Essential Supplements for First Time Vegans
By: Carolina Schneider, MS, RD, registered dietitian
Plant-based eating continues to grow in popularity, and for good reasons: It is beneficial for human health, more environmentally sustainable, and supportive of animal welfare. A well-balanced vegan diet – one that excludes all animal products – is associated with a lower risk for chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and some types of cancer. Some of the more immediate benefits people experience when switching to a vegan diet include increased energy levels, improved digestion, reduced joint pain and menstrual cramps, and better skin appearance.
Mind the Nutrition Gaps
Switching to a fully vegan diet requires planning and intention, and should be done with the guidance of a health professional. If not done properly, a plant-based diet may result in nutrient deficiencies, which can lead to future health complications. With the rise in vegan food options at the grocery stores and restaurants, there has also been an increase in highly processed, “junk vegan foods” that contain little to no nutritional value. Micronutrients, which include vitamins and minerals, are essential for many body processes such as immune function, energy production, bone strength and heart health.
Although these nutrients are found in wholesome (non-processed) plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, some vitamins and minerals are less bioavailable – or more difficult for the body to absorb – when obtained from plant sources. Therefore, supplementation can be an effective and inexpensive way to prevent nutrient deficiencies. Here are the top supplements vegans should take to avoid nutrient gaps:
Vitamin B12: for energy
Vitamin B12 is essential for energy production, nerve cell function, DNA synthesis, and red blood cell production. Vitamin B12 also plays a role in heart health as it regulates blood levels of the amino acid homocysteine – elevated homocysteine levels are associated with an increased risk for heart disease. A vitamin B12 deficiency can cause fatigue, weakness, constipation, loss of appetite, and in more severe cases, can lead to neurological issues such as numbing of fingers and toes.
Considering that the main food sources of vitamin B12 are animal products such as meat, eggs, fish, and shellfish, supplementation is required. Although some plant-based foods such as cereals and nutritional yeast are fortified with vitamin B12, they are not reliable sources. The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for vitamin B12 is 2.4 mcg for adults, however, because the body absorbs only a small percentage of vitamin B12 from supplements, 500 mcg is recommended. Older adults should supplement with 1,000 mcg.
Aged Garlic Extract: for heart health
Aged Garlic Extract is a well-studied supplement that supports cardiovascular health. Considering that heart disease is the number-one killer in the United States, being proactive about cardiovascular health is important for everyone, regardless of their diet. The typical go-to supplement for heart health is fish oil, but since vegan diets don’t include fish, garlic supplements are your best bet! This is especially important for those with a family history of heart disease, or those consuming highly processed vegan foods such as ‘mock’ meats, frozen foods and salty snacks. These are high in saturated fats and sodium, both of which negatively impact heart health.
Aged Garlic Extract (AGE) has been shown to improve heart disease risk factors such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure and clogged arteries. The proprietary aging process to make AGE increases garlic’s antioxidant power, removes its strong odor, and concentrates its benefits. In short, the AGE is far more potent than raw garlic. In fact, you would have to eat up to 28 garlic cloves to get these same benefits, which is not realistic nor recommended as it can cause digestive discomfort. Kyolic Vegan Aged Garlic Extract is ideal for vegans because this formula is free from animal ingredients or byproducts. Many supplements contain animal ingredients such as gelatin (from animal skin and bones) and beeswax to
encapsulate the nutrients, so it’s important for those following a plant-based diet to read the supplement labels carefully. The health benefits of Kyolic AGE have been supported by more than 900 published scientific papers. It is also easy to consume, odorless, and leaves no aftertaste.
Calcium: for bones and teeth
Calcium is an essential mineral responsible for bones and teeth health. This is because calcium is a major component of bones, giving them strength and structure. It also plays an important role in muscle contraction, blood clotting and regulating normal heart rhythms and nerve function. Calcium is especially important for vegans as research has indicated plant-based eaters to have weaker bones and be at a higher risk for bone fractures.
Plant-based sources of calcium include leafy greens, legumes, nuts, seeds and fortified plant milk. Although some of these foods — such as kale — are excellent sources of calcium, you would have to eat 10 cups of kale to meet daily calcium requirements. Additionally, because vitamin D is essential for calcium absorption, those with low vitamin D levels may not retain the calcium from food.
The RDA for calcium is 1,000 mg for adults and 1,200 mg for women age 50 and older and men age 71 and older. Because calcium is best absorbed when taken in small amounts, a 600mg calcium supplement is recommended twice per day. However, most calcium supplements are made from animal sources, so vegans should look for plant-based calcium, which is usually sourced from algae, such as red marine algae.
Vitamin D: for immune support
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that supports the immune system by enhancing the function of immune cells, which help the body fight disease and infection. Vitamin D also helps the body absorb and retain calcium and phosphorus, both of which are critical for bone health. Finally, vitamin D plays a role in reducing inflammation and the risk of infection.
Plant-based foods such as fruit juices, plant milk and cereals can be fortified with vitamin D, but these are not reliable sources. For example, you would need to drink 6.5 cups of vitamin D-fortified plain milk each day to meet the minimum daily requirement. Non-food sources of vitamin D include sunlight, which the
body is able to convert into the active form of the vitamin. However, prolonged sun exposure is associated with an increased risk for skin cancer and therefore should be limited.
Vitamin D supplementation is a much more effective way to meet daily requirements when compared to foods and sunlight. In fact, it is estimated that about 40% of the U.S. population has a vitamin D deficiency. Most vitamin D supplements are inexpensive and easy to swallow because of their small size. Although the current guideline for vitamin D is 600 IU per day, a growing body of research suggests that 2,000 IU per day is beneficial for supporting the immune system.
Those who are interested in transitioning to plant-based eating should do it with the guidance of a registered dietitian, to ensure the diet is balanced and meets all the nutritional requirements. Consuming a nutrient-dense vegan diet that includes a variety of foods is an excellent way to improve health markers and lower the risk for disease. However, supplementation can provide a baseline for those starting on their vegan journey, helping them avoid nutrient gaps and potential risks associated with a vitamin or mineral deficiency.
Carolina Schneider, MS, RD is a registered dietitian and founder of Hungry for Plants. She specializes in plant-based nutrition and has followed a whole-food, plant-based diet for her entire adult life. Her experience, combined with her passion and knowledge, equip her to help others better understand the nutritional benefits of food and how to incorporate them into their everyday lives. Originally from Brazil, Schneider is fluent in Portuguese, English and Spanish. She received degrees in journalism and public relations, which have given her the foundation to become an educator and influencer on the plant-based lifestyle. She frequently posts nutrition tips and recipes at “Carolina the Green RD” on Instagram. Schneider obtained her Master of Science degree in Nutrition & Dietetics, and is passionate about nutrition science and helping individuals improve health and wellbeing through food.
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