Veganism and Nutrition - What About Supplements?
written by Ise
“Humans are omnivores” is a common justification for eating animals. It is often said that a vegan diet would not be able to provide our bodies with all the needed vitamins and minerals and therefore doesn’t meet the daily nutrient requirements. Now, let’s get this bias out of the way.
To start off with, being biologically able to digest a wide range of foods including meat is not equal to needing meat for survival, nor does this fact free us from our moral responsibility to minimise the harm that results from our choices.
What is true, however, is that while a plant-based diet contains all the nutrients a human body needs, the exception is vitamin B12. Some may claim that the supplementation of nutrients is unnatural and, therefore, veganism also is. Yet, vitamin D supplements sell like hot cakes during autumn and winter, pregnant women take folic acid to prevent birth defects and, for many, protein powder shakes are a must-have after a workout. Thus, taking supplements is very ordinary these days, also for non-vegans, so the stigma should technically be overruled. It’s probably a good idea to dispose of the discussion about what’s ‘natural’ and focus on getting the proper nutrients. And I’m here to give you an overview.
Being biologically able to digest a wide range of foods including meat is not equal to needing meat for survival.
First and foremost, vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 or cobalamin is important for the production of red blood cells and maintenance of the nervous system. It is produced by microorganisms and is barely naturally present in a plant-based diet. Non-vegans get their vitamin B12 from meat and dairy products. Ruminants like cows and sheep are dependent on their microbiome for their vitamin B12, which converts cobalt in vitamin B12. However, fodder hardly contains cobalt, which results in the following solution: suppletion. Fortified foods and supplements are the only proven reliable sources for vitamin B12 for vegans. Therefore, it is recommended for every vegan to ensure an adequate intake of B12 through one of these sources.
The Health Council of the Netherlands (Gezondheidsraad) and The Netherlands Nutrition Centre (Voedingscentrum) set a recommended daily intake of 2,8 micrograms (µg) for adults. However, supplements are sold in far higher dosages. Why is that?
Vitamin B12 is absorbed more efficiently in frequent small amounts, in contrast to a high-dosage supplement once a day. However, the recommendations are safe and ensure a sufficient intake. For instance, the Dutch Organisation for Veganism has the following advice for supplementation of cyanocobalamin for vegans aged between 11 and 65 years old:
50 µg daily (The Vegan Society suggests 10 µg a day instead of 50 µg)
1000 µg twice a week,
or 2000 µg once a week.
There are different types of vitamin B12. Amongst these, cyanocobalamin is recommended for supplementation, mainly because it is the most stable type. In the body, this will be converted to the two active forms of vitamin B12, which are called methylcobalamin and adenosylcobalamin.
How to choose what to buy?
First of all, vitamin B12 supplements are made by bacteria and in practice are always vegan. It is important that you go for what suits your lifestyle best. Meaning: If you already have a daily routine of taking in medication or supplements, it might be a good idea to choose for a 50 µg supplement each day. If you want less fuss or have a tendency to forget to take a daily supplement, you could go for the 1000 or 2000 µg option. An important note for us students is that the higher dosed options are cheaper than taking a supplement a day.
Where to get it?
There are many brands that sell vitamin B12 supplements, including Etos, Holland & Barrett, Kruidvat, Lucovitaal, Orthica, Purasana, Royal Green, Solgar, Vegetology, Vitaminesperpost, Vitaminstore, et cetera. In the end, all are similar and good options.
TLDR: Choose a cyanocobalamin vitamin B12 supplement, with a dosage of 50 µg a day, 1000 µg twice a week, or 2000 µg once a week, depending on your personal preference!
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that plays a role in the calcium and phosphate balance, it ensures the absorption of calcium and phosphorus from food. Together with calcium and sufficient exercise, it is the key to good bone health. Furthermore, it is involved in the maintenance of the muscles and the immune system.
Approximately half of all Dutchmen have a vitamin D deficiency due to a shortage of sunlight. A long term vitamin D deficiency can result in bone pain, porous bones and/or muscle pain and weakness. It is vital to take care of getting enough of it! The Dutch College of General Practitioners recommends a daily vitamin D supplement for everyone who is not often outdoors for 15 to 30 minutes a day, between 11.00 and 15.00. Especially during winter, when the sun is not strong enough for the body to make vitamin D. The National Health Service (NHS) from the UK advises everyone to consider taking a daily vitamin D supplement during the autumn and winter, the Dutch Organisation for Veganism suggests supplementation from October until March. The recommended dosage for people aged up to 70 years old for vitamin D supplementation is 10 µg (600 IU) each day. The tolerable upper limit for adults is 100 µg.
As with vitamin B12, there are different types of vitamin D: D2 and D3. Vitamin D2 is always vegan, whilst most vitamin D3 supplements are not. Vegan D3 does exist and is made from lichen - which is a plant found on rocks or trees made of both a specific fungus and algae that help one another (“korstmos” in dutch). The Netherlands Nutrition Centre advises people to choose a D3 supplement since it is the more active form of vitamin D.
How to choose what to buy?
When choosing a vitamin D supplement, it is important to keep an eye out for D3 supplements derived from lanolin. More often than not, this is not specified on the label. Look for supplements with explicit mention of being fully plant-based or vegan!
Where to get it?
Brands that sell vegan vitamin D are for example: A. Vogel, Daily Supplements, Essential Organics, Kruidvat, Plantavital, Purasana, Viridian, Vitaminesperpost, et cetera. There are different dosage forms of vitamin D: tablets, droplets and spray. All are good options.
TLDR: Take a 10 µg vitamin D3 supplement derived from lichen each day, as tablets, droplets or spray.
Omega-3 and omega-6 fats
Fat is necessary in our diet, a couple of fats are even categorised as essential because the human body cannot make them. Among these, Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is the essential omega-3 fat and linoleic acid (LA) the essential omega-6 fat. Omega-3 and 6 fats are both important for the immune system, brain, nerves and eyes.
Good sources of ALA are chia seeds, ground linseed, hemp seeds and walnuts. It is recommended to eat a tablespoon of chia seeds or ground linseed, two tablespoons of hemp seeds or six walnut halves daily. Sources of LA include hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, walnuts and soy spread. In essence, a varied and balanced plant-based diet likely contains enough LA. However, the balance between omega-3 and 6 fats is important. The body can convert ALA into other omega-3 fats (eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)). Yet, eating too much LA can result in less conversion from ALA into EPA and DHA, resulting in a decrease of omega-3 fats. How to get around this? Tips to improve the conversion are, for instance, using grapeseed oil instead of oils containing a lot of LA (e.g. sunflower, corn and sesame oils), and taking care with the serving size of sunflower and pumpkin seeds.
Because the conversion of LA into EPA and DHA is suboptimal for most people, and a lot of ALA is needed for the production of a bit of DHA, it is also an option to take DHA supplements (from microalgae). The recommendation is 200-300 mg DHA two or three times a week for vegans aged under 60 years.
How to choose what to buy?
When buying DHA-supplements, beware of DHA supplements based on fish oil!
Where to get it?
Brands that sell vegan DHA are Daily Supplements, Ekopura, Holland & Barret, Lucovitaal, Orthica, Royal Green, Testa. Sometimes, EPA and DHA are combined in one supplement.
TLDR: Omega-3 fat ALA can be addressed by having a tablespoon of chia seeds or ground linseed, two tablespoons of hemp seeds or six walnut halves daily. To improve conversion from ALA into the other omega-3 fats EPA and DHA, use rapeseed oil and take care with eating too much sunflower and pumpkin seeds. It is possible to increase DHA-intake with DHA-supplements, 200-300 mg two or three times a week. A varied and balanced plant-based diet likely contains enough omega-6 fats.
Further nutrients can be readily addressed by dietary choices.
First, calcium intake can be improved by using fortified plant-based milk or yoghurt, calcium-set tofu and green leafy vegetables (e.g. kale, paksoi). Legumes, nuts, seeds and spinach are not a good source of calcium, because the calcium in these foods is absorbed poorly.
Next, there’s a sufficient amount of zinc in a varied mostly whole-food vegan diet.
Furthermore, there are plenty of good plant sources of iron: whole grain products (e.g. bread, cereal, couscous, pasta), vegetables (spinach, cabbage and endive in particular), nuts and seeds. It is advised to add a good source of vitamin C (e.g. pepper, broccoli, cabbage, brussels sprouts, kiwi fruit, oranges, strawberries, pineapple) when eating food rich in iron, to help the iron absorption. As a rule of thumb, it is good to remember to combine your meals with fruit and vegetables.
Lastly, in the Netherlands, iodine is present in bread as a result of the use of iodine enriched baking salt. It is also present in enriched table salt. For people who bake their own bread, it is advised to use the iodised salt to prevent an iodine deficiency. It is also important to note that organic bread is often baked without iodised salt. Despite seaweed being rich in iodine, the iodine content is variable, and sometimes too high. For this reason, it is not advised to use seaweed as an iodine source (same goes for seaweed-based iodine supplements). Vegans that avoid eating bread or only eat organic bread, could use multivitamins as an addition to their diet. Iodine tablets are reserved for people who have been exposed to radioactive iodine or a nuclear disaster in the past.
Multivitamins sound like an easy solution for getting an adequate amount of nutrients. However, according to the Dutch Organisation for Veganism, multivitamins often contain too much vitamin B6 and A and magnesium, and too little vitamin B12 and D and calcium, and therefore usually are not a good choice. Vegan multivitamins with sufficient vitamin B12 and D are VegFit (VegFit), Multi Green Vega (Etos) and Vegan Multi (Vitaminhealth). Veg1 is a multivitamin developed by The Vegan Society and contains an adequate amount of B12 and D, but little other nutrients. It is also important to bear in mind that, when taking multivitamins, it is not possible to take vitamin B12 without vitamin D. Vitamin D supplements are not essential in spring and summer if you’re outside regularly.
The bottom line - ultimate TLDR
A diverse and balanced vegan diet can fulfil all nutritional needs, with the exception of vitamin B12. However, some nutritional demands may be challenging to meet through diet and fortified foods alone. This especially applies to vitamin B12 and vitamin D, maybe for omega-3 fat DHA. Whoever follows a vegan diet that is not able to meet the dietary recommendations solely through diet, should consider taking supplements.
Finally, keep in mind that food is for nourishing your mind and body! Your health is very important and should never be compromised for whatever reason!
Vitamin B12: choose a cyanocobalamin vitamin B12 supplement, with a dosage of 50 µg a day, 1000 µg twice a week, or 2000 µg once a week, depending on your personal preference!
Vitamin D: take a 10 µg vitamin D3 supplement derived from lichen each day, as tablets, droplets or spray.
Omega-3 fats (optional): select a 200-300 mg DHA supplement and take this two or three times a week.