There are a few facts of life you just can’t get around – and if you’re vegan then taking supplements are one of them. In the past two decades we’ve seen a boom in the supplement industry – but unfortunately many of the pills out there are bogus or at least don’t do everything they claim to.
What I’ve started to notice though is something pretty cool – a return to popularity of quality supplements that are pure and beneficial. Probiotics have seen a huge surge, along with adaptogenic herbs like ashwaganda and reishi mushroom. There are even subscription services like Care/of that will personalize your vitamin routine and send you a month’s worth of daily vitamin packs! Of course there is a huge variation in quality between brands and products, but I’m on board with the new age of supplements.
To help you pick your basics, I will share what I know about using supplements to fill vitamin and mineral gaps on a vegan diet. First things first – supplement prices can really add up. To soften the budget blow, I order from Vitacost.
Some basics like Vitamin D are cheaper, but higher quality and less common supps like Spirulina powder or soil-based probiotics can be upwards of $30 a bottle. To save money, make your supplement decisions wisely and do your research before buying the first one you see. Through trial and error I found Vitacost to be the best way to stay stocked up. There you will find plenty of the products for a healthy lifestyle, and shipping is free on orders over $49 (so make all your purchases at once to get the best deal). Not only can I order quality supplements from Vitacost, but they also have a huge selection of cruelty-free beauty products and cleaning products!
B12 – the #1 most necessary supplement you must take if you are vegan!
B12 is the vitamin behind claims that humans are not meant to be vegan because we can only get B12 from animal sources. While it is true that you can only get B12 from animal sources (bacteria create it in the gut of animals), this is the 21st century and we can use SCIENCE to make B12. B12 is essential to take if you are not eating animal products because we need it to convert our food into energy, produce red blood cells and DNA, and for proper nervous system function. Some common symptoms of a B12 deficiency are:
– Mood Changes
– Pins and Needles Sensation
Keep in mind that your body won’t store much B12 since it’s water soluble, so take it 5-7 days a week. Unlike other water soluble vitamins, some B12 is actually stored in the liver but if you have been vegan/vegetarian for long or plan to be vegan/vegetarian for long, you would run out eventually. Avoid taking your B12 right before or after drinking coffee because coffee may make you pee it all out! Look here for more about B12 including the RDA (recommended daily allowance).
DHA – the CRUCIAL Omega 3 fatty acid
Fish oil is a great source of Omega 3 fatty acids, but since it’s not vegan I knew there had to be another way to get the same health benefits. On my quest for a vegan alternative to fish oil, I learned that there are 3 forms of omega 3’s – ALA, EPA, and DHA. I also learned that DHA is the most important for brain health, and that it is rarely found in plant-based foods while ALA is found in seeds like flax and chia. Since ALA is poorly converted to DHA in the body, I take an algae-based DHA. Some things you might notice with low levels of DHA are:
– Poor short term memory
– Not feeling ‘sharp’
– Not dreaming or remembering dreams
More importantly, DHA helps maintain fluidity of cell membranes all over the body and reduces inflammation. This is crucial for heart and brain health as we age! Your intake of omega 3 should balance out your intake of omega 6 because they are opposites of each other – while omega 3 reduces inflammation, omega 6 causes inflammation (which is actually necessary to some extent). The ideal ratio is between 4:1 to 1:4 (Omega 6 to Omega 3). Foods high in Omega 6 are vegetable oils like sunflower, corn, soy bean, and peanut oil which are common in fried and processed foods. So take your algae-based DHA, eat ground flax and chia seeds (like in this muffin recipe), and limit your intake of processed vegetable oils and fried foods to hit that omega 6 to omega 3 balance. Read more on omega fatty acids here.
Additional supplementss to consider
B12 is a must for plant-based eaters, and I would consider DHA as another one to prioritize. Depending on how much sun exposure you get where you live, you could also benefit from adding Vitamin D to your vitamin cabinet. We all need calcium, but young women should be especially sure they are getting enough. Check your plant milk to see if it is fortified with calcium. If it is, you are probably getting even more than you would be getting from cow’s milk! If not, consider taking a calcium supplement or loading up on calcium rich foods like leafy greens, chia seeds, and almonds, and including soy in your diet.
As always, a well-rounded diet is the best way to ensure you are eating the spectrum of easily absorbed vitamins and minerals. But when needed, supplements are the best way to fill the gaps when you choose not to eat animal products! For another perspective, read this piece about how to support your brain on a vegan diet!