Author: Simon Hill, Plant Proof
If you’re eating a plant-based diet, Simon Hill from Plant Proof outlines that you’re following the single best evidenced-based approach to nourish your body with foods that will boost your health and prevent chronic diseases. Other than benefitting you directly, your food choices will also reduce your environmental burden and will protect other species from unnecessary harm – so give yourself a pat on the back! However, if you are eating little or no animal products or are considering making the switch, there are some micronutrients to focus on and/or to consider supplementing to ensure that you can maximise the health-promoting benefits of your diet and avoid any potential deficiencies. Simon asserts that this is by no means anything to be alarmed or concerned about, as all dietary frameworks have their limitations. He encourages us to arm ourselves with the facts to optimise our own dietary framework!
1) Vitamin B12. This one is the only non-negotiable supplement, as it’s critical for the normal functioning of our body and cannot be adequately sourced on a vegan diet. I recommend supplementing daily with a B12 Cyanocobalamin spray, with around 250 mcg of B12. I make sure to place my spray in an easily visible place like my desk or kitchen to avoid forgetting to take it! However, if you don’t like the idea of having to take something every day or you fear you might forget to use your spray, you can choose between taking a weekly tablet or getting a periodic B12 injection. With the weekly tablet, you want to be taking around 2500 mcg of B12, and you can either do the injections yourself after gathering the necessary equipment at your local chemist or have a doctor do it for you. To make sure you’re staying on track, ensure you get periodical blood tests done. If you do so, keep in mind that the best markers for B12 sufficiency are MMA and/or homocysteine levels rather than serum B12 levels.
2) Vitamin D. Vitamin D, also known as the ‘Sunshine Vitamin’, is essential for increasing calcium absorption and supporting phosphorus absorption to help promote healthy bone mineral density. It has also been shown to have an incredibly important role for the functioning of the heart, brain, immune system, thyroid and muscles. Because few foods naturally contain vitamin D, vegans and omnivores alike are at risk of developing a vitamin D deficiency. This can easily be avoided by getting around 15-20 minutes of sun exposure daily to the face and lower arms during summer months, preferably outside of peak UV times (10-4pm).
However, in winter months or if you are not getting sufficient sun exposure, then it is advisable to get your daily dose of vitamin D from fortified foods such as plant milks or from a supplement. If you are taking a supplement, the typical recommended daily intake for the average person is 25-50 mcg/day (1000-2000 IU/day). For the elderly, this figure jumps up to 100 mcg/day (4000 IU/day). If you’re eating fortified foods, check that there is adequate vitamin D and that the product is 100 percent vegan (some forms of vitamin D come from fish, wool or animal products).
3) Omega 3. Again, inadequate Omega 3 intake is akin to both vegans and omnivores, however, because vegans don’t eat fish, it is advisable to concentrate on specific omega 3-rich plant foods in the diet or supplement with a DHA/EPA Algae supplement. Fish actually get their omega 3’s from the algae anyway, so you’re just cutting out the middle-man and going direct to the source – the purest form.
For optimal intake from food, It is recommended you aim for 5g of ALA per day, which can be achieved by consuming 2-3 Tbsp of ground flaxseed or chia seeds per day – I just sprinkle them on my oats or smoothies! Other foods rich in ALA are Hemp Seeds, Walnuts and Brussels Sprouts. Alternatively, or additionally, you can take the algae supplement – choose a DHA/EPA Algae supplement and take 250-500 mg daily. I do both – easy as that!
4) Iron. Iron is an extremely important mineral which plays a central in the transport of oxygen around the body in the blood and muscle tissue. Insufficient iron can lead to iron deficiency anemia, which manifests with symptoms ranging from fatigue, impaired cognitive function, paleness, dizziness, reduced immunity, adverse pregnancy outcomes, infertility, impaired infant development and reduced quality of life – so it’s clear we want to do the best to avoid being iron deficient! Regardless, iron deficiency is one of the most common vitamin deficiencies across the world, affecting approximately 1 to 1.2 billion people. The majority of those affected are women of childbearing age due to menstrual blood loss, but this condition can affect anybody not consuming enough iron-rich foods.
Because the type of iron in plant foods (non-heme iron) is absorbed to a lesser extent than that in animal foods (heme iron), it is recommended for vegans and vegetarians to consume 1.8x the normal RDI to account for the different absorption rates. You can find the National RDI Guidelines here. Based on these figures, this means that a woman of childbearing age that is following a vegetarian or vegan diet should be aiming for 32.4 mg of iron per day, and thus special focus should be placed on ensuring that plant-based iron-rich foods are bountifully included. It’s worth pointing out that although most vegetarians and vegans actually consume more dietary iron than omnivores and thus reaching this amount of daily iron intake is very achievable, there does seem to be a correlation between these diets and lower iron stores in both women and men compared to their omnivore counterparts. When it comes to actually developing iron deficiencies, the data is more conflicting, but anecdotally I can confirm that there does appear to be a correlation. Rather than turning a blind eye to what is likely to be fact, I think it’s important to understand the limitations of an animal free diet and build a plan for success.
Therefore, if you are at risk of developing iron-deficiency or have struggled with it in the past, ensuring you are eating iron-rich foods and avoiding eating those meals around iron-inhibiting foods such as tea, coffee and cocoa is a good idea. My advice would be to request serum iron (circulating iron) and serum ferritin (iron stores) blood tests to make sure you’re staying on track. If you do test your iron levels and find them to be falling short of optimal levels, discussing the matter with your doctor is a good idea.
Whilst not supplements themselves, I recommend putting a daily practice in place to achieve the required intake of selenium and iodine. For selenium the easiest way to reach the RDI is 1-2 Brazil Nuts per day and for iodine is approximately 1 tsp of dulse or nori flakes (types of seaweed).
Aside from these foods and already mentioned supplements, I recommend using blood tests to determine if you need to focus on particular food groups or add additional supplements to your regime. Of course, during particular life periods, such as being pregnant, breastfeeding, or during infancy nutrient requirements are different and thus I always recommend you consult with your personal health practitioner to devise a specific food and supplement plan.
While this may all seem like a lot to take in, to me, the tradeoff of having to take a few supplements is a small price to pay in exchange for a healthy and balanced diet that’s been shown to promote longevity. Besides, most omnivores take supplements and rely on fortified foods too – it’s nothing new. Overall, I do think it’s important to focus on the overwhelming evidence that a plant-based diet will offer you the best chance at preventing the leading diseases in the world – rather than focusing on the few nutrients vegans need to pay a little more attention to. And when it comes to your food, I cannot stress enough the importance of having a varied whole food plant based diet – diversity in the plants you eat is key.