cannot produce ALA and so it must be obtained from our diets. Our bodies can then convert small amounts of ALA into EPA and subsequently DHA, but as far as I have read the conversion rates are relatively low. This means that those of us on a vegan or plant based diet should be ensuring we get adequate sources of all three fatty acids. Vegan sources of ALA are soy, walnuts, canola oil, flaxseeds and their oil, hempseed oil, camelina oil, and chia seed oil however there are no good sources of EPA and DHA from non-animal sources (it is found in fish) and so it must be supplemented. I take this vegan DHA and EPA oil. Do check that your supplement is vegan, as most Omega 3 supplements are derived from fish. I also add chia seeds and an Omega 3 mix to my cereal, smoothies and anything else I can.

Vitamin B12 - although you only need a small amount in your diet (2.4mcg, with pregnant and breastfeeding women needing more), there is no reliable plant based source. Vegans can obtain B12 from fortified foods, with nutritional yeast and yeast extract being the most common. I take this high potency Vitamin B12 supplement, and eat plenty of Marmite (yeast extract) and nutritional yeast. It is delicious sprinkled on many of your regular meals (it has a cheesy flavour) and can be added to many foods during cooking as well.

Iodine - needed for healthy thyroid function and to regulate your metabolism. Plant based sources of this are not plentiful, but can be found in iodized salt, seaweed and fortified products such as non-dairy milks. Do check the labels though, as many of these are not fortified with iodine. I take this organic sea kelp supplement to ensure I get an adequate supply.

Other recommended supplements:

Iron - If you’re healthy and eat a good, varied diet then Iron is not something you need to worry about as there are many plentiful plant based sources. However, we are all different and some people don’t absorb the type of iron found in plants as well as the iron that comes from animal sources. Adding a source of vitamin C at mealtimes increases absorption, as does avoiding tea and coffee at mealtimes as caffeine inhibits the absorption of iron. During pregnancy our iron requirements go up, so this is definitely a time to consider supplementing it even if you don’t usually. Even though I’m sure my diet provides me with adequate iron, I do choose to take a supplement because I have been pregnant and/or breastfeeding for the most part of the last four years.

Vitamin D - if you live in a country with lower sun levels, have darker skin, or keep your skin covered for a lot of the year (for reasons of sensitive skin, work uniforms, religious reasons etc) then it's likely you won't be absorbing enough Vitamin D. All children in the UK aged between 1-4 are recommended to take a supplement of Vitamin D, especially between late September to early March where sunlight levels are much lower and we start to cover up more. This is not something limited to those on a vegan or plant based diet.

Zinc - another mineral that isn’t found in large amounts from plant sources. Zinc is important for immunity, so if you’re finding yourself getting sick a lot this may be an area to look at. Again, always check with your doctor or a nutritionist. Plant based foods that are highest in zinc are legumes, nuts, seeds, and oats, so ensure you’re getting plenty of these. I don’t personally take a zinc supplement because my diet is high in these foods, and I almost never get sick.

Prebiotics - these are fibres fermented by our intestinal microflora. These non-digestible food compounds found in carbohydrate-rich foods stimulate the growth of beneficial bacteria that is associated with our health and well-being. Good sources of prebiotics are fermented foods (sauerkraut, kimchi etc), chicory, garlic, onions, leeks, cabbage, legumes, bananas, grapefruit, bran, barley, oats, almonds, pistachio nuts and flaxseeds. A vegan diet by nature is likely to be high in these foods, but you can also supplement by adding a prebiotic powder to your morning smoothie if you feel you need to.

The Good Shopping Guide is the best place to start whenever you're looking for an ethical comparison of any companies, and it’s how I decided on where to source my supplements from. Here's the link to their ethical comparison of Vitamin retailers. Unsurprisingly, the major players (Boots, Sanatogen, Centrum and Bassets) come out pretty badly on the scale, with other companies like Neals Yard and Fushi Wellbeing coming out with 100% ethical ratings. I chose to go with Viridian, because they scored 92 on the GSG scale, and offer all of the supplements I was after so I could order mine in one go. Their products also come in recyclable glass bottles, are produced in the UK using British ingredients and they donate a percentage of their profits to charities which their stockists get to choose. Some stockists also accept returns of the supplement bottles when you’re finished.

Not all the more ethical companies provide all of the supplements recommended for a vegan diet. So, depending on your budget and preference to shop ethically and organically, you may want to look around at different companies to decide which you prefer. As I mentioned above, Viridian are by far my favourite, it’s not sponsored at all, just based on my own research and consumer experience. Not all their supplements are vegan (they offer fish oils as well), so just double check you're getting a vegan product before you order. This goes for anywhere you buy your supplements from.

I really enjoyed putting together this post for you, and it hope it makes it a lot easier for you to begin your education on vegan and plant based nutrition. When I started thinking about supplementing my diet it was pretty overwhelming, and now that I know a little more I am so shocked at home many articles on vegan nutrition and supplements don’t mention some of the most important things such as Omega 3 fatty acids and iodine. Please don’t stop at my post though, use it as your jumping off point for diving deeper and learning as much as you can about your own wellbeing.

If you liked this post and found it useful, please do check out some of my other posts on veganism and plant-based recipes. If there’s anything you’d really love me to write about, let me know in the comments!

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